What is an essay?
(Last updated: 8 February 2019)
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A stitch in time saves nine… so the old proverb goes. Before rushing to start writing your essay, take a moment to read the below and familiarise yourself with what an essay actually is – and what is expected of you when writing one – to ensure you get off on the right foot.
So, what is an essay, anyway?
An essay is a piece of writing from a personal point of view that methodically examines and evaluates a topic or issue. Fact (as opposed to fiction), short (in comparison to a story book, at least) and subjective, an essay describes, clarifies and analyses a subject, typically with an academic agenda.
The word itself stems from the French essayer, meaning ‘to try’ or ‘to attempt’. The first author to describe his work in such terms was the Frenchman, Michel de Montaigne (1533-1592), one of the most significant philosophers of the French Renaissance. His seminal work, Essais (1580) – translated literally as ‘Attempts’ or ‘Trials’ – contains some of the most influential essays ever written, balancing intellectual knowledge and personal storytelling. Indeed, even though some records credit British philosopher Francis Bacon with inventing the essay form, his own work, Essays (1597), is now known to be influenced by Montaigne directly.
The role of the essay within education
Today, best essay writing has become synonymous with education, and regular term papers are used to judge a student’s mastery and comprehension of the material they are studying. In both secondary and tertiary education, writing an essay is understood as both an important tool of instruction and a classic means of assessment, testing a student’s intellectual capacity, their ability to evaluate evidence, and their capacity for presenting thoughts in an organised way.
Whilst all written work has the same broad aim, there are many different kinds of essay. Depending on your subject and the teaching preferences of your department, some of the most common essay examples you might encounter at university include:
An expository essay explains a theme, idea or issue to the reader. It allows you to demonstrate your own knowledge, without resorting to opinion. The best expository essays start with a statement of intent and answer the question posed. They do not wander off topic, but provide evidence, facts and reasoning to support the arguments made.
Argumentative essay (persuasive)
An argumentative essay attempts to persuade a reader to adopt your point of view. The aim is to prove that your opinion, theory or hypothesis is correct or more truthful than those of others. You will be expected to choose a side and make a case for it, whilst considering and refuting alternative arguments. Whilst it is of course best to side with the line of reasoning you most believe in, it can be educational to adopt the opposing position (especially if you might need to write on both sides of the argument in an exam, for instance).
Research essay (analytical)
A research essay examines, analyses and interprets the works of others in order to compare their stance with your own. It requires a synthesis of source material and original opinion. An analytical paper aims to explain how a writer makes us see what they want us to see (the effect of the writing techniques, the text’s key themes etc) and your personal response to this. A research essay must demonstrate what you have learned, but also show you have a perspective of your own on the subject.