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How To Write An Essay

Updated on January 11, 2010

An essay is a literary composition, usually brief and in prose, which presents a subject from the viewpoint of the author. It is probably the most flexible of literary forms and therefore the most difficult to classify. Essays vary greatly in length, style, and content. They have been written on subjects as diverse as the meaning of doors (On Doors by Christopher Morley), the history of roast pig (A Dissertation on Roast Pig by Charles Lamb), and the value of friendship (Friendship by Ralph Waldo Emerson). An essayist writing about a familiar subject, such as G. K. Chesterton on A Piece of Chalk, generally treats it from an unusual standpoint that will provide his readers with new insights. Alexander Pope wrote his celebrated Essay on Man and Essay on Criticism in the form of poetry.

Essays are usually written as articles for newspapers or magazines and later may be collected in book form. Most well-known writers have composed them at one time or another, although few authors are essayists only. Many people who are not professional authors write essays, usually for school examinations or as assigned compositions.

Style is the most important element in essay writing. The essayist, unlike the writer of a formal treatise, does not attempt to give a comprehensive study of a subject. He may even relate personal feelings and experiences, particularly in a way that will please his audience. His work may seem casual in style, but it is generally a complete composition, resulting from careful and logical organization. A good essay usually instructs and stimulates as well as amuses its readers.

Types of Essays

An essay may be either formal or informal in tone, style, and presentation of material. The formal essay is a thoughtful and dignified work, impersonal in nature, in which a writer- clearly and systematically sets forth an idea or critical theory. A formal essay may be a short article written for a magazine or a long philosophical or critical treatise, such as John Locke's Essay Concerning Human Understanding and Matthew Arnold's Culture and Anarchy. Many critics, notably T. S. Eliot, Edmund Wilson, and George Santayana, have used the formal essay to present their ideas on art and society.

More common than the formal essay is the informal essay, a work that treats any one of an infinite number of subjects in a casual and intimate style. The author's approach is often humorous and imaginative rather than scholarly. Some essayists add to the appeal of their works by including examples, anecdotes, and autobiographical information. Among the many outstanding informal essays in English and American literature are The Autocrat of the Breakfast Table by Oliver Wendell Holmes, On the Enjoyment of Unpleasant Places by Robert Louis Stevenson, A Cure for Fits in Married Ladies by Richard Steele, and especially Essays of Elia by Charles Lamb. Well-known contemporary writers of informal essays include E. B. White and the late James Thurber.


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