Definitions

essay

essay

[n. es-ey for 1, 2; es-ey, e-sey for 3–5; v. e-sey]
essay, relatively short literary composition in prose, in which a writer discusses a topic, usually restricted in scope, or tries to persuade the reader to accept a particular point of view. Although such classical authors as Theophrastus, Cicero, Marcus Aurelius, and Plutarch wrote essays, the term essai was first applied to the form in 1580 by Montaigne, one of the greatest essayists of all time, to his pieces on friendship, love, death, and morality. In England the term was inaugurated in 1597 by Francis Bacon, who wrote shrewd meditations on civil and moral wisdom. Montaigne and Bacon, in fact, illustrate the two distinct kinds of essay—the informal and the formal. The informal essay is personal, intimate, relaxed, conversational, and frequently humorous. Some of the greatest exponents of the informal essay are Jonathan Swift, Charles Lamb, William Hazlitt, Thomas De Quincey, Mark Twain, James Thurber, and E. B. White. The formal essay is dogmatic, impersonal, systematic, and expository. Significant writers of this type include Joseph Addison, Samuel Johnson, Matthew Arnold, John Stuart Mill, J. H. Newman, Walter Pater, Ralph Waldo Emerson, and Henry David Thoreau. In the latter half of the 20th cent. the formal essay has become more diversified in subject and less stately in tone and language, and the sharp division between the two forms has tended to disappear.

See studies by L. Fiedler, ed. (2d ed. 1969), C. Sanders et al. (1970), A. J. Butrym, ed. (1990).

Analytic, interpretative, or critical literary composition, usually dealing with its subject from a limited and often personal point of view. Flexible and versatile, the essay was perfected by Michel de Montaigne, who chose the name essai to emphasize that his compositions were “attempts” to express his thoughts and experiences. The essay has been the vehicle of literary and social criticism for some, while for others it could serve semipolitical, nationalistic, or polemical purposes and could have a detached, playful, earnest, or bitter tone.

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An essay is usually a short piece of writing. It is often written from an author's personal point of view. Essays can be literary criticism, political manifestos, learned arguments, observations of daily life, recollections, and reflections of the author.There is something called a"Blocking Essay".It has six paragraphs,and goes in order like this:Introduction,three Discussions,a Review, and a closing paragraph.

The definition of an essay is vague, overlapping with those of an article and a short story. Almost all modern essays are written in prose, but works in verse have been dubbed essays (e.g. Alexander Pope's An Essay on Criticism and An Essay on Man). While brevity usually defines an essay, voluminous works like John Locke's An Essay Concerning Human Understanding and Thomas Malthus's An Essay on the Principle of Population provide counterexamples.

It is very difficult to define the genre into which essays fall. Aldous Huxley, a leading essayist, gives guidance on the subject:

Like the novel, the essay is a literary device for saying almost everything about almost anything. By tradition, almost by definition, the essay is a short piece, and it is therefore impossible to give all things full play within the limits of a single essay. But a collection of essays can cover almost as much ground, and cover it almost as thoroughly, as can a long novel. Montaigne's Third Book is the equivalent, very nearly, of a good slice of the Comédie Humaine. Essays belong to a literary species whose extreme variability can be studied most effectively within a three-poled frame of reference. There is the pole of the personal and the autobiographical; there is the pole of the objective, the factual, the concrete-particular; and there is the pole of the abstract-universal. Most essayists are at home and at their best in the neighborhood of only one of the essay's three poles, or at the most only in the neighborhood of two of them. There are the predominantly personal essayists, who write fragments of reflective autobiography and who look at the world through the keyhole of anecdote and description. There are the predominantly objective essayists who do not speak directly of themselves, but turn their attention outward to some literary or scientific or political theme. … And how splendid, how truly oracular are the utterances of the great generalizers! … The most richly satisfying essays are those which make the best not of one, not of two, but of all the three worlds in which it is possible for the essay to exist.

Etymology

The word essay derives from the French infinitive essayer, "to try" or "to attempt". In English essay first meant "a trial" or "an attempt", and this is still an alternative meaning. The first author to describe his works as essays was the Frenchman Michel de Montaigne (1533-1592); he used the term to characterize these as "attempts" to put his thoughts adequately into writing. Inspired in particular by the works of Plutarch, a translation of whose Oeuvres morales (Moral works) into French had just been published by Jacques Amyot, Montaigne began to compose his essays in 1572; the first edition, entitled Essais, was published in two volumes in 1580. For the rest of his life he continued revising previously published essays and composing new ones.

Francis Bacon's essays, published in book form in 1597, 1612, and 1625, were the first works in English that described themselves as essays. Ben Jonson first used the word essayist in English in 1609, according to the Oxford English Dictionary.

The essay as a pedagogical tool

In recent times, essays have become a major part of a formal education. Secondary students are taught structured essay formats to improve their writing skills, and essays are often used by universities in selecting applicants (see admissions essay). In both secondary and tertiary education, essays are used to judge the mastery and comprehension of material. Students are asked to explain, comment on, or assess a topic of study in the form of an essay.

Academic essays are usually more formal than literary ones. They may still allow the presentation of the writer's own views, but this is done in a logical and factual manner, with the use of the first person often discouraged.

The five-paragraph essay

Some students' first exposure to the genre is the five paragraph essay, a highly structured form requiring an introduction presenting the thesis statement; three body paragraphs, each of which presents an idea to support the thesis together with supporting evidence and quotations; and a conclusion, which restates the thesis and summarizes the supporting points. The use of this format is controversial. Proponents argue that it teaches students how to organize their thoughts clearly in writing; opponents characterize its structure as rigid and repetitive.

Academic essays

Longer academic essays (often with a word limit of between 2,000 to 5,000 words) are often more discursive. They sometimes begin with a short summary analysis of what has previously been written on a topic, which is often called a literature review. Longer essays may also contain an introductory page in which words and phrases from the title are tightly defined. Most academic institutions will require that all substantial facts, quotations, and other supporting material used in an essay be referenced in a bibliography or works cited page at the end of the text. This scholarly convention allows others (whether teachers or fellow scholars) to understand the basis of the facts and quotations used to support the essay's argument, and thereby help to evaluate to what extent the argument is supported by evidence, and to evaluate the quality of that evidence. The academic essay tests the student's ability to present their thoughts in an organized way and tests their intellectual capabilities. Some forms of essays are:

Descriptive

Descriptive writing is characterized by sensory details, which appeal to the physical senses, and details that appeal to a reader’s emotional, physical, or intellectual sensibilities characterize a description. Determining your purpose, considering your audience, creating a dominant impression, using descriptive language, and organizing your description are the rhetorical choices to consider with a description. A description is usually arranged spatially but can be chronological or emphatic as well. The focus of a description is the scene. Description uses tools such as denotative language, connotative language, figurative language, metaphor, and simile to arrive at a dominant impression.

Narrative

A narrative uses tools such as flashbacks, flash-forwards, and transitions that often build to a climax. The focus of a narrative is the plot. When creating a narrative an author must determine their purpose, consider their audience, establish a point of view, use dialogue, and organize the narrative. A narrative is usually arranged chronologically.

Exemplification

An exemplification essay is characterized by a generalization and relevant, representative, and believable examples including anecdotes. A writer needs to consider their subject, determine their purpose, consider their audience, decide on specific examples, and arrange all the parts together when writing an exemplification essay.

Comparison and Contrast

Compare and contrast is characterized by a basis for comparison, points of comparison, analogies, and either comparison by object (chunking) or by point (sequential). Comparison highlights the differences between two or more similar objects while contrasting highlights the differences between two or more objects. When writing a comparecontrast essay, writers need to determine their purpose, consider their audience, consider the basis and points of comparison, consider their thesis statement, arrange and develop the comparison, and reach a conclusion. Compare and contrast is arranged emphatically.

Cause and Effect

The defining features of a cause and effect essay are causal chains, careful language, and chronological or emphatic order. A writer using this rhetorical method must consider the subject, determine the purpose, consider the audience, think critically about different causes or consequences, consider a thesis statement, arrange the parts, consider the language, and decide on a conclusion.

Classification and division

Classification is the categorization of objects into a larger whole while division is the breaking of a larger whole into smaller parts.

Definition

Definition essays are explanations of what is meant by a term.

Dialectic

In this form of essay used commonly in Philosophy, one makes a thesis and argument, then objects to their own argument (with a counterargument), but then counters the counterargument with a final and novel argument. This form benefits from being more open-minded while countering a possible flaw that some may present.

Non-literary essays

Visual Arts

In the visual arts, an essay is a preliminary drawing or sketch upon which a final painting or sculpture is based, made as a test of the work's composition (this meaning of the term, like several of those following, comes from the word essay's meaning of "attempt" or "trial").

Music

In the realm of music, composer Samuel Barber wrote a set of "Essays for Orchestra," relying on the form and content of the music to guide the listener's ear, rather than any extra-musical plot or story.

Film

Film essays are cinematic forms of the essay, with the film consisting of the evolution of a theme or an idea rather than a plot per se; or the film literally being a cinematic accompaniment to a narrator reading an essay. From another perspective, an essay film could be defined as a documentary film visual basis combined with a form of commentary that contains elements of self-portrait (rather than autobiography), where the signature (rather than the life-story) of the filmmaker is apparent. The genre is not well-defined but might include works of early Soviet documentarians like Dziga Vertov, or present-day filmmakers like Michael Moore or Errol Morris. Jean-Luc Godard describes his recent work as "film-essays".

Photography

A photographic essay is an attempt to cover a topic with a linked series of photographs.

See also

References

Bibliography

  • Theodor W. Adorno, The Essay as Form in: Theodor W. Adorno, The Adorno Reader, Blackwell Publishers 2000
  • Beaujour, Michel. Miroirs d'encre: Rhétorique de l'autoportrait. Paris: Seuil, 1980. [Poetics of the Literary Self-Portrait. Trans. Yara Milos. New York: NYU Press, 1991].
  • Bensmaïa, Reda. The Barthes Effect: The Essay as Reflective Text. Trans. Pat Fedkiew. Minneapolis: Univ. of Minnesota Press, 1987.

External links

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