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The Nature, History, and Types of Essay

What is an essay?

Essays are used in almost all scientific disciplines and areas of life involving writing. This makes essays are defined in many ways and have various features, styles, and lengths.

The term "essay" is adopted from the French verb “essayer”, which means "to try". Meanwhile, the word essayer is adopted from the Latin noun "exagium" which roughly translates to presenting one’s case," or the Latin verb "exigo" which means "to examine, to try, to test" (gold purity). In English, the word “essay” basically means "to attempt" or "to try". Thus, etymologically, an essay can be defined as a writer’s attempt to express his opinion through written language. Because essay writing is an "attempt", the writer is not obliged to answer the issues discussed in a final manner. The basic purpose of an essay is not to solve a problem but to stimulate discussion. Bacon (1985) accentuates that an essay is more of an appetizing salt grain than a filling meal.

An essay is often defined as a prose non-fiction piece of writing with a varying length that addresses a thing, a person, a problem, or an issue from the author's personal point of view. Cuddon, (2013) defines essays as A prose composition with a few hundred words or of book-length which discusses, formally or informally, a topic or a variety of topics. Scarry & Scarry (2010) defines essay in the college context as "a piece of writing that develops a topic in five or more paragraphs, including an introductory paragraph that states the thesis, three or more supporting paragraphs that develop the topic, and a concluding paragraph." Although an essay can cover several topics, the discussion in an essay is generally limited to one topic only. Therefore, most essays are relatively short. The emphasis on the use of the author's "point of view" in an essay reveals that the author's opinion plays a central role in an essay, whereas the emphasis on formal and informal styles indicates that essays are flexible writing.

Compared to other types of writing like articles, essays are more flexible and adaptive. Essays can be used to discuss any topic in a formal or informal style and in a narrative, descriptive, expository, argumentative, persuasive, or a combination of these writing forms. Essay writing skills are also the basis for producing other types of written work. A person who is adept at writing essays usually has no trouble in creating a popular or scholarly article. That’s why essay writing skills are very important for students.

Brief History of Essays

Essays began to be popular in the 1500s when Montaigne, the French philosopher, wrote a book that includes some of his anecdotes and observations. The book, published in 1580, was entitled Essais which means attempts or efforts. In the book, several stories and descriptions are presented which according to Montaigne (2003, p. 4) are written in a simple, humble, and honest manner and are based on his personal opinion. Overall, Montaigne used the book to express his views on life.

Sir Francis Bacon did the same as Montagne in England in the 1600s. His book, entitled Essay, later became the major benchmark for the form, length, and clarity of essays published after him. Some of the essays in the book are formal, some are informal. The difference between the two is that a formal essay has a more serious purpose, has more weight in it, has more logical reasoning, and is longer in size. Informal essays use a variety of conversational language, with the form of greeting "I", so that the author seems to be talking directly to the reader. Today, formal essays are more often used by students and researchers.

Essay writing which was pioneered by Montaigne and Bacon has greatly influenced education in America and Europe. Essays are one of the main elements of learning activities in these regions.. Middle school students are required to attend structured essay writing courses to develop writing proficiency. At the higher education level, essay writing is often used as an entrance selection test, which is known as an admission essay. In social sciences and humanities lectures, essays are also used as a medium for final exams that determine the final score of a course.

Types of Essays

Based on the purpose of writing and its content, essays can be grouped into five types. The first is the descriptive essays that are used to describe any topic that interests the author. This type of essay can describe a person, a room, a recreation area, and so on by presenting concrete details to lead the reader to a visualization of a subject. Supporting details are presented in a specific order (left to right, top to bottom, near to far, clockwise, and so on). This movement pattern reflects the sequence of details that are perceived through the senses.

The second type is the narrative essay that is created by revealing an event or story. Since the story is told through the writer's perception, narrative essays always use a first-person perspective. Narrative essays are usually written to engage the reader in the story, as if the reader were present while the story was unfolding. To attain this goal, the writer must "tell", not just "show" a series of events.

The third type, expository essays, are used to explain a topic to the reader. An essay of this type is usually completed with an explanation of the process, comparing two things, identifying cause-and-effect relationships, explaining by example, dividing and classifying, or defining. To make an expository essay, the writer must really master the subject he is discussing. In an essay of this type, facts, data, statistics, and real-life examples dominate the writing. Emotions and feelings must be avoided. Based on the data presentation technique, expository essays can be divided into several subtypes: (1) the process essay, which presents data chronologically, (2) the exemplary essays, that are written by presenting examples; (3) the comparative essays, which presents similarities or contrasts of two things in the order of importance (from most important to unimportant, or vice versa); (4) the causal essay, which begins by identifying a cause and then predicts its effect, or vice versa--starts with the effect and then looks for the cause. EFL Learner's Chief Success Determinants, which explains the critical importance of reading for an EFL learner, is an example of expository essays.

The fourth type, persuasive essays, is written as an attempt to change the reader's behavior or to motivate the reader to take part in actions.  A persuasive essay does not only describe facts, data, and statistics but also employs emotional and feeling elements to successfully convince the reader that what the writer says needs to be considered. Supporting details in persuasive essays are usually presented in the order of importance. Various political, religious, and educational essays are written in a persuasive manner. An example a persuasive essay is Think to write or write to think? In which the writer tries to persuade the reader that writing is not only an activity to communicate messages but also to discover ideas.

The fifth type, the reflective essay, expresses some important topics about life, such as death, politics, education, and human nature deeply and thoughtfully and carefully. A reflective essay is written formally with a serious tone. This essay is usually addressed to well-educated readers. A Lesson from Six Great Autodidacts, is an example of reflective essays. It reveals the writer’s contemplation of the idea that schooling without learning means nothing. ***

Bacon, F.. (1985). The essays. New York: Penguin Books. 
Cuddon, J.A. (2013). A dictionary of literary terms and literary theory (5th Ed.). Chichester: Wiley-Blackwell
De Montaigne, M. (2003).
The complete essays. (Translated by M.A. Screech.) London: Penguin Book
Scarry, S & Scarry, J. (2010). The Writer’s Workplace with Readings:  Building College Writing Skills Wadsworth Cengage Learning


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