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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.

The use of formal and informal styles enables us to have formal and informal (aka personal) essays. A formal essay is heavily structured; it has a clear introduction, body and conclusion and supports a stated thesis; includes cited research; uses a formal tone, i.e. written in the third-person point of view, employs technical or denotative words, and has little to no emotional input. Formal essays are typically used in an academic setting or in persuasive writing in which the writer tries to convince his reader of his stance on an issue by backing up his arguments with factual data or research findings.

An informal essay (or a personal essay) is less strict than a formal essay in terms of format and language use. Although the beginning—middle—end format is also applied in an informal essay, it is generally loosely employed. Although informal essays can be effectively used to inform or to reflect a certain perspective, most of them are subjective and opinion-based. They may use the first-person point of view, employ contractions, sound like conversations, and use emotional expressions. They are not commonly used in an academic setting but are ideal for blog posts, magazine or newspaper editorials, and personal letters.

Compared to other types of writing like articles and reports, essays are more flexible and adaptive. An article is written with a definite aim, i,e, to inform the readers about one or more concepts based on research findings so that it is accompanied by statistical data and figures (tables, charts, pictures). It is written in an objective way or from the perspective of a third person and gives an impartial point of view. An article is written in various lengths (1,000 to 6,000 words or more) with some headings and subheadings. An article published in an academic journal, for instance, follows the IMRDaC (Introduction, Method, Results, Discussion, and Conclusion) format.

Reports are typically a formal or official document presenting the data, findings, and analysis on a specific subject under study that had been conducted using various methods such as survey, interview, observation, experiment, etc. It is divided into several chapters containing headings and subheadings. Like an article, a report includes statistical data and figures (tables, charts, pictures). 

Different from an article or report which are objective, essays are subjective as they address a topic from the author's personal point of view. Essays can discuss any topic in a formal or informal style and in a narrative, descriptive, expository, argumentative, persuasive, or a combination of these writing forms. As a result, essay writing skills are the basis for producing other types of written work. A person who is adept at writing essays usually has no trouble 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 modern education,  where essays are used as one of the main learning tools. Most middle school students today are required to attend structured essay writing courses to develop writing proficiency. At the higher education level, essay writing is not only used as an entrance selection test--called admission essay but also as an important means of learning and as a medium for final exams that determine the final score of a course.

The importance of using writing as a means of learning in higher education is supported by various research results showing that frequent writing in courses improved students’ engagement, content retention, critical analysis, literacy, and, writing performances. Collecting and memorizing facts is not enough while learning in higher education. Instead, students are obliged to take a position on a topic and to explain or defend that position. To do these, they should understand, and interact with facts and ideas obtained from reading and research by selecting, weighing, and testing them. Such interaction could be effectively done through writing. In this context, writing is essentially both interpersonal communication (in which one thinks to write) and intrapersonal communication (in which one writes to think).

Types of  Essays

You may have read various essays in books, newspapers, magazines, and on the internet, perhaps without realizing they are essays. Based on their purpose of writing and content, essays are classified into four main types: the personal essay, the journalistic essay, the review essay, and the academic essay. Each category has a different purpose and each uses slightly different structuring techniques. As stated earlier, the personal essay is written to show the writer’s view of a topic, typically through personal anecdotes. A journalistic essay combines journalistic reporting and personal essay writing. Instead of stating a thesis formally, journalists write a ‘lead’—an opening paragraph that concisely provides the purpose and most essential points of the essay and tries to grab the readers’ interest. Then the body paragraphs will provide facts, concrete events, personal opinions, thoughts, and feelings that support the point made in the lead. Review essays are critical reviews or evaluations of works of art and media products. The thesis in review essays is the author’s viewpoint or judgment which is typically based on the aspects of the work or product that justify their view. An academic essay is a piece of writing that develops an idea (thesis) and backs it up with evidence, analysis, and interpretation to convince readers of its validity.

Academic Essays

Academic 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. Kuta Beach describing a place and My Father, which describes a person, are two examples of a descriptive essay.

The second type is the narrative essay which 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. Essay Writing Assignment that Changed My Life is an example of a narrative essay.

The third type, expository essay, is 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 essay, 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 of 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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