It bothers me that most people don’t know what an essay is. Many people acknowledge essays in the primped and polished format with no appreciation for a well-reasoned essay’s ability to change the world, for their own ability to change the world with a well-reasoned essay. For so long, thousands of English classes have misconstrued essays into some sort of necessary evil, and I am here to tell you why they are one of the most fun forms of writing.
The Origin of the Essay
Before we even begin the history of the Western essay, it is important to note that Japan and China had their own form of essays long before Europe, with Japanese writers using zuihitsu, a group of loosely connected essays, and China’s infamous eight-legged essays, a necessary portion of the exams needed in order for any person to gain a government job during the Ming and Qing Dynasties.
The word essay in English comes from the French infinitive essayer, which means “to try” or “to attempt.” English-speakers still acknowledge this definition of the word essay. The first author to use the term essay for his writing was Frenchman Michel de Montaigne (1533–1592), who used the term to present his works as “attempts” to put his thoughts into writing.
Essays were an important tool in the Age of Enlightenment in England and continued to be revolutionary in other movements. At this point, essays were muddled into articles because of their mass publications in journals. One example is the American Revolution where, as the song goes, many founding fathers, including Alexander Hamilton, wrote like they were running out of time. In the 18th and 19th centuries, essayists rose in prominence. The 20th century brought by familiar names such as T. S. Eliot for his cultural essays and Virginia Woolf for her literary criticism essays.
Essayist Aldous Huxley (author of Brave New World) stated that “the essay is a literary device for saying almost everything about almost anything.” He divided the essay into three poles: the personal essay that considers anecdotes, the factual essay that draws conclusions from information about a tangible topic, and the abstract which passes judgment and thoughts to reveal universal truths.
With the boxes our English classes put our essays into, many essays you write for school nestle into one pole–such as the personal college essay, or the dreaded literary analysis. However, many essays out there stand somewhere in the middle. They use personal experience, they use facts related to real-world issues, and they connect themselves to bigger themes.
Learn to Evaluate, Influence, and Make Connections
My favorite thing about essays is that when you hit that revelation and watch the piece come together, when you look at your argument and reasoning again, and go, damn, that’s good. As a speechwriter and someone involved in forms of Model Government, persuasion is a skill I will never want to not develop. Essay-writing has done that for me–encouraging me to defend my own conclusions rather than attacking others.’
This fundamentally differentiates essays from other forms of writing and presenting. In an essay, you are forced to evaluate your own conclusions and defend them. An essay is proof that you have a good point, an essay shows that you have the facts and the facts are good. This is a transferable skill. So many of our favorite writers and activists are essayists at their core, and this is what makes them so powerful.
They can come to understandings backed by evidence and persuade others to consider their voices. Essays not only enhance personal development and make us better writers, but they also help us become better citizens. In today’s world full of opinions on the news, in our feeds, in our politics–essays and essay writing, learning to find the values and limitations of our sources–are integral to being informed citizens.
Explore New Topics
There is no suspension of disbelief in essay-writing. Essays ask you to explore very specific topics deeply, and just sitting down and allowing yourself to research and write an essay gives you the space you need to learn about something obscure and form a conclusion on it. No longer should those Wikipedia rabbit holes go to waste; instead, they can be source material for evaluation and exploration.
Tying into this is the skill of developing your own WIPs using essay-based conclusions.
Writing historical fiction? Think about the implications of the clothing you are discussing. Think about why your society relied on certain foods. Think about all these ethics, all these ingrained cultural beliefs that go into your characters, and decide then, how to portray it.
Writing a fantasy? Again, essay-style research allows you to find the nuances in your worldbuilding, allows you to have characters who have belief systems that make sense. And, if you can write a personal essay from someone in your world or a defense of a certain institution or an evaluation of an idea, power to you.
Essays To Read:
I sincerely hope you try your hands at writing an essay just for yourself, and I’d love for you to leave a comment telling me how it goes!
is a high school student in New Jersey. They like (in no particular order) books, music, science, history, running, and (of course) writing and are always up to learn something new! Find them on Instagram at @writing_stoot.
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