When a student is asked to compose an essay, it is highly possible that they may have a limited understanding of how to do it. Even though essay writing is a simple writing exercise, it can overwhelm the student as most of them attempt to write it without understanding what it is.
In most cases, students think of an essay assignment as a cluster of paragraphs related to a single theme/topic. As a student, they might have written dozens of essays or requested a “write my paper for me” service. However, they may not know what exactly an essay is.
This article will give a sneak peek at the history of essay writing and who created it in the first place.
An essay is basically a piece of writing designed to present an idea, make an argument, exhibit emotion, or start a debate. It is a literary piece that is analytic, interpretative, or critical in nature that is usually considered less systematic and formal than a dissertation or thesis.
Furthermore, it is a perfect tool used to express a writer’s views in a nonfictional manner. This kind of writing has a wide range of uses, including art criticism, political manifestos, and presenting the author’s personal views and thoughts. It usually deals with its subject from a limited and often personal point of view.
While these are a few points that explain the meaning of an essay, there is no standard definition for it. Essays are classified into formal and informal, where the formal essay is distinguished by its logical structure, formal tone, and length. At the same time, informal essays are unconventional and propound individual POV.
The current word “essay” can be traced back to the French word “essayer,” which roughly translates to “to attempt.” This is a suitable moniker for this writing type because the essay’s ultimate goal is to persuade the reader. Michel de Montaigne, the French philosopher, was the first writer to refer to his works as essays. He described them as “attempts” to put his thoughts into writing.
Although Montaigne first came up with the concept of essays, it was Sir Francis Bacon who wrote essays in English. In fact, he is considered the first English essayist who wrote on subjects like death, fear, friendship, truth, studies, travel, adversity, envy, love, etc., in the early 1600s. He refers to his essays as “detached meditations” intended to make moral observations.
Experts opine that his essays are concise and to the point. They offer worldly advice based on his personal experiences and observations of individuals and customs. Bacon wished to write for ambitious young men seeking total self-realization, and his epigrammatic and concise words read like aphorisms.
The essayist produced concise, self-assured writing, although the essays lacked the discursiveness and grace of Montaigne’s. He claims his pieces are “short notes laid down rather significantly than impatiently.”
The next essayist in the line is Abraham Cowley, who is credited for being the first conscious essayist in English literature. Furthermore, he is regarded as “the father of the English essay.” He is seen as the link between Montaigne and Bacon, and his style of writing is said to be somewhat heavy but with an intimate tone.
Other writers such as Fuller, John Earle, Burton, Joseph Hall, and Sir Thomas Overbury further helped with the evolution of the essay. With the rise of periodicals in the 18th century, the essay finally established itself as a popular literary form. Defoe, a forerunner of the golden age of prose, imbued the essay with irony and a plain, straightforward, and realistic language.
Continuing the legacy of great essayists discussed above, two other writers reformed the essay – Addison and Steele. They published their writings in The Tatler and The Spectator with the overtly didactic goal of reforming current manners and morality.
The Spectator received 274 writings from Addison and 236 from Steele. Moreover, the writings covered a wide range of topics while their demeanors differed. They employed allegory to make their concepts more appealing and joyfully stated that they brought philosophy to the coffee table.
There are several types of essays that are in practice today. However, all these types are classified into four main categories – argumentative, expository, narrative, and descriptive.
Argumentative and expository essays are concerned with delivering information and making clear points.
In contrast, descriptive and narrative essays are concerned with expressing creativity and writing in an engaging manner. Argumentative essays are the most prevalent genre at the university level.
The essay we write today has three main parts, which contain different types of information. The first part, the introduction, presents the essay topic and provides background information. Furthermore, it also includes the thesis statement of the essay.
Next, the body of the essay includes core arguments and analysis of the essay and presents supporting evidence. Finally, the conclusion ties all the main points together and might include a call to action.
In regards to tone, it is already mentioned that essays are divided into formal and informal categories. Thus, the writer can pick either a formal or informal tone depending on the topic. Apart from these two tones, there are others such as – optimistic, worried, friendly, assertive, encouraging, etc.
With these considerations in mind, the essay could be characterized as a short work of nonfiction that is highly polished in writing. The current structure of the essay has been formed through a series of reforms over decades. Overall, an essay is one of the simplest forms of writing that informs, entertains, and engages the reader to the fullest.