WHAT IS AN ESSAY?
In this OER college-level writing style guide, we will enter the world of academic composition by exploring how to craft the college essay. We will do this through an interactive discussion of the six main stages of the writing process and the six main elements of the essay format.
Though the word essay has come to be understood as a type of writing in Modern English, its origins provide us with some useful insights. The word comes into the English language through the French influence on Middle English; tracing it back further, we find that the French form of the word comes from the Latin verb exigere, which means “to examine, test, or (literally) to drive out.” Through the excavation of this ancient word, we are able to unearth the essence of the academic essay: to encourage students to test or examine their ideas concerning a particular topic.
Essays are shorter pieces of writing that often require the student to hone a number of skills such as close reading, analysis, comparison and contrast, persuasion, conciseness, clarity, and exposition. As is evidenced by this list of attributes, there is much to be gained by the student who strives to succeed at essay writing.
The purpose of an essay is to encourage students to develop ideas and concepts in their writing with the direction of little more than their own thoughts (it may be helpful to view the essay as the converse of a research paper). Therefore, essays are (by nature) concise and require clarity in purpose and direction. This means that there is no room for the student’s thoughts to wander or stray from his or her purpose; the writing must be deliberate and interesting, focused and clear, and more than anything, responding to a question the writer, themselves, wishes to explore.
While no essay can be reduced to a simple series of steps or formulas, we will see that the essay format does provide a coherent template, an ancient and powerful structure, through which we can engage the world of ideas and communicate our discoveries in meaningful and academically productive ways.
Remember this is a process. There is an old saying, “writing is rewriting.” The goal is not so much to arrive at a perfect piece of writing as it is to engage the spectacular and complex world around us with increasing clarity of thought and vision. And, hopefully, with a sharpened sense of the importance of inquiry, evaluation and synthesis as vital steps on any path towards understanding.
An essay is an attempt to know something about the world with more depth of perspective. When we write an essay, we are opening ourselves up to the full spectrum of human knowledge and wisdom while simultaneously reaching for new connections to the truth and its relevance to our lives. It is a sacred, scientific, and self-empowering task. One that we continue to perfect as long as we are alive and curious.
But it is also a difficult and resource-intensive task. One that requires a lot of energy, focus, diligence, patience, and vulnerability. College is tough under any circumstances, and the modern world continues to add much stress, anxiety, and complexity to the student experience. So be patient with yourself as you work to expand your skills, your knowledge, and hopefully your opportunities in the world.
- Watch the following video as a reminder to protect and nourish your own mental health as you engage the various stages of the college research and writing processes.