What is an essay?

Basic definitions

Pop quiz

Journalist Robert Winder has this to say about essays: ‘In a way, an essay is just a grown-up version of the tie-breakers in supermarket quizzes: Complete the line “I think history is bunk because…” in not more than 10,000 words.’ So far, so funny but there are some serious points behind Winder’s witticism. Essays are relatively short and designed for a specific purpose; like the tie-breakers in supermarket quizzes, they only contain a limited amount of material.

Dictionary definitions 1: essay equals attempt

The primary level of meaning of the word ‘essay’ is not about writing at all. An essay is an attempt to do something, an initial or tentative effort. The word also has the sense of an attempt to do something in a new area. We can also learn a lot about what an essay is by looking at where the word comes from. It comes from the French word ‘essayer’ which means ‘to try or attempt’; and this, in turn, comes the Latin word ‘exagiare’ which means ‘to weigh’. Sounds familiar, doesn’t it? Undergraduate essays are usually designed to get you to explore a new topic or to test your understanding of something you’ve just been introduced to. In the course of your exploration of a topic you’ll be expected to weigh up different views, theories or pieces of evidence.

Dictionary definitions 2: essay equals literary composition

What does the dictionary say about the written essay? Here’s a short definition:

‘Literary composition (usually in prose and short) on any subject’.

Here’s a longer one:

‘An analytic, interpretative, or critical literary composition usually much shorter and less systematic and formal than a dissertation or thesis and dealing with its subject from a limited point of view’.

‘Literary’ does not mean that you have to write like a Booker prize winner. It simply means that an essay is generally concerned with books and literature – primary texts, critical studies, scientific papers – whether it’s about Shakespeare’s plays or sports nutrition.

Most importantly, ‘literary’ means that an essay is a piece of writing that is valued for its form, i.e. the way it is organized.

Both these definitions focus on the fact that essays are generally short. The longer definition highlights the same important point suggested by Robert Winder’s analogy with a supermarket quiz tie-breaker: ‘from a limited point of view’. An essay can’t contain everything that’s known and said about a subject – it takes a view of certain aspects or key features of that subject.

“It ain’t what you do – it’s what it does to you”

The title of this section is also the title of a poem by Simon Armitage about, among other things, learning to recognise important experiences in your life. Think about writing essays as important experiences in your university life. Writing an essay is not just something you do so that tutors can assess your progress and award you credits for a particular module. An essay, like any other writing you do at university, will help your learning and understanding. It will improve your skills in self-expression. Make the process work for you – although the subject of the essay may not be about you and your personal experiences, the writing of it certainly is.