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Essay Definition

Essay Definition

Generally, an essay is a type of paper that expresses writer’s opinion and arguments on a certain topic. This kind of writing is somewhat similar to a pamphlet, a short story, or an article. The role of the personal opinion determines the type of the essay. For example, if an essay is focused mostly on facts and logical deductions, this essay is called formal. On the other hand, if an author expresses his or her personal feelings, experiences, or tastes, this kind of essay is called informal. Informal essays may include elements of humor or use creative writing approaches.

Essays are used in various spheres, such as literary criticism, education, politics, and so on. Authors express their personal opinion on a certain topic, events from their lives, or beliefs. Most essays are written in prose, but some poetic works of old times are also considered essays. Many countries (for example, USA, UK, and Canada) include essays as an integral part of education. High school students write an essay to show their knowledge, many universities require essay writing for admission. Most often, essays are required in social sciences and the humanities.

The term “essay” is used not only in literature, but also in the film industry, and photography. Documentary essays are movies that illustrate the evolution of a certain idea, and photographic essays are series of photographs devoted to the same topic.

Definitions of an Essay

According to Aldous Huxley, who was a well-known essayist, the essay is a kind of literary device, which allows the author to say everything about any subject. He stated that essays are extremely variable, and they can be classified only within three poles – dimensions in which essays exist.

  • Autobiographical essays and personal essays are works that represent the author’s reflection, using descriptive methods and anecdotes.
  • Objective essays (factual essays) are concrete works where the author doesn’t express just his or her personal view, but takes a look at the subject from a more global angle, describing political, social, or scientific events and subjects. Within this type of essays, opinions are built based on facts and relevant data.
  • Universal or abstract essays imply the highest level of abstraction. This type usually contains no personal experiences or concrete facts.

Huxley claimed that the best essays combine all three approaches.

Essays also have other definitions. For example, it’s a prose that is focused on a particular issue, or a long, complicated discourse. The variety of definitions is dictated by a fact that this kind of writing is hard to describe within a particular genre. The word “essay” is of French origin, and it means an attempt. An English word means the same. However, this meaning is alternative to “a trial”. The first author, who wrote about essays and described this kind of writing, was Michel de Montaigne. He wrote essays and characterized them as attempts to express his thoughts in the writing form. Montaigne was inspired by Plutarch’s works, which were translated and published by Jacques Amyot in 1572. Eight years after, he has published two volumes of his Essais. First essays written in English were works of Francis Bacon, published from 1597 to 1625. According to Oxford English Dictionary, Ben Johnson was the first author who used the word “essay” in English.


We already mentioned Michel de Montaigne, whose Essais were published in more than 100 copies during the 1500s. In England, the essay genre was represented by Sir Thomas Browne and Robert Burton. Italian writer Baldassare Castiglione wrote his Il Cortigiano, an essay about manners. Another essayist of the 17th century was Baltasar Gracián. With the advent of the Age of Enlightenment, this genre gained popularity among polemicists. It was also the origin of persuasive essays, since the main purpose of these authors was convincing readers. Another stage of development of essays was periodical literature, represented by such authors as Samuel Johnson and Joseph Addison. During the 18th and 19th centuries, Samuel Taylor Coleridge, Edmund Burke, Thomas de Quincey, Charles Lamb, and many others made essays a common style of writings, creating a strong base for writers of the 20th century. Essays were still quite common in a political area, while Charles du Bos and Virginia Woolf popularized the use of essays in literary criticism.


In Japan, such a genre was called “zuihitsu”. Actually, in this country, it appeared a long before Europe. Some of the earliest Japanese literary works can be described as essays. Sei Shōnagon and Yoshida Kenkō were the most significant contributors to such a genre, with their works The Pillow Book, and Tsurezureguza. Just like Montaigne, Kenkō described his writings as pointless thoughts. An interesting fact is that in Japan, most essayists were women, even though male writers, inspired by Chinese writings, who were focused on formal essays, were much more popular.

Now let’s take a look at the most common types of essays.

Cause and Effect

This type of essay implies a strict chronological order, accurate language, and providing connections between causes and effects. Writers who write such essays usually have to prepare for such a task, considering specifics of the audience, determining the subject and the purpose of a certain process. These essays are focused on consequences of a certain event.

Division and Classification

Division means dividing a broad subject into parts. On contrary, classification implies sorting objects by wide categories.

Compare and Contrast

This essay type implies the analysis of two objects, events, or ideas. The author searches for common features and differences between two subjects. Compare essays are mostly used for similar subjects, while contrast essays are more focused on opposite features of considered things. It’s important to consider the audience in order to form a strong thesis statement, and sort arguments in a proper sequence. The author also should find key points of comparison, describe the purpose of subjects, and their characteristics.

Descriptive Essays

These essays are focused on sensory features of an object. Descriptive essays imply the use of descriptive language and description of visual and emotional sides of an object. Most of the descriptive essays include the vivid style of writing, with the use of metaphors, denotative language, figurative language, and other literary devices that help the author create a scene for readers. These essays provide readers with feelings. Lyric essays are another kind of descriptive essays.

Dialectic Essays

This type of essays is mostly used in philosophy. The main part of these essays is an argument, as well as a thesis. Arguments are followed by counterarguments, leading to the final argument. This type of essays is also called an ethics paper, and its success depends on the author’s ability to provide a broad look at a particular topic.


Writing an exemplification essay, the author must represent a certain topic with the help of examples. These may be relevant facts beliefs or anecdotes. The correct estimation of the audience is of key importance, since it determines the success of examples.

Familiar Essays

Familiar essays are addressed to somebody particular, and they describe an author’s life or certain events. According to Anne Fadiman, this type of essay became most popular during the 19th century. Charles Lamb was one of the most famous essay writers. While critical essays are mostly focused on logic, and personal essays are all about feelings, familiar essays combine features of both these types.

History Essays

This type is also called a thesis essay. Obviously, it’s about historical events, thus including many references and facts. All claims are always supported by evidence so that readers could understand why the author made such conclusions.

Narrative Essays

The main part of a narrative essay is its plot. In this case, the author tells a story from his or her life. This type is distinguished by many flashbacks and unexpected plot twists. These essays may also include dialogues, and they are often built according to a strict chronological order.

Argumentative Essays

It’s a type of critical writing which implies a thorough analysis of a broad topic, narrowed down to a particular issue. In these essays, the author takes a certain point regarding a considered issue. The author may stand either for or against it, and the whole essay is built around his or her thesis statement. A thesis statement is usually explained in the introduction, while the rest of the text consists of arguments that support the author’s point. All sentences must point to the key statement. The general purpose of such an essay is convincing readers to accept the author’s point, so it may include the description of the opposite thought, in order to explain why it’s wrong.


Usually, economic essays begin either with a thesis, or a topic. It can be written in a narrative or descriptive form, and sometimes it turns into a kind of argumentative essay. It also may be a little narrative, in case the author wants to make his or her work easier to understand. The author’s goal is to explain a certain economic phenomenon and analyze it. Just like many other types of essays, this one ends with a conclusion.

Reflective Essays

This type of essay is an analysis of a certain event (either real or fictional), memory, or thought. The purpose of this essay is to estimate the influence of such an event or thought on the author’s life. An event is not only described, but also analyzed from different angles, in order to find hidden meanings, and consider every detail that may help learn from it.

Other Structures

The structure of an essay may vary, taking different forms. Many authors considered various logical structures, trying to understand which methods make authors able to convince or impress readers. Any structure can be adopted and used by everyone.

Academic Essays

In many countries (for example, the US and the UK) essays are an integral part of education. Most of such essays are responses to some questions which must demonstrate student’s writing and analytical skills. Many universities select applicants by their essays, which are called admission essays. Reading these essays, commissions estimate applicant’s knowledge. Some programs require multiple essays written during a fixed period of time, for example, a month, or a week. Examinations in social sciences and the humanities often consist of an essay which must be written by a student during a few hours.

Usually, this kind of papers implies more formal approach than literary papers. Of course, the author must explain his or her own thoughts, but these thoughts are necessarily based on facts and logical deductions. Some academic essays may be quite long (about 5,000 words), and they often include a brief summary of other researches devoted to such a topic. This type of academic writing is also called a literary review.

Such long essays may start with a separate section of the introduction, where the author explains specific terms and other things that are necessary for an understanding of the topic. Many colleges and universities require students to include a page of references (works cited, bibliography). These sections help readers check the sources used by the author, assessing the relevance of the data. These essays must help students demonstrate their abilities to write texts in a proper way, as well as their intellectual potential.

Some students prefer not to write such essays, but to buy pre-written, or custom essays. There are a lot of so-called “paper mills” on the internet, which are ghostwriting services of different kinds. Some services may provide texts of low quality, which are usually characterized by plagiarism. This is a reason why universities use various plagiarism checkers, analyzing works and comparing them with a database. Sometimes students may also answer questions about their essays, to show that they really know what their papers are about. Plagiarism is widely considered an academic fraud, so writing services of low quality may become a big problem for students.


Some jobs often require essays as a part of the application process. A vivid example of such jobs is government positions in the United States. Many federal government jobs require such essays as Executive Core Qualifications and Knowledge Skills.

Knowledge Skills (“Knowledge, Skills, and Abilities”, also known as a KSA) are used when a commission have to choose from among several applicants, along with resumes. Such an essay consists of several narrative parts, which represent one’s career achievements and education.

An ECQ (stands for “Executive Core Qualification”) is a narrative paper that is required for Senior Executive Service jobs. They are used along with resumes in the same situation when several candidates are looking for a certain position. Some positions may require more than one ECQ’s, for example, the Office of Personnel Management asks applicants to write five qualifications.

In Movies

So-called “cinematic essays”, or film essays, represent a certain idea rather than a particular plot. Often such films include a narrator who reads an essay. A lot of cinematic essays are documentaries with features of self-portraits, and the apparent element of the author’s signature. Many movies of such a kind are filmed in experimental ways, combining fiction with documentary.

Such a genre was represented by Soviet directors like Dziga Vertov, as well as by modern directors, such as Errol Morris, Michael Moore, Agnès Varda, Jean-Luc Godard, and Morgan Spurlock. Another good example of film essay is The Coronation of Edward VII, created by Georges Méliès. It combines elements of documentary with recreations of such a historical event. In 1974, Orson Welles created F for Fake, which was filmed in his own, innovative technique.

According to David Winks Gray, essay films were crystallized as a particular genre during the 1950s and ‘60s. He characterized this genre as a mix of documentary and fiction elements that cannot be described within any of these genres. In his article “The essay film in action”, Gray writes that essay films are similar to written essays, because they pay a special attention to the narrator (in this case, it’s the director), involving many additional voices. The University of Wisconsin Cinematheque gives a similar definition, noting that this type of films blurs the borders between documentary and fiction, creating a new, fresh and creative approach.

In Photography

Photographic essays are series of photographs devoted to a certain topic or idea. These series often form a sequence and may include notes, as well as long, full-format essays illustrated by photographs. The sequential nature of such a kind of photography is dictated by a will of the author who wants these photographs to be viewed in a certain order. However, some series may consist of photographs sorted in a random order. Although all photographic essays are series or collections of photos, not all collections can be considered essays, since the distinctive feature of photo essays is a general idea that unites all the photographs from such a collection.

Article Name
Essay Definition
This article is about Essay, and its definition. Learn more about: Cause and Effect, Compare and Contrast, Descriptive Essays, Dialectic Essays, Exemplification Essay, Familiar Essays, History Essays, Narrative Essays, Argumentative Essays, Reflective Essays, Movie and Photo Essays etc.
John Brahms

One response to “Essay Definition”

  1. […] their personal opinion on a certain topic, events from their lives, or beliefs. And this is a definition of a descriptive essay. Most essays are written in prose, but some poetic works of old times are also considered […]

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