Usually, essays are on non-fiction topics, or at least those that have some basis in reality. They are also usually scholarly in nature. This means that they are well-researched and composed in a professional manner. But, this isn’t always the case.
The word “essay” comes from the French “essayer” meaning “to try” or “attempt.”
An essay is a short piece of writing that usually includes the writer’s opinion on a subject.
It is often well-researched and is written with the intention of teaching the reader something or convincing them to think about a topic in the same way the author does.
Essays are usually written for one of these three reasons:
- To inform
- To persuade
- To explain
- To entertain
Essays are often challenging to write well due to the fact that they require the author to include reasoning for their statements while also keeping the reader entertained.
Types of Essays
- Narrative: non-fiction, describes a story and provides commentary on it.
- Persuasive: written in order to convince readers of something. It requires more research.
- Descriptive: gives description and detail to a popular topic.
- Expository: gives an explanation of a theme, idea, or other issue to the audience. Includes the author’s personal opinions.
Examples of Essays
“A Room of One’s Own” by Virginia Woolf
This well-loved essay by Virginia Woolf is now read as an essential document of the early feminist movement and as a discussion of literary creation. It was first published in September 1929 and is based on two essays the author delivered the previous year. The entire essay is around 130 pages.
Throughout, she explores social injustice and the restraints women face when they try to create freely. The most important line of the essay reads: “A woman must have money and a room of her own if she is to write fiction.” Here is a longer quote from the essay:
When, however, one reads of a witch being ducked, of a woman possessed by devils, of a wise woman selling herbs, or even of a very remarkable man who had a mother, then I think we are on the track of a lost novelist, a suppressed poet, of some mute and inglorious Jane Austen, some Emily Bronte who dashed her brains out on the moor or mopped and mowed about the highways crazed with the torture that her gift had put her to. Indeed, I would venture to guess that Anon, who wrote so many poems without signing them, was often a woman.
Virginia Woolf wrote more than one essay throughout her life, but this is by far her best-known.
“Notes of a Native Son” by James Baldwin
This piece originally appeared in Harper’s magazine in 1955. Throughout this essay, which is only one of several in the collection, he writes about his personal experiences. He describes growing up with his father, who exhibited paranoid behavior about getting sick and dying. Baldwin also speaks to the segregation he experienced at the time and an incident where he threw a half-cup of water at a waitress. Here is a quote from the essay:
It began to seem that one would have to hold in the mind forever two ideas which seemed to be in opposition. The first idea was acceptance, the acceptance, totally without rancor, of life as it is, and men as they are: in the light of this idea, it goes without saying that injustice is a commonplace. But this did not mean that one could be complacent, for the second idea was of equal power: that one must never, in one’s own life, accept these injustices as commonplace but must fight them with all one’s strength.
The last part of the essay includes an account of his father’s death and funeral. The latter occurred on the same day as the Harlem Riot of 1943.
“Self-Reliance” by Ralph Waldo Emerson
A famous essay was written in the midst of the Transcendentalist movement. It encourages readers to trust themselves and depend on themselves when the increasingly industrialized world is compromising an individual’s connection to nature and the broader experiences of human existence. Individualism is one of the major themes of this movement. Here is a quote from the essay:
A foolish consistency is the hobgoblin of little minds, adored by little statesmen and philosophers and divines. With consistency a great soul has simply nothing to do. He may as well concern himself with his shadow on the wall. Speak what you think now in hard words, and to-morrow speak what to-morrow thinks in hard words again, though it contradict every thing you said to-day.
Yes, an essay is a form of literature. These writing pieces are usually short, lasting from a few pages into the low 100s. They usually include the writer’s personal experiences as well as their commentary on an issue.
A narrative essay includes personal and anecdotal information. Those writing them can express themselves in creative ways that are not normally associated with the form.
The five parts of an essay are the introduction, the body (and its three points), and then the conclusion. This is the formal, academic format and is not always used when writing more creative essays.
Related Literary Terms
- Biography: an account or description of a person’s life, literary, fictional, historical, or popular in nature, written by a biographer.
- Documentary: a genre of non-fictional filmmaking. It is used for the purpose of sharing real-life events as they happened.
- Metafiction: refers to stories in which the characters, author, or narrator acknowledge the fact that they’re parts of fiction.
- Subjective: refers to a particular point of view. It is based on someone’s personal opinions and beliefs.
- Read: “A Room of One’s Own” by Virginia Woolf
- Read: “Notes of a Native Son” by James Baldwin
- Read: “Self-Reliance” by Ralph Waldo Emerson