Exactly what is an essay?

A student recently asked me, timidly, for the definition of an essay.  I’d like to share my reply with all of you:

. . . they are a valued method for colleges to evaluate what a student knows about a subject, and how well he or she can articulate his or her thoughts, as well as incorporate references to sources.

If I had to provide my own definition, I might say that an essay is a piece of writing that explores, shares, explains, or argues about a single subject and is intended for a specific audience.  Essays are distinct from fiction and other types of literature; they are non-fiction.  Essay writers should observe a few conventions of essay writing, but should never bore the reader or feel completely locked into a standard organizational scheme.  For example, an introduction that identifies the writer’s subject and purpose is a common essay convention; however, good college-level writers should not feel locked into a strict five-paragraph format with the last sentence of the first paragraph being the statement of thesis.

Essays may pose questions; in fact, an essay might introduce a question in the introduction, and then use the body and conclusion to develop an answer to that question.  An essay might also pose many questions and conclude with the questions unanswered, only complicated, etc.

No, I don’t think you are ignorant for asking the definition of an essay.  On the contrary, I think you are wise to understand your writing task.  Many people need to understand their purpose for working before doing any meaningful work.



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