Literary Essays and School EssaysBy Maeve Maddox
As a literary term, essay is defined as “a short non-fiction composition.”
What many people mean by “essay” these days, however, is quite different from what it means as a literary genre.
The Literary Essay
The word essay comes from the French word essayer “to try, to attempt” and still has this meaning in English, both as a noun and as a verb:
That’s his first essay into the cattle business.
We shall essay to remedy the situation.
The first writer to apply the term to the type of reflective and entertaining pieces he liked to write was the Frenchman Michel de Montaigne (1533-1592). The writer who popularized the essay form in English was Francis Bacon (1561-1626).
For the professional writer, the essay is the ideal genre with which to practice the writing craft. It offers the opportunity to focus on a topic and discover what one thinks about it.
In a much quoted passage from his Collected Essays, Aldous Huxley describes the essay as
a literary device for saying almost everything about almost anything.”
Huxley says that essays can be studied “most effectively within a three-poled frame of reference” and goes on to identify the “three poles” as:
• the pole of the personal and the autobiographical
• the pole of the objective, the factual, the concrete-particular
• the pole of the abstract-universal
Huxley’s opinion is that most essayists are at home in one, or at most, two, of the three types of essay. The writer comfortable with all three writes “the most richly satisfying essays.”
Montaigne remains a model for modern essayists because he was able to combine the three poles. George Orwell is another useful model. For more recent examples of the literary essay, browse the pages of such publications as The Village Voice and Slate.
How Long is an Essay?
Although an essay is defined as “a short non-fiction composition,” in the hands of a professional writer with plenty to say, it can be pretty long.
The essays of Montaigne and Bacon, for example, can run to 4,000 words. The famous essay “Self-Reliance” by American essayist Ralph Waldo Emerson (1803-1882) exceeds 10,000 words.
For the non-professional writer, the high school student applying for college, for example, the “essay” is quite short.
College entrance essays fall in the 500-700 word range. It’s rare that a high school student or college freshman is asked to write an essay any longer than 1.000 words.
The greatest difference between the literary essay and the school essay is that the literary essay springs from the interests of the writer and can be a joy to write.
The essay written as a school assignment is often regarded by the writer as drudgery.
The Essay as Chore
Two main reasons that essay writing is perceived as a chore by students are
1) they don’t want to do it
2) they’ve had insufficient reading experience.
We learn our first language by hearing it spoken. We absorb the forms of written language by reading it.
Students with limited reading experience will find essay writing more difficult than those who are avid readers. They have not internalized the patterns of written English.
As a result, sentences written by ill-read students seldom vary from simple or compound. The most common coordinating conjunction found in this type of essay is and. The most common subordinating conjunctions are because, then, and before.
The reading level of this type of “assignment essay” rarely rises above sixth grade. That in itself is not necessarily a bad thing within the framework of communication. Much popular material is written at this level.
The vocabulary in student essays tends to fluctuate between the elementary and the exotic. Many, if not most, high school students acquire advanced vocabulary by studying word lists, not by encountering them in the context of books. As a result they often misuse words because of insufficient understanding of their meanings.
Nevertheless, even without a strong reading background students can master the skill of producing a five-paragraph essay that is acceptable for most school assignments.
The Five-Paragraph Essay
The five-paragraph essay is often criticized for being too restricted; too cut-and-dried. It is said to inhibit creativity.
But not all the young people being asked to write essays are gifted with creativity. And even the creative ones need to learn the basics of composition before soaring off to their creative heights. The five-paragraph essay remains a useful workhorse.
Parts of the Essay
Every essay has three main parts. In the five-paragraph essay they are arranged this way:
• Introduction (first paragraph): states the topic and theme; Briefly states three points to be made about the theme.
• Body (paragraphs 2-4): each paragraph expands and supports one of the points mentioned in the introduction.
• Conclusion (paragraph 5): restates the theme and sums up the argument in a satisfying way.
The Hardest Part of Writing an Essay
Essay writing guides can help, but the most important aspect of any writing assignment lies with the writer. Only the writer can answer this most important question: What do you want to say?
Time spent in pinning down the topic and theme of your essay is never wasted. Don’t begin writing before you know
1. what you are writing about
2. what you want to say about it
3. to whom you are saying it
With school assignments, the essay topic is often part of the assignment, but the student is usually given a choice of more than one. If at all possible, choose a topic in which you feel some interest.
Have a destination. It’s not enough to say you’re writing about “war” or “civic responsibility” or “gun control.” What do you want to say about the topic? What do you want your reader to feel about it after having read your essay? One of the most frequent faults of freshman essays is that they leave the reader wondering “so what?”
Who’s your reader? Picturing your reader in your mind as you write will influence your writing style. If a teacher is your target audience, nonstandard vocabulary and grammar are not an option.
A common fault among student writers is the failure to distinguish between a general statement and a supporting statement. Inexperienced writers often attempt to support one general statement with another general statement: My sister is annoying. She really bothers me. I can’t stand some of the things she does. All three of these statements are generalizations.
Specific, concrete examples are needed to support general statements.
General statement: My sister is annoying.
Supporting statement: She eats my favorite cereal on the sly and then puts the empty box back into the cabinet.
Some helpful links
A good starting place for the insecure writer is Ali Hale’s article on the writing process.
A good guide to and discussion of the five-paragraph essay can be found here.
A detailed step-by-step guide to writing the student essay can be found here. The steps include pre-writing, outlining, drafting and revising,
Finally, here’s an example of a five-paragraph essayRecommended for you: « Retracing your steps »
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7 Responses to “Literary Essays and School Essays”
- Silvia G.Martinez
Please Maeve could give the exact definition of “composition” (for essays we already have it). Your point of view is so innovative that probably the concept can be seen differently. Thank you.
How do we go about getting the free e-book on basic english grammar?
great explanation of parts of essays its really an informative post thanks for sharing
- Rose Patrick
Nice post it helps lots to students now a days students make use of essay writing to improve there skill great thanks
- Vinod Kapoor
How to write sarcastic articles, hitting on the system,personalities and exploding the myth around them. Especially in media and politics, where high brow conceits, impose their persona on the subjects !!
- Shirley, in Berkeley
I have always used “essay” for writing and “assay” for attempting. Interesting to find that either can be used for taking a stab at something!
- Brad K.
I needed the reminder of structure. I tend to forget about the intro and conclusion parts . . and often leave out the planning. I guess that is what separates a blog post (in general) from an essay. That is, an essay could be a blog post, but a blog post is often not an essay. At least, the way I have been writing.
WHAT IS LITERARY ESSAY?
Are you worried about literary essay writing? You don't know where to begin and look for an example? It is quite natural to be worried about your academic assignments, irrespective of a degree or specialization.
So what is a literary essay? Briefly speaking, such paper is another type of academic assignments where a student has to give characteristics to a work of literature, whether it is a romantic novel, a fiction book or a narrative. The first thing a student must remember to write such paper is that it is necessary to read a story or a book. It is crucial to start doing it early – preferably, on the day of the assignation. It may be necessary to read the story a few times, which is why it is better to have a lot of time at your disposal.
The next step is to know the assignment requirements and formatting style you are to follow while writing a literary essay. All assignments of such kind have several prompts in common, such as a formatting style, number of words or pages to complete, topic, genre and type of the paper. Before everything else, a student should read the requirements and understand what is asked of him or her in this or that task. After that, a student is free to start reading a work of literature he is to evaluate. As an author of the analysis paper, a student should learn how to assess the story critically from all possible angles, and not just from the perspective of the novel's plot interest to its readers. Best literary essays present the reviewed book from various sides and provide in-depth analysis of each one of them.
To make the book more comfortable to analyze, divide the text into parts and give an evaluation of every single piece, for example, the main plot and the subplot correlation, the role of leading and lesser characters, the role of tragic events (if any) in the lives of the leading protagonists of the story and so forth. Many students, at the preparation stage, tend to get stuck at the analysis itself, as they do not know how this work should look like in the end. That is why literary essay examples are so important for beginners. It is a responsibility of a professor or a teacher to provide such students with relevant and adequate examples for them to understand the work structure, its meaning, and relevance to their future degree and fields of study. Thus, if you are not sure how to write a literary essay, try asking your teacher for a sample or feel free to look one up in our “samples” section.
A SIGNIFICANCE OF WRITING A LITERARY ESSAY
If you are a student of a Literature Department, you should know the main types of literary essays and any essay in particular. Below, you can find the four major types of this kind of paper that may be of great help when you need to recollect this information. They are:
- Comparative (Analyze and Compare two or more works and give appropriate conclusion);
- Contextual/Historical (Evaluate and analyze the context of the text by comparing to historical events or a certain event);
- Theoretical (A definite part of the theory of literature is applied to analyze a literary paper through writing to practice what is only known theory so far);
- Exercised/Applied (Less formal analysis genre where a student has to analyze a happening, a situation or any other event and find his or her personal relation to such events).
This information will help you shift between the types and their requirement faster and be more effective even when you are only writing an outline.
Without a doubt, this custom paper is also important for students, especially for those who think of themselves as of future journalists, writers, bloggers or else. Such tasks help students develop a better perception of things; students learn to look closer into minute details of anything. The critical literary essay writing improves the skills of faster situation-assessment, but the initial task is to convince readers of a point of view that a student has taken and has developed in the paper.
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