What is an essay?

According to Essay Basics, an essay is something which is normally defined as a piece of work written in prose (though there are some exceptions), with a dedicated structure, including an introduction, a conclusion, and (at their most basic) three to five body paragraphs. Essays themselves can be divided into three subcategories – personal, objective, and abstract – though there are many different subcategories. Because the structure of an essay is useful in laying out clearly what any particular individual has learned, educational systems have taken essays on as a major part of their system. An essay can show off good writing skills, because of its fairly strict structure, and it can also be used to show the research which a student has done.

Content of this article

Formal vs. Informal

Essays can be divided into two main categories, formal and informal. Formal essays are longer in length, have a stricter organisational structure which leads the reader through a series of arguments, and generally have a more serious purpose in being written. These essays are normally argumentative or compare and contrast essays, and can sometimes also be descriptive. Informal essays, on the other hand, are distinguished by being shorter in length, and adhering less strictly to the overall structure of an essay (although they do have to make some logical sense). Informal essays are also more personal in nature, to the point of being able to contain humour. These types of essays are primarily narrative in nature, though they can also be cause and effect. The rise of non-literary essays are normally seen as being informal in nature.

Where are Essays Used?

Essays are primarily found in educational institutions, as has been discussed above. The strict adherence to structure helps students to learn how to write properly, while the subject of the essays allows them to show their research, and also show their understanding of the material. Essays turn up in scientific subjects, but they are primarily used in social studies and humanities, particularly in exams and tests, to show what has been learned.

Outside of educational settings, essays are most often found in publishing. Many people over the years have used the essay format as a way of conveying their ideas, from philosophers (the essay is a particularly good medium for philosophy) to people writing about gender identity in the modern age. Essays are used by people writing in prose because they are usually quite short (though there are sometimes exceptions), and there is a clearly defined format to work with.

Three Definitions of an Essay

There are three particular definitions of an essay within the ‘formal vs. informal’ paradigm.

  • Personal\autobiographical – these essays are ones which focus on personal memories and stories. The essays written in this style see the world purely through that lens.
  • Objective\factual – Essays written from this perspective are not personal, but instead have an outside theme. These essays usually tackle subjects which are scientific or political in nature, and are used to clearly lay out and judge the arguments.
  • Abstract – these essays are never personal, but instead work from a place of complete possibility. Potential experiences are never used as evidence.

Huxley’s Definition of an Essay

Aldous Huxley was the person who came up with the above three essay categories, and their definitions. He also went on to say that:

“the essay is a literary device for saying almost everything about almost anything.”

To Huxley, an essay was a short work, and it was this brevity which allowed the information they contained to be appreciated more easily. The very best essays were the ones which managed to catch a perfect balance between all three essay categories.

First Use of the Word ‘Essay’

The word essay was first used (or was first recorded as being used) by the writer Montaigne in the sixteenth century, as he claimed that his work was an attempt or a ‘try’ at putting his thoughts into words. He claimed to have been inspired by Plutarch, to model his works in that fashion.

Montaigne, in keeping with his status as possibly the first person to use the word essay to describe his method of writing, wrote short works of prose on various topics. These works of prose used highly stylised wording and rhetoric in order to try and persuade the people reading them to his point of view. Rather true to Huxley’s view of what an essay should be, Montaigne was someone who switched between a personal versus an impersonal style in his essays, depending on how he wanted to approach the topic.

Derivation and etymology of the Word ‘Essay’

The word essay comes from the French verb essayer, which means to try, and this fits the concept of an essay being written to try and persuade people to a particular point of view\an essay being written to try and show what people have learned.

essay (v.)

“to put to proof, test the mettle of,” late 15c., from Middle French essaier, from essai “trial, attempt” (see essay (n.)). This sense has mostly gone with the divergent spelling assay. Meaning “to attempt” is from 1640s. Related: Essayed; essaying.

essay (n.)

1590s, “trial, attempt, endeavor,” also “short, discursive literary composition” (first attested in writings of Francis Bacon, probably in imitation of Montaigne), from Middle French essai “trial, attempt, essay” (in Old French from 12c.), from Late Latin exagium “a weighing, a weight,” from Latin exigere “drive out; require, exact; examine, try, test,” from ex “out” (see ex-) + agere “to set in motion, drive” (from PIE root *ag- “to drive, draw out or forth, move”) apparently meaning here “to weigh.” The suggestion is of unpolished writing. Compare assay, also examine.

Famous Essayists:

  • Montaigne
  • Bacon
  • Chesterton
  • Belloc
  • Beerbohm
  • Priestley
  • Huxley
  • Orwell
  • Thurber
  • Cooke
  • Forster

Forms and Styles of Essay

Argumentative essay

Argumentative essays are a piece of writing made to argue a specific point or point of view. The aim is to have an objective analysis of the subject matter, and by so doing, provide the stated opinion of the writer on whichever side of the argument they happen to be on. The structure of an argumentative essay normally includes two to four paragraphs of strongly research and argued information for the opinion of the writer, and one paragraph (called a refutation) of the opposing argument to show the strength of the argument against it.


Introduction  – Should creationism be taught in schools? Thesis statement, basic description of arguments, small amount of pertinent history

Body paragraph one – first argument against – it has no scientific basis

Body paragraph two – second argument against – it is an explicitly Christian explanation for the world

Body paragraph three – it can be discussed in an RE class, with the other creation mythologies which exist

Body paragraph three – refutation – there is no proof of creationism outside of the Bible, and much more proof for evolution.

Conclusion – summation of thesis statement, arguments, and final arguments.

Topics for an Argumentative Essay

  • Creationism should be taught in biology
  • Drugs should be legal
  • Corporal punishment should be used
  • Cigarettes should be banned
  • WMDs are a threat to security
  • Is technology making us isolated?
  • Has internet shame culture gone too far?
  • Can phones be educational tools?
  • Are robots really threatening our jobs?
  • Is the education system failing?
  • Should we continue co-ed education?
  • Should toys be gendered?
  • Is technology going too far?
  • Is feminism going too far?
  • Is dating a thing of the past?
  • Should we ban pornography?
  • Should we ban vaping?
  • Should public transport be privatised?
  • Should banks be held accountable for the crash?
  • Should capital punishment be legal?

Descriptive essay

Descriptive writing is something which focuses more on the details and physicality of whatever is under discussion. Because of this, the structure of the essay is generally seen as being less rigid than other essays, although it does still follow the basic structure of introduction, three to five body paragraphs, and conclusion. Descriptive essays need to consider their audience very carefully, as this will determine the type of language that is used, as well as how the essay itself is written. Descriptive essays can be written in chronological order, but the type of essay means that they are usually arranged spatially, with lyric essays being a very good example of the format.


Introduction – topic of the essay, discussion of what will appear in the essay. My life as a top hat. This is where the readers get the first glimpse of the language of the essay.

Body paragraph one – the making of the top hat

Body paragraph two – the owning of the top hat

Body paragraph three – the retirement of the top hat

Conclusion – final thoughts of the essay, reiteration of the three paragraphs.

Topics for a Descriptive Essay

  • My childhood in the country
  • A traumatic experience
  • My first love
  • The first city I saw
  • My birthday
  • A day in the life of a top hat
  • The life of a mouse
  • A holiday in Spain
  • If walls could talk
  • The leaves falling in Autumn
  • A dream
  • A nightmare
  • Your favourite place
  • A pet
  • A train ride
  • A garden
  • Best friends
  • Worst enemies
  • A wish
  • A trip

Cause and Effect essay

Cause and effect essays must adhere very strictly to the structure of an essay, because otherwise the format will not work. The proper way to write a cause and effect essay is to create a chain of events which link together in a logical fashion to create the essay.


Introduction – The cause and effect of the popularity of fast food restaurants. Discussion of the points which will be in the essay. Some necessary history

Causal point one – fast food is easy and cheap

Causal point two – people have less time for cooking as their lives get busier

Causal point three – if people haven’t been brought up in a home where cooking is a tradition, then they will be less likely to take it up themselves

Conclusion – reiteration of causal points, and discussion of how this contributes to the effect of fast food restaurants being popular

Topics for a Cause and Effect Essay

  • What causes divorce
  • How does abortion affect relationships
  • How does divorce affect children
  • What causes sibling rivalry
  • What is the effect of being a twin
  • How does fame affect children
  • What causes poverty
  • Why are children poor
  • What causes the wage gap
  • What causes homelessness
  • What causes terrorism
  • Why do terrorists strike where they do
  • Why can people with disabilities not get jobs
  • What causes job discrimination
  • What is causing climate change
  • What has led to the current state of politics
  • Why is there political polarisation
  • What effect will obesity have
  • Why do people not go to the doctor
  • What effect does stress have on health

Compare and Contrast essay

This type of essay is based purely on the contrast between the two opinions\subjects\ideas. Following the basic essay structure, compare and contrast essays can be arranged either sequentially (point by point), or chunking (by the object). These essays work by highlighting the similarities and differences between the various points they are bringing up for their readers. This type of essay is most often arranged for the greatest amount of emphasis possible.


Introduction – comparing WWI and WWII in terms of build-up and execution, necessary pieces of history for understanding the essay

Body paragraph one – a way in which both wars are similar – the sides were more or less the same, with Germany on one side, and Britain on the other being the main contenders

Body paragraph two – a way in which both wars are similar – while the events themselves differed, there were a number of incidents which everyone decided to let go, until the one inciting event where they could no longer do so.

Body paragraph three – a way in which both wars are different – they were fought for entirely different reasons

Conclusion – Reiteration of the subject material, summation of the paragraphs, final conclusion.

Topics for a Compare and Contrast Essay

  • Technology vs. textbooks in the classroom
  • Compare the Android and the Ios
  • Compare modern standards of beauty with those of two hundred years ago
  • Compare Twelfth Night with As You Like It
  • Hunger Games and Divergent: compare and contrast
  • Compare private with public universities
  • Compare the political system of America with that of France
  • Compare Snowden with Assange
  • Compare the Victorian era with the Regency
  • Compare the cold war with the Vietnam war
  • Compare Star Wars with Star Trek
  • Compare the Roman empire with the British empire
  • Compare Queen Victoria with Queen Elizabeth I
  • Are cats better pets than dogs?
  • Are fish better pets than snakes?
  • Compare the philosophy of Nietzsche to that of Camus
  • Nihilism vs absurdism: which is better
  • Prose vs. poetry
  • Compare Burns with Shakespeare
  • Compare non-fiction to fiction works.

Narrative essay

A narrative essay is something which can be quite lax with the general essay structure, though it is normally arranged in a chronological format. Rather than focusing on research and information, a narrative is more focused on a story, and how to tell it.


Introduction – my best friend. Short description of best friend as they are, background for understanding the essay.

Body paragraph one – the first meeting between my best friend and me

Body paragraph two – the phase where we became best friends

Body paragraph three – where we are now, why she is my best friend

Conclusion – summation of everything in the story.

Topics for a Narrative Essay

  • My best friend
  • A day in my life
  • An embarrassing moment
  • My first coin
  • My favourite day of the year
  • My biggest mistake
  • My dream job
  • My day at the beach
  • My first day of school
  • My last day of school
  • The first day of summer
  • New Year’s Eve
  • Christmas day
  • The first time I saw snow
  • The first snowdrop
  • My favourite summer holiday
  • My favourite country to visit
  • My favourite birthday party
  • A scary experience
  • When the power went out

Non-Literary essay

A non-literary essay is a fairly recent phenomenon; as the name suggests, it is an essay which does not use words to convey its meaning. It is normally used in informal situations, though the increased use of it in education may change this in the future. The most common form of a non-literary essay is a photo essay.

Other froms of essay

Academic Essays

Academic essays – also known as papers – are generally a Western phenomenon. They are essays which are written by students in various levels of their education as a means to show their teachers that they have: learned how to write, learned how to properly formulate an argument, and where paying attention.

Academic essays can vary in length, from quite short to extremely long. The longer ones can have additional pages such as a cover page and a contents page. The longest academic essays, of course, are the dissertations and theses written in senior years.

Essays for Media

Also called long-form journalism, some forms of media print essays as either the main point of their journalism, or as a side-event. This type of essay is normally confined to media which is more intellectual in nature, such as academic journals.

Employment Essays

Certain fields of employment ask for their employees to write essays if they want to attain a certain level of employment or salary. This is to show that they have the necessary skills for working at that level, and also have the necessary information, and can show that they have said information. This is found particularly in governmental jobs.

Common Structure of an Essay

As has been mentioned above, essays are normally of a fairly short length, unless they are a particular type of essay. Even if they are longer, they all normally follow the same basic structure, seen below:

Introduction – introduces the issue, discusses some basic research, and talks about the format of the essay. Also includes the Thesis Statement, which is the basic point which the essay revolves around.

Body Paragraphs – normally there are between three and five of these. Each paragraph is for one particular argument\section of the essay.

Conclusion – this reiterates some of the information from the introduction, sums up the arguments made, and gives a final verdict.

What is a Schaffer Paragraph?

The Schaffer paragraph is a particular five sentence long paragraph which was invented by Jane Schaffer. The structure is taught because it is thought to be helpful when teaching children about essay structure.

Requirements for a Schaffer paragraph

There are only a few requirements for a Schaffer paragraph, but they should be followed: The paragraphs (and the essay) cannot be written in first person – it needs to be either second or third. Every Schaffer paragraph needs to be at least five sentences long; it can be longer, but only so long as the ratio of two pieces of commentary for every concrete detail (see the section below) is kept intact. Every section (see below) should be only one sentence in length), and they should only be written in the present tense.

Structure of a Schaffer Paragraph

The most basic paragraph has five elements to it, which correspond to the five sentences which each paragraph has as a minimum.

Topic sentence – declaring what the paragraph is about

Concrete detail – the facts concerning the paragraph topic

Commentary – discussion on the fact – there should be two of these for every concrete detail which is included

Closing sentence – this brings the topic together, and establishes the next paragraph briefly.

Five Paragraph Essay

The five paragraph essay (also called a three-tier essay) is one of the most basic essay structures in existence. It includes an introduction to introduce the topic and give preliminary information, three body paragraphs which include the actual discussion for the essay and accompanying evidence, and the conclusion to bring everything together.


Introduction – school doesn’t prepare people for the real world. Discuss. Preliminary history, discussion of what will be in the essay.

Body paragraph one – it doesn’t teach needed skills – evidence, discussion.

Body paragraph two – it is entirely too focused on tests, rather than knowledge – evidence, discussion.

Body paragraph three – according to literacy levels, it isn’t even doing the job it’s supposed to be doing – evidence, discussion.

Conclusion – drawing everything together, final conclusion.

Topics for a five paragraph essay

  • School doesn’t teach people about the real world
  • What value do you place on your friends?
  • Why is North Korea allowed to remain?
  • How did Trump get elected?
  • How do you define success?
  • How do you define failure?
  • Why are dystopian stories so popular?
  • Is violence in the movies getting worse?
  • What is the best teaching style?
  • Should we start school when children are older?
  • Is technology an asset to schools?
  • Are iPhones leading to greater social isolation?
  • What would be a good career path?
  • Are we sexualising children?
  • Is our access to entertainment leading to us having a need for instant gratification?
  • Is access to constant entertainment a good thing or a bad thing for society?
  • What would school before current technology have been like?
  • What would work before current technology have been like?
  • Should housekeeping be the preserve of women?
  • Write an essay convincing someone to stay in your geographical area

Plagiarism During Essay Writing

What may be Called Plagiarism?

Plagiarised text is text which has been lifted wholesale from other sources without any links or discussions of the text, or any acknowledgement that it came from another source.

What are the Purposes of a Plagiarism Check?

Plagiarism checks exist for two reasons: one, to check for cheating; and two, to check that there has been no accident in writing, for example there are no quotes which have accidentally ben left uncredited, and so on.

How to Check for Plagiarism

There are a variety of online sites now which check for plagiarism, including:

  • Unplag;
  • Turnitin;
  • PlagTracker;
  • PlagScan;
  • IThenticate.

Current Essay Situation (Student Perspective)

The current situation shows that more and more students are paying to have people write their essays, rather than doing the work themselves. Students cite a lack of time and ability in the current educational climate, and also state that the comments they receive from their teachers are not encouraging.

Current Essay Situation (Teacher Perspective)

Teachers dislike essays almost as much as students. Because so many students get their work done for them by a service, there is little point to them. Add to that the marking which needs to be done constantly, and the fact that constructive criticism is increasingly difficult to give to students who do not want to see it as helpful, and teachers are growing to hate assigning essays.

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