What is an Essay?

An essay is generally a short piece of writing outlining the writer’s perspective or story. It is often considered synonymous with a story or a paper or an article. Today the word essay is applied to several kinds of literary compositions in prose. An essay may contain reflections, quotations, or a few pages of concentrated wisdom. It may contain thin or diluted thought, profound or light observations, or even didactic musings or personal gossip. An essay can be as short as 500 words, it can also be 5000 words or more. However, most essays fall somewhere around 1000 to 3000 words; this word range provides the writer enough space to thoroughly develop an argument and work to convince the reader of the author’s perspective regarding a particular issue.

Orgin of The Essay

The word ‘Essay’ means an attempt or assay – an attempt to dwell on some subject or part of a subject. This is an apt name for this writing form because the essay’s ultimate purpose is to attempt to convince the audience of something. Since an essay does not necessarily deal with every aspect of a subject, it is usually short. Thus, the essay may be defined as a ‘composition of moderate length on any particular subject or branch of a subject’. It is limited in range though sometimes elaborate in style. The essay comes in many shapes and sizes; it can focus on a personal experience or a purely academic exploration of a topic. Essays are classified as a subjective writing form because while they include expository elements, they can rely on personal narratives to support the writer’s viewpoint. The essay genre includes a diverse array of academic writings ranging from literary criticism to meditations on the natural world.

History of Essay

Michel de Montaigne first coined the term essayer to describe Plutarch’s Oeuvres Morales, which is now widely considered to be a collection of essays. Under the new term, Montaigne wrote the first official collection of essays, Essais, in 1580. Montaigne’s goal was to pen his ideas in prose. In 1597, a collection of Francis Bacon’s work appeared as the first essay collection written in English. The term essayist was first used by English playwright Ben Jonson in 1609.

Definitions of The Essay

There are several definitions of the essay available. Dr.Johnson defined it as a loose sally of the mind, an irregular, undigested piece, not a regular and orderly composition’. The essay is characterized by comparative brevity and comparative want of exhaustiveness.

According to W.H. Hudson, an essay is essentially personal. It belongs to the literature of self-expression. This is most true of modern essays. In the essays of E.V. Lucas, G.K. Chesterton, A.G. Gardiner, etc. we find the personal elements dominant. We read them not to acquire facts or information but to acquire contact with the personality of the writer. Hugh Walker remarks that no subject may not be dealt with in an essay. The essay is easily distinguished by its manner and style rather than by its matter. The important elements in the essay of Charles Lamb, Hilaire Belloc, or A.G. Gardiner are the style and manner and the theme is secondary.

Sainte beuve, himself a delightful essayist, thought that a good essay should be characterized by conciseness and thoroughness. the essay is brief not because the writer knows little about the subject but because he is a master of the subject that he can present his ideas concisely and adequately. Thus brevity in an essay does not mean superficiality.
considering the various aspects of the essay, it can be defined as a composition of moderate length, usually in prose, which deals in an easy cursory manner with the chosen subject and with the relation of that subject to the writer.

Principles of Essay

One of the elementary principles of essay writing is selections and distribution of emphasis. In spite of its fragmentariness, as an essay should impress as complete within itself. Another trait of the essay is its freedom and informality. The essay provides the freedom of conversation. Bacon called his essays ‘brief notes set down rather significantly than anxiously’. The essay is relatively unmethodical though modern essays have undergone some transformation in this respect.

The essay is subjective and personal. The central fact of the essay is the play of the writer’s mind and character upon the subject matter. In the study of the essay, one has to consider the writer’s personality and standpoint, and outlook on life. we have to follow the evolution of thought, presentation, exposition, and illustration. Finally, we have to assess the value of what he says and the beauty of how he says it.

Categories: Literature, Writing

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