Discovering Ideas Handbook

1.1    What is an Essay?

[Note: Catherine Desroches has translated this section into Swedish. Her translation may be found on her Webpage at .]

The term "essay" is used in somewhat different ways in different contexts.  The clearest definition I have encountered is by Frederick Crews, professor of English at the University of California at Berkeley.  Crews defines an essay as "a fairly brief piece of nonfiction that tries to make a point in an interesting way."  

An essay is fairly brief.  While writers will sometimes refer to book-length texts as "essays," the term usually refers to short pieces that might be published in a magazine or newspaper.  

An essay is nonfiction.  That means that the writer of an essay is trying to tell the truth, not merely entertain.  A short story isn't an essay because it's fiction.  To say that an essay is nonfiction doesn't mean that every word of an essay must be literally true.  Hypothetical examples can be an effective way of illustrating a point, as can quotations from fictional works.  But such imaginative illustrations should always serve the purpose of clarifying or illustrating a claim that the writer believes to be actually true, in the real world.

An essay tries to make a point.  This is perhaps the most important and most challenging aspect of the essay.  An essay is not just a bunch of words, or even a bunch of paragraphs.  An essay all fits together; it all points in one direction.  An essay leads to one conclusion.  This is what makes an essay different from, say, an article in an encyclopedia, which may be a relatively brief and interesting piece of nonfiction.  An essay tries to make a point.  It aims to support a single claim.  Another way of putting it would be to say that an essay doesn't just have a topic; it also has a thesis.  An essay doesn't just give information about a subject; it supports a statement, a claim.

An essay tries to make a point in an interesting way.  An essay is real writing; it is written to someone.  And so its goal is to interest its readers, to change their thinking, to get them involved in the ideas it presents and ultimately get them to adopt those ideas.  An essay might seek to inform or to persuade or both.  But to make a point with real readers, it must try to get and keep the attention of those readers.  That means catching and keeping their interest.


  1.2    How to Get Started

Copyright 2000 by John Tagg

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