2.7 The Essay
Nancy Ami; Natalie Boldt; Sara Humphreys; Jemma Llewellyn; and Erin Kelly
Let’s start with perhaps the most common (and dreaded?) of academic sub-genres (and assignments), the essay. There are so many variations of the essay in academic writing that it’s impossible to include all of them here. We have supplied the basic conventions of any essay here. Once you understand the basics, you’ll then be able to better understand how to write a position paper, research essay, or any kind of essay, really.
But first, it might help to remember what you learned at the beginning of the chapter about academic writing and stories. The essay is a type of story you are telling your reader:
Every essay has a story that leads the reader through the discussion. To help identify the story of your essay, think about how you would verbally explain your focus to someone who is not familiar with your topic. What is the beginning, middle, and end of the story that is the focus of your essay? Once the story is in place, consider what information you can provide to help your reader understand the story and why it’s important, even if they don’t share your background knowledge. Filling in those details will highlight the relationships between ideas and give you the opportunity to demonstrate your critical thinking on your topic.
Thanks to Elder Shirley Alphonse (THE-LA-ME-YÉ), Elder Nadine Charles (TEȺȽIE), and Theresa Bell for this insightful explanation of how essay writing works.
As Elders Alphonse and Charles and Manager of Blended Learning Success Theresa Bell make clear, the audience is key to writing your essay. Let’s say that one more time: understanding your reader makes all the difference in essay writing (and, let’s face it, in all writing). This might be a new concept for you. In fact, we are fairly sure your first essay was the good, old five paragraph essay. That’s completely fine – we all have to start somewhere.
Starting Where You Are – The Five-Paragraph Essay
It’s likely you’ve already been taught one genre of writing that is appropriate for many high school classroom writing assignments but doesn’t work as well for the type of complex topics and research you need to engage with at the post-secondary level. The five-paragraph essay is an effective formula for organizing and structuring an argument when you are writing to readers who expect to find information presented in a certain way.
At its most basic, a five-paragraph essay looks something like this:
- Paragraph one: An introduction to the essay; starts broad and narrows down; last sentence is a one-sentence thesis statement that offers an overview of the content that follows.
- Paragraph two: Point number one supporting or developing the thesis; the key idea gets presented in a topic sentence at the start of the paragraph; three to five sentences of evidence, support, and explanation follow.
- Paragraph three: Point number two supporting or developing the thesis; the key idea gets presented in a topic sentence at the start of the paragraph; three to five sentences of evidence, support, and explanation follow.
- Paragraph four: Point number three supporting or developing the thesis; the key idea gets presented in a topic sentence at the start of the paragraph; three to five sentences of evidence, support, and explanation follow.
- Paragraph five: A conclusion to the essay; reminds readers of all the main points that have just been presented.
There’s nothing inherently wrong with the five-paragraph essay. This formula is really handy when you need to write an essay as part of a timed exam since its rigid structure allows you to focus on what you want to say more than how to arrange your ideas. But most students quickly realize that the five-paragraph essay won’t work for a lot of writing situations. It’s not at all suitable for a lab report, a long, complex research-based argument, a blog post, a summary and analysis, or a literature review. Rather, the academic essay requires a more sophisticated format to handle the argumentation, evidence, and exposition you will need to engage in your post-secondary classes.
Academic essays are a form of exploration and mind-training. They allow academic writers (you and us) to try out ideas, but too often, as Paul Lynch explains, the essay is perceived as simply a tool to measure your understanding of concepts; measure your retention of ideas; measure your writing skills; and, well, just a way ‘to measure.’ This means the very word conjures up all kinds of anxiety and dread for students as a form of evaluation (or measurement). However, what if we take Paul Lynch’s advice and return, as much as we can, to the original intention of the essay, by its inventor sixteenth-century French philosopher, Michel de Montaigne.
Montaigne was a sixteenth-century Frenchman who, upon his retirement, began writing short prose pieces in which he explored his thoughts and feelings on whatever subject occurred to him. He called them his essais, which comes from the French word for “try” or “attempt.” It is, of course, the root of our word “essay.” Originally, then, essay meant something like an experiment or an exploration. Montaigne’s titles include “On Idleness,” “On Liars,” “On a Monstrous Child,” “On Sadness,” “On Sleep,” “On Drunkenness,” and so on. Often his main focus was himself. “Reader,” he writes in his introduction to the Essays, “I myself am the subject of my book” (1). He called them essais because he knew that he was simply testing out ideas. Later essayists would think of essays like going for walks, walks where the destination doesn’t really matter. Virginia Woolf, a great novelist and essayist, wrote, “We should start without any fixed idea where we are going to spend the night, or when we propose to come back; the journey is everything” (65). In school essays, the destination is usually what matters. Personal essays, however, begin without a destination in mind. Basically, essayists like Montaigne and Woolf tried to understand the subjects that caught their interest by understanding their own thoughts and feelings about them. Today, we call this “writing to learn.”
“Writing to learn” is what the essay is all about, although we understand the stress that comes from writing to achieve a grade, which is also part of an academic essay. It’s true that personal essay writing (like Montaigne and Virginia Woolf wrote) is a rarity in academic essay writing; however, you can change your perspective on essay writing to one of exploration rather than existential dread. Perhaps consider your own thoughts and feelings about your essay project and consider what you can learn rather than worry about the grade. See what happens.
Your Opinion Matters
When, instead of requiring you to summarize a text, an academic assignment, like an academic essay, asks you to share your opinion of it (or to explain whether you agree or disagree with it and why), you need to produce a response (even if that isn’t what it’s called). In the context of academic writing, you will find there are some common expectations for responding to a text.
First, offer a fair and accurate summary of the original document’s main points. Doing so lets your reader know what you are responding to and establishes that you are taking the original writer’s ideas seriously. This might seem redundant or even rude if you are writing a response to something your professor assigned to the class – shouldn’t your prof know this work/essay/report (and so on) already, and might they be insulted if you review the main ideas? Remember, response in academic writing – whether as a stand-alone assignment or as part of a larger project – has conventions. We expect to see a brief summary of even familiar texts because, if nothing else, the summary establishes clearly what the person writing the response is reacting to.
Second, clarify whether you agree or disagree with whatever you are responding to – or possibly agree in some ways and disagree in others. Making your own position EXPLICIT rather than hinting at it is a convention of academic writing, particularly in western cultures. Consider how this is different from the way you engage with other people in conversation. If you just watched a video with a friend, you might hedge about saying you hated it before finding out the other person’s opinion. Academic writing tends to be more direct than interpersonal encounters.
Sometimes a response (described above) is a stand-alone assignment. Quite often, however, a response can be part of a larger argument, like those found in academic essays.
But what comprises an argument? We are glad you asked. Many assignments use language that really references what we call an argument:
- In a class focused on literature, you could be asked to produce a close reading.
- In a class focused on economics, you could be asked to take a position on a controversial issue and defend it.
- In a class focused on psychology, you might be asked to explain why your diagnosis of a fictional person is correct.
- In a class focused on business, you might be asked to recommend a course of action to an imaginary client.
All of these assignments are asking that the student present an argument; in other words, the student needs to lay out a claim that others might potentially disagree with and to show (with evidence and explanation of that evidence) the claim is correct (or at least defensible). We discuss the concept and practice of argumentation more fully in chapter three.
- Shirley R. Alphonse (THE-LA-ME-YÉ), Theresa Bell and Nadine Charles (TȺȽIE), “Connecting Oral Traditions with Academic Writing,” in Four Feathers Writing Guide, Royal Roads University, updated April 29, 2020, https://library.royalroads.ca/four-feathers-writing-guide. ↵
- “Reading Montaigne: Why a 16th Century Writer Still Matters Today,” CBC Radio, last modified June 4, 2019, https://www.cbc.ca/radio/ideas/reading-montaigne-why-a-16th-century-writer-still-matters-today-1.5014283. ↵
- Paul Lynch, “The Sixth Paragraph: A Re-Vision of the Essay,” in Writing Spaces: Readings on Writing, vol. 2 (West Lafayette: Parlor Press, 2011), 290-91. ↵