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The Simple and Timeless Essay: How, What, and Why of it

In a world where trends come and go, somehow the humble, seemingly simple essay has withstood the test of time. From ancient philosophers to modern writers, essay writing has appealed to one and all with its straightforward style. And this is not only for writers over the ages, but the essay has always had a lasting impact on readers as well. So how does the straightforward, simple essay continue to hook its readers across borders of time and space?

Today (February 28th), on the occasion of Michel de Montaigne’s birthday, I aim to explore these themes, as we honor him by observing Essay Day.

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The Scoop on Essays

While I did say earlier that essay writing has appealed to writers across the ages, it evokes different reactions and memories for the average person. Remember those days back in school when you had to write about your summer vacation or your favorite historical figure? Or those college application essays?

Whether you love them or not, essays have been around forever, beyond those days, and pretty much everyone has written one at some point. They’re like the timeless little black dress of writing – always in style.

John D’Agata’s Take

In his interview with Susan Steinberg, John D’ Agata attempts to define the essay as “an art form that tracks the evolution of consciousness as it rolls over the folds of a new idea, memory, or emotion.(1)

So while there are very formal essays too, there are others which are more like Agata’s definition. After all, essays come in all shapes and sizes – from super formal ones to those with more laid-back vibes. And they all stand the test of time.

More about the different types of essays later but first,

What Does “Essay” Mean?

Keeping aside Agata’s definition for now, the current dictionary definition for essay is “a short piece of writing on a particular subject.” However, the word “essay” itself comes from the French essai which means “to test, to attempt, to experiment” and/or “the result of the attempt”.

Makes sense, right, as to why Michel de Montaigne picked this word to describe this literary genre or form? After all, essays are all about experimenting with ideas and expressing yourself.

But these definitions seem to encompass only some aspects of the “simple” essay, which is, yes, simple on one hand, but defies a precise definition on the other. Kind of like an eel! Which is why there have been various attempts to say what it is.

Samuel Johnson called it a loose sally of the mind; an irregular indigested piece; not a regular and orderly composition” (source). Because some essays are like that; ramblings of the mind. While others are more orderly, methodical, like the ones by Francis Bacon, considered the father of the scientific method, and another major figurehead of the essay.

Now let us look at the essay itself.

Within an Essay, and About Essay Writing Too

The Parts Within

If you recall your English composition lessons, you might remember that an essay typically has an introduction, the body, and a conclusion. Let us approach it like a discussion with a friend.

You start off by grabbing their attention with an interesting story or question—that’s your introduction. Then you dive into the body of your conversation, where you lay out your main ideas or arguments one by one. Finally, you wrap it all up neatly by summarizing what you’ve talked about and leaving them with something to think about—that’s your conclusion.

And the Types

Now, let’s talk types. Think of essays like genres of movies or books.

There’s storytelling, where you share personal experiences, and descriptive, where you paint a picture with words. Then there’s the one where you try to convince your reader to see things your way – that’s persuasive. On the other side of this is the argumentative essay where you’re not just stating your opinion but backing it up with evidence and taking on other points of view.

If you’re more into explaining stuff, you might go for the expository type. And let’s not forget about comparing things with the compare and contrast essay or exploring cause and effect!

In addition, we can have a formal or informal tone, or lend a friendly or impersonal voice to the essay. Then there is so much more for this is not an exhaustive list.

So whether you’re telling a story, painting a picture, explaining something, persuading someone, arguing a point, comparing things, or exploring cause and effect, an essay can help you! Therefore, here are some

Quick Tips for Essay Writing Magic

Start with the end in mind by framing your question (the reason you are writing the essay) and a impactful thesis statement for it. Then, outline your points, hook your readers with a clever intro, add some meaty content, and wrap it up with a bow in your conclusion. Of course, don’t forget to revise and edit it too.

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The introduction is the captivating hook that grabs the reader’s attention and sets the tone for the rest of the piece. Whether it’s a provocative question, a compelling anecdote, or a thought-provoking quote, a strong introduction lays the foundation for an engaging essay. Include your thesis statement here.

Next, the body. Bring your essay to life by adding visual images and storytelling tactics that appeal to the senses and will evoke emotional responses from readers. Ensure you keep a smooth flow going by organizing your essay in a logical and coherent manner, with clear transitions between ideas and paragraphs.

End your essay with a strong conclusion that leaves a lasting impression on readers. Summarize your main points, reiterate your central idea, and leave readers with a thought-provoking insight or call to action that encourages further reflection.

In a Nutshell

Seneca, Susan Sontag, Montaigne, Virginia Woolf, Joan Didion, Zadie Smith, Ta-Nehisi Coates —these essayists knew/know something for sure. This made their essays timeless, staying relevant no matter the era. As Joyce Carol Oates notes in the introduction to The Best American Essays of the Century, “The ideal essay, in any case, is as timeless as any work of art, transcending the circumstances of its inception. It moves, as Robert Frost says of the ideal poem, from delight to wisdom, and ‘rides on its own melting,’ like ice on a hot stove.”

And doesn’t that make perfect sense to you? An essay reaching out to readers beyond where and when it was written as a testament to the enduring power of words to educate, entertain, and empower throughout the ages.

So next time you’re writing an essay, remember, you’re joining a legion of essayists who have been impacting the world for ages. Keep it simple, keep it real, and let your words do the talking.

h/t, References, and Related/Further Reading

And Now, the End of This Post

Dear reader, as always, I welcome your comments and thoughts on this post, or rather, an essay about the essay! Your favorite essay or essay writing memory? It can be one you read and loved, or something you enjoyed writing too. Do share those in the comments below.

7 thoughts on “The Simple and Timeless Essay: How, What, and Why of it

  1. I can’t say I was good at writing when I was younger, but I always enjoyed writing and being creative. I used to come up with interesting stories. However, it evolved into writing for work. I do get tired of writing more factual type informative essays.

  2. I will not lie…..I always hated to work on essays but did always pull it off in the end. There is lots of research involved and editing!

  3. I always hated writing essays in school. It wasn’t my strong point. It’s a blessing that I’m able to write now and share my experiences and stories with my readers.

  4. This is good to know. I had no idea there are so many types/ forms of essay writing. Thank you for sharing the tips. These are really helpful. I guess the most challenging part for me is writing an impactful thesis statement.

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