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Speculative Essay: Definition & Example

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  • 0:01 Speculative Essay Defined
  • 2:15 An Example
  • 4:41 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Joshua Wimmer

Joshua holds a master's degree in Latin and has taught a variety of Classical literature and language courses.

Many of us might often speculate on our future careers and families, or maybe even on what's for dinner this evening. Whatever the case, you can learn in this lesson what a speculative essay might look like and even see an eerily accurate example!

Speculative Essay Defined

Maybe you recall having to write stories in middle school that speculated on the ending of an unfinished narrative or an image you were given. Or perhaps, you're more familiar with the borderline prophetic works of Jules Verne, who often foretold technological advances with stunning accuracy. Fictional works like these differ in some ways from their nonfictional cousins, but they certainly share their glances toward the future with speculative essays, nonfiction works aimed at hypothesizing on the future circumstances surrounding a given subject.

Since these works are still speculative, what makes them any less fictional than Verne's prediction of a manned moon landing? The difference here is that, whereas Jules would've had little solid scientific evidence to support such a feat when he published From the Earth to the Moon in 1865, writers of speculative essays utilize scientific data and other rational evidence, like observations and personal experience, to support their speculations.

This doesn't mean, though, that such essays are dry and dull. Although they might discuss complex ideas and occasionally employ some subject-specific terminology (jargon), speculative essays also make extensive use of narrative structures. Anecdotes, brief narratives involving presumably real people and events, and other perhaps more hypothetical stories, are frequently used in these works to provide authors' evidence for their claims or to illustrate a point.

In fact, illustration through words is itself an important feature of these essays since figurative language, which identifies the use of words in figures of speech to convey meanings different from their usual definitions, is prominently found in these essays. For example, employing figures of speech, like metaphors, similes, or hyperbole, provide audiences with material that's much more engaging than simply cut-and-dry statistics and predictions.

Speculative essayists are so concerned with keeping their readers interested because they're frequently writing in an effort to persuade them: whether it be to inform policy makers, to sway public opinion, or to stay funded. In such important matters, it's important not only to grab the audience's attention, but to keep it focused. For this reason, speculative essays also typically demonstrate a coherently organized structure, frequently subdivided into smaller sections. Let's take a look at an example to see how well it matches our description, as well as how accurate the author's speculation might be!

An Example

Most of us are well acquainted with the almost inseparable role computers play in practically all aspects of modern society. You wouldn't even be able to complete this lesson without one! However, when Orrin Clotworthy speculated on their impact on intelligence gathering in this essay from 1962, computer-assisted statistical acquisition and analysis were things of science fiction.

It's no wonder, then, that the author subtitled the article 'A Jules Verne look at intelligence processes in a coming generation,' especially considering how vividly accurate Verne's predictions often were and how equally so Clotworthy expects his own to be. For this reason, the essay was written to convince readers to prepare for a future in which computational operations 'will someday become a matter of great concern to all of us.'

As one might expect from the nature of this sort of writing, speculative essayists frequently employ the future tense of verbs in an effort to display their claims as vivid realities rather than vague possibilities. For example, in the passage, 'I say 'will' rather than 'may' because it seems to me that this type of election analysis will be only the first faltering step...' The metaphor of the 'first faltering step' here is elaborated by Clotworthy's reference to this statistical science as being in its infancy, and this is certainly not the only place where the author employs figurative language.

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