Essay: Writing & Examples

Instructor: Adrienne Maher
What is an essay? An essay is a piece of nonfiction writing that expresses various genres or styles of prose depending on the subject, content, purpose, and audience of the particular piece.

History of the Essay

You may think that the unpleasant 5-paragraph writing assignment you are forced to do as a regular part of your academic career was designed by English teachers just to make your life miserable. There has been much discussion by philosophers, scholars and essayists throughout the centuries on what the purpose and essence of an essay is or is supposed to be. Many of the ancient academicians saw the essay as a form strictly to persuade or inform. Others claimed the essay as an art form, a highly evolved mode of human expression in the most eloquent or stylized language possible. Modern thinking defines the essay as a combination of both, depending on the purpose of the writing.

Who First Used the Word Essay?

Fig. 1: Michel de Montaigne and the first book of published essays
Michel de Montaigne and the First Book of Published Essays

The word essay itself comes from the French verb essayer, which means to try. It was first coined by a French nobleman named Michel de Montaigne, who in 1571, at 38 years of age, retired from his court and social duties. He spent the next 20 years of his life in a tower in his family castle, writing what he called his Essais, a body of over 1,000 pages of his personal observations and reflections. His writing influenced centuries of great writers. Montaigne was attempting to write something meaningful about what he was trying to understand; he is famous for the quotation, Que sais-je?, or 'what do I know?' In modern essay writing, we explore what we know within ourselves, and what we can know from the discourse, or conversation (both written or spoken), on everything that is known about life and the universe.

Whether you attempt to write your ideas, feelings, and experience, or to share information you gathered from outside sources (other writers and researchers), you are writing an essay.

What Is Rhetoric and Who First Defined It?

Fig. 2: Aristotle. Is this not an excellent definition of success?
Aristotle...Can this not be applied to a definition for success in this day and age?

The ancient philosopher Aristotle (384-322 BC) was the first to record a definition of rhetoric: writing and speaking for the purpose of arguing in court and celebrating great events. He invented formal logic and the argument form.

The words essay, rhetoric, and expository writing in the context of English class mean the same thing. College English composition classes used to be called 'rhetorical' or 'expository writing.' The word rhetoric comes from the Greek 'I say,' or eiro. So, in an essay you are saying something about what you think or know.

Rhetoric, as defined in the dictionary, is 'the art of speaking or writing effectively.' A 1913 definition of the word is 'the art of composition; especially, elegant composition in prose.' Many definitions refer to ancient 'rules of composition' and the art of persuasion. Rhetoric, in the sense of writing, is both. In college, you are not only writing to inform, analyze, compare, argue or tell a story; you are also trying to write with style and creativity, in your own unique writer's voice.

Fig. 3: Argumentation in an Ancient Greek Court
Argumentation in Ancient Greek Court

What Is a Rhetorical Mode?

Mode is used here not as in 'pie a la mode,' but as in type, or format. Rhetoric simply means writing or speech. If the art of rhetoric means the art of writing eloquently, or, in the best style you can, a mode is a tool that helps you do that. A rhetorical mode is a type of writing. You can think of it as a template. I like to think of it as a shape, as in a modeling clay machine, into which you can put your writing material to come out in a format that best fits your purpose and audience. You have been using writing modes through most of your school life.

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