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Aldous Huxley said, “The essay is a literary device for saying almost everything about almost anything."1 Huxley's description of an essay may seem a bit vague. Still, he captures the element of what makes essays so gratifying. They are the complete package: wisdom draped in pretty language.
An essay is an article whose thesis explores a theme, provides information about a subject, or tries to persuade. The parts of an essay may look different depending on the type of essay, but each one has an introduction, a body made up of paragraphs, and a conclusion. A close reading of an essay examines its voice, tone, and style.
The voice of an essay is the way vocabulary, point-of-view, and syntax work together.
A simple sentence is a complete thought (I went home). A compound sentence connects two simple sentences (I went home, and I cooked dinner). A complex sentence connects a sentence that makes sense by itself to a subordinate clause that depends on the other sentence to make sense (Because I was hungry, I cooked dinner).
The tone of an essay is comparable to a speaker's tone of voice while having a conversation.
The style of an essay is the language the author uses that depends on the type of essay they are writing.
An image of a corrected essay on a student's desk, representing a close reading, pexels.com
The genre of essays contains four broad formats that reflect the author's purpose for writing them:
A narrative essay uses a personal account to examine a theme, such as a moral question or universal truth. Features of narrative essays include:
Narrative essays and short stories share many of the same characteristics. However, the characters, dialogue, setting, etc. in a narrative essay are based on real people and events, while a short story is a work of fiction.
An expository essay "exposes" information about a subject to educate an audience. Expository essays are logical and analytical, meaning they use critical thinking to perform an in-depth examination of a subject. They share information in an unbiased and explanatory tone. In other words, an expository essay informs its audience about a topic, avoiding emotional or opinionated language. An expository essay formats its thesis by doing the following:
A persuasive essay attempts to convince the reader of something. Along with facts, a persuasive essay uses an emotional appeal to sway the audience. The thesis of a persuasive essay is usually called a claim, and the style of the essay depends on what type of claim the author is making:
It's also important to consider the purpose of the essay. At the outset, determine whether the persuasive essay is:
A descriptive essay uses sensory and figurative language to write a picture for an audience. A descriptive essay shares some of the same characteristics as a narrative essay. Still, they are different because a narrative essay explores a theme, while a descriptive essay aims to use its thesis to illustrate an object, place, or concept thoroughly. Descriptive essays are written as :
An image of a prism refracting white light, representing the different types of essays, wikimedia.com
This excerpt of "Goodbye to All That," written by Joan Didion and published in Slouching Toward Bethlehem (1968), is an example of a narrative essay.
I remember once, one cold bright December evening in New York, suggesting to a friend who complained of having been around too long that he come with me to a party where there would be, I assured him with the bright resourcefulness of twenty-three, "new faces." He laughed literally until he choked, and I had to roll down the taxi window and hit him on the back. "New faces," he said finally, "don't tell me about new faces." It seemed that the last time he had gone to a party where he had been promised "new faces," there had been fifteen people in the room, and he had already slept with five of the women and owed money to all but two of the men. I laughed with him, but the first snow had just begun to fall and the big Christmas trees glittered yellow and white as far as I could see up Park Avenue and I had a new dress, and it would be a long while before I would come to understand the particular moral of the story.
Didion uses a personal story to explore the theme of reality versus illusion in this narrative essay. She uses herself and a friend as characters, and their dialogue highlights their personality differences. The setting of the essay mirrors her youthful idealism. Christmas lights are temporary, and sparkling white snow will turn to gray slush by the following day in the city. Including details of the young Didion laughing with her friend while focusing on the twinkling lights and falling snow sets up the conflict of the essay by showing the reader that she's not focused on reality.
Wallace provides a quick cultural study of the lobster to inform readers that opinions about consuming lobsters have changed over time, which validates the essay's question of whether it's time to change society's thinking about how they're prepared. He asks that since opinions on consumption and preparation have changed previously, should they change again? Using scientific details to describe lobsters provides a neutral viewpoint on just what a lobster is. Wallace uses precedence and scientific language to avoid the appearance of emotional involvement in the subject. He dives deep into the issue to provide enough information to allow the reader to come to a conclusion.
An image of cooking pots over an open fire, pixabay
This excerpt of "A Modest Proposal," (1729) a pamphlet written by Jonathan Swift, is a satirical example of a persuasive essay. Satire uses humor to criticize. In this case, Swift was criticizing the British Parliament for the way they were treating the poor.
I have been assured by a very knowing American of my acquaintance in London, that a young healthy child well nursed is at a year old a most delicious, nourishing, and wholesome food, whether stewed, roasted, baked, or boiled; and I make no doubt that it will equally serve in a fricassee or a ragout.
I do therefore humbly offer it to public consideration that of the hundred and twenty thousand children already computed, twenty thousand may be reserved for breed, whereof only one-fourth part to be males; which is more than we allow to sheep, black cattle or swine; and my reason is, that these children are seldom the fruits of marriage, a circumstance not much regarded by our savages, therefore one male will be sufficient to serve four females. That the remaining hundred thousand may, at a year old, be offered in the sale to the persons of quality and fortune through the kingdom; always advising the mother to let them suck plentifully in the last month, so as to render them plump and fat for a good table. A child will make two dishes at an entertainment for friends; and when the family dines alone, the fore or hind quarter will make a reasonable dish, and seasoned with a little pepper or salt will be very good boiled on the fourth day, especially in winter.
Swift's thesis is an immediate action claim, and his essay defends a position. He uses statistics and facts about raising and preparing livestock to discuss how many children will be needed to create a sustainable system. Describing poor children as livestock and discussing how best to eat them operates as an emotional appeal that they should be treated better. By using such an extreme solution to starvation, Swift opens the door to a more level-headed discussion about how to better help the poor.
E. B. White's essay, "Once More to the Lake," reprinted in Essays of E. B. White (1977), is an example of a descriptive essay. This excerpt captures many of a descriptive essay's characteristics, including the way it describes things in great detail to help the reader relate to the experience:
We went fishing the first morning. I felt the same damp moss covering the worms in
the bait can, and saw the dragonfly alight on the tip of my rod as it hovered a few
inches from the surface of the water. It was the arrival of this fly that convinced me
beyond any doubt that everything was as it always had been, that the years were a
mirage and there had been no years. The small waves were the same, chucking the
rowboat under the chin as we fished at anchor, and the boat was the same boat, the
same color green and the ribs broken in the same places, and under the floor-boards
the same freshwater leavings and debris--the dead helgramite, the wisps of moss, the
rusty discarded fishhook, the dried blood from yesterday's catch. We stared silently at
the tips of our rods, at the dragonflies that came and wells. I lowered the tip of mine
into the water, tentatively, pensively dislodging the fly, which darted two feet away,
poised, darted two feet back, and came to rest again a little farther up the rod. There
had been no years between the ducking of this dragonfly and the other one--the one
that was part of memory. I looked at the boy, who was silently watching his fly, and it
was my hands that held his rod, my eyes watching. I felt dizzy and didn't know which
rod I was at the end of.
'Once More to the Lake' is an example of a personal essay because it describes a place that had an effect on White's life, which he later shared with his son. He emphasizes that the place he loved as a boy hadn't changed by describing familiar details like the flitting dragonfly. The sensory images appeal to the reader's senses so they can relate to the scene. Concrete details, such as "two feet away," bring the reader into the experience.
1Huxley, Aldous. Complete Essays: 1956-1963, 2002.
The four types of essays are:
Some examples of essays are:
A thesis is the purpose of the essay. It can introduce the topic to be defined, explore a universal theme, or state an argument.
An essay format is the type of essay an author writes that reflects its purpose.
The parts of an essay may look different depending on the type of essay the author writes, but every essay has an introduction, body paragraphs, and a conclusion.
What is an essay?
An essay is an article whose thesis explores a theme, provides information about a subject, or tries to persuade.
What are some things a close reading of an essay should examine?
All of the Above
True or False: A persuasive essay only uses facts to convince its audience?
False: A persuasive essay uses a combination of facts and emotional appeal to convince its audience.
How does a descriptive essay differ from a narrative essay?
A descriptive essay is different from a narrative essay because it thoroughly illustrates a concept, object, or place rather than exploring a theme.
What are the types of descriptive essays?
All of the Above
What are the features of a narrative essay?
The features of a narrative essay are:
Which is a type of expository essay?
Cause and Effect
True or False: A persuasive essay either defends a position or challenges a claim.
False: A persuasive essay can defend a position, challenge a claim, or qualify a claim.
How is an impressionistic definition different from a formal description?
An impressionistic definition is different from a formal description because its description tries to evoke emotion in a reader. A formal description is informal and precise.
What type of claim argues whether something is true or false?
A factual claim argues whether something is true or false.
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