Essay Definition

Much of your college writing will be in the form of essays. On the day I accessed and searched for “essay,” I found the following definitions (quoted directly):

  1. a) A short literary composition on a single subject, usually presenting the personal view of the author. b) Something resembling such a composition: a photojournalistic essay.
  2. A testing or trial of the value or nature of a thing: an essay of the student’s capabilities.
  3. An initial attempt or endeavor, especially a tentative attempt.
  1. To make an attempt at; try
  2. To subject to a test.
  1. An analytic or interpretive literary composition

decorative imageSo… why essays? What’s so important about this form? As you can see from the definitions, an essay is a piece of writing that attempts to explain something, or analyze something, or present the author’s insight. These words–“attempt,” “explain,” “analyze,” “author’s insight”–should already give you the idea that an essay’s purpose is not simply to inform (e.g., describe the events of the first moon landing for the U.S.). Rather, an essay’s purpose, especially in an academic setting, is to provide a written explanation of your own ideas, interpretations, insights, and evaluations (e.g., why the first moon landing by the U.S. was important to our economy, or how the first moon landing influenced architectural design in the 1960s, or what the effects of the first moon landing were on foreign relations). It’s your thinking and viewpoint that are important in essay writing; an essay offers your direct reflection on, or analysis of, a focused topic.

College writing often involves essay writing because the very purpose of a college education is to further develop your thinking skills, foster new insights and interpretations, create and analyze an argument in terms of appropriate evidence, and question concepts and provide your own interpretation of ideas. Essays help you do that – writing an essay, based on your ideas, often helps you formulate those ideas as well.