Introduction to The Essay

By: Pan Mohamad Faiz Kusuma Wijaya[2]

Essay. The world comes from the French essai (an attempt), first applied in 1580 by Montaigne to his short writings. The chief implication in the world short being “a tentative study”, an essay is often of a few pages, but there is no fixed length. (In an examination, however, a world limit is usually given; if not, the time limit governs the length. In a matter of three hours you could be expected to write an essay ranging between 100 and 1500 words).

The literary genre allows a great variety of styles: from Bacon’s pithy erudition to Lamb’s chatty and personal ramblings, to the impersonal, formal analysis of Locke’s ‘Essay Concerning the Human Understanding’. Today, the essay no longer “a loose sally of the mind, an irregular, indigestible piece”, as averred by Dr. Johnson. It is a short literary composition, well-organized, governed by a broad controlling idea on a subject-indeed, any subject, so long as it is something of meaning in the life of human beings.

Before we go on to discuss the general characteristics of an essay and the do’s and don’ts, we may ask what teachers and examiners expect when they assign an essay. Obviously an essay must be literate; it is hard to imagine “correct” is not right, how does your reader now what you are talking about?

You are also expected to know what you are talking about. Occasionally you may be asked to write from personal experience; usually, however, you would be using facts, figures, theories and ideas that you have culled from others. Clearly, this is one aspect of academic writing-research. You have to gather the information you may require, and this can be done only through wide-ranging reading, serious though and discussion. Listening to radio and watching television discussion/development programme also help widen your intellectual grasp. The information you gather should cover several areas of interest, as the subjects for an essay are practically limitless.

However, whatever you know on a subject is expected to be dexterously organized and presented. The point–the thesis–of the essay should be clear to the reader. An essay is not a shapeless mass of ideas and feelings, facts and figures, incidents and events, but a well-designed piece of penmanship.

To meet these expectations, you will need to develop the skills associated with different stage of essay writing.


Although there are, indeed, an infinity of subject, there are only a handful of forms in which problems can be assigned.

1. Describing.
The simplest assignment of all is to describe something. Here you have to concentrate on only element. Descriptive essay are pen-portraits of people, scenes or events. Descriptions can be static or dynamic.

2. Comparing and Contrasting
There are two elements here. Whatever the wording, if you are asked to handle two items, your approach is the same: to find out: (a) what links the item together; (b) what distinguishes them from each other; and (c) to work from there to a conclusion. Some topics of this kind could be: Indian Economy–Before and After Independence; Population Concerns in Developing and Developed countries; Democracy and Dictatorship.

3. Defining
Defining means to pin down a concept with great exactness–saying what characteristic it has, and what characteristics it lacks. The number of the elements you introduce here is up to you. Such an approach to be called for in the topic “What is meant by Democracy?” or “What is Scientific Temper?” or “What is Religion?”

4. Investigating Causes
Here you are requested to probe into the roots of a problem. It takes a given situation and asks how or why it has come about. “What is there a resurgence of fundamentalism today?” and “Account for the growing violence in society” are examples. You are free to discuss as many elements as you want to or possibly can in a limited time.

5. Classifying
Some subjects treat an endless array of elements and all of them (at least the most important) need to be discussed. Some examples: “Ways of tackling Terrorist”, “Attitude of Teenagers towards Authority”, “Politicians”.

6. Making a Case
You might be asked to argue for or against a certain point of view. Making a case is not simply a matter of stating your opinion, take it or leave it. You will be expected to convince the reader. Weak or illogical arguments will destroy your case. You must consider arguments for the other side, how far they are valid and how far they can be demolished. When you consider of your point of view, it is wise to locate and consider its weaknesses as well before playing them down, showing that they do not destroy the main thrust of your argument. “Should smoking be banned”; “Is space research relevant to a poor country like India?”; “Should mother go out to work?”–these essays demand that you take a stand and argue its validity.

There is no watertight compartmentalization between one form to another: a certain amount of description is bound to intrude in an essay in the form of argumentation; similarly, a certain amount of comparison and contrast may come into essay basically in the form of definition. What is to keep in mind is that overall form chosen should be one.


Whatever the subject and the form it is to take, there are different approaches to it, different framework in which you will ‘define’, ‘describe’ or ‘classify’. You may use the discussion mode–ask what and how, and consider consequences that emerge from the theme of the essay. In the concentric approach, you will proceed from one focal point and move to concentric circles; this is what you will do if you are looking at a title from different levels of consciousness, say from the levels of childhood adolescence and maturity.

Some title can be examined in the chronological order, from the ancient to be modern times or from morning to night. There can be empirical framework, however, requires illustrations or examples in whose context the title can be examined. This framework can relate to countries geographical regions or communities according to what the title demands. You may define, classify or describe in a structure context; for instance, the title can be examined under the categories of political, social, economic, and cultural aspects. Or it can be put in sociological context–the perspective of rural-urban or the classes (rich, poor, middle class, management, workers, and so on).

The form of framework is the skeleton of the essays giving support and weight to be ideas that flesh it out. It keeps the flow of ideas in check and sees to it that the essay does not become a haphazard collection of statements. A work of art involves imagination and sensitivity, but it is a disciplined imagination and sensitivity.


Whatever the form of the essay, the subject need to be presented in the organize manner. Organisation is not a goal in itself. In an essay, organisation serves to make the point or thesis clear to the reader. There is difference of opinion on the writing process: some would say, draw up the formal outline and follow it strictly, while others would advise “free writing”. A compromise is best–think out a preliminary plan and try to stick to it, but do not let the plan stifle your creative flow.

An essay, as pointed out earlier, is not longer a loose rambling, but a structure piece with a beginning (introduction), a middle (body) and an end (conclusion). Within this broad structure, the development of thesis may vary. If you choose to present your thesis with as a theorem, you may state it at very beginning as a hypothesis to be proved. This, however, should be followed by firm of logical proof, to be concluded with an affirmation of the thesis. Most topics for essays, however, do not accord well whit this kind of treatment, as unarguable proof is rare outside the pure sciences. Usually, you are required to work with more controversial arguments. When this happens, the appropriate from is an inquiry. An inquiry begins with a problem. It evaluates the available evidence and reaches a conclusion. It raises questions, overt or implied–the what and the how and possible consequences (good or bad)–that emerge out the title of the essays. The ensuing discussion leads to the conclusion which is the statement of the thesis.

The first step in writing the essay is to understand the title–know clearly what is being asked. Consider, for instance, the topics–“The Status of Woman in India”, “Problem of Working Woman”, “Should Mother Go Out to Work?” All three are related to women, but each one is different from the other. It is necessary to dovetail your arguments and ideas to the topic as given. Elaborating on the position of women has little relevance in an essay dealing with the specific issue of mothers going out to work.

Once the title is clearly understood, decide the form of t he essay. You must have a clear outline showing the progressive movement of the essay, paragraph by paragraph. An outline helps to keep you from straying into irrelevancies; it gives you and idea of how each paragraph is to carry forward your thesis. Obviously, outlining is closely linked with paragraphing.
The Beginning an essay should not the readers know at the outset or early enough what it is about. It is not enough for the title to say it; you must to spell out the topic in the essay itself. The introduction should be striking enough to catch the reader’s attention. There are several ways to opening an essay:

  • You could give a general statement of the topic from which you could then proceed to the particular aspects.
  • You could start with a quotation. But the quotation should be relevant and naturally lead on to a discussion of the topic.
  • The technique of starting with an anecdote could be striking if used cleverly. The anecdote should be short and have some bearing on the subject. Indeed, if it were possible to make a natural transition from the anecdote to the subject, it would be all the better. The anecdotal beginning, however, suits the lighter form of treatment or a not very formal context.
  • A beginning could be in the form of a rhetorical question which does not require an answer but is simply a trick for sweeping the readers off their feet.
  • You could begin by giving the conclusion first (the danger here being that the writer is often unable to make a smooth transition to the next paragraph).

Experiment will help you more with openings than will guidelines, however. Just keep the aims of a good beginning in mind: it tries to hook the reader’s interest, to suggest the essay is worth reading. But the introduction should be brief.

The Body developed the ideas as jotted down in the outline into the major paragraphs. How to structure paragraphs? There are no rules–but there are certain the common sense guidelines. First, the reader should be told fairly in the paragraph what it is about (the sentence announcing the topic is traditionally called the topic sentence). The paragraph usually contains about information or argument that go well beyond this opening statement. Finally, on completing paragraph, the reader should know how it fits in with the overall structure of the essay; clarifying the point of a paragraph is called pointing. These three “requirements” can be breached for a good many reasons, but taken as they stand, they offer classic three-part paragraph:

  1. What the paragraph is about–topic sentence.
  2. What the paragraph has to say about the subject–information or argument.
  3. How the paragraphs fits in–pointing.

A paragraph in an essay must be crafted to fit a master plan. Without pointing, you may create a string of paragraphs, but it will not be an essay. The structure of the paragraphs calls for unity, with the sentences in it contributing towards explaining or supporting the thesis put forward by the topic sentence. And this should be done logically, sequentially. The length of paragraphs vary, indeed must vary to avoid monotony, in an essay. Depending on its purpose a paragraph could run into a single sentence or a multitude of a sentence (a transitional paragraph, for example, need not exceed a sentence or two).

By contributing to the thesis of the essay, each paragraph is linked to the other by the unity of idea. However, unification among the paragraphs is also to be achieved structurally, through transitional words and phrases. These words and phrases help to show the progress of the essay. Some such words and phrases and their purpose are as follows:

  • Addition or continuation: next, beside, further, again, moreover, likewise, in addition.
  • Comparison: similarly, somewhat similar, in a like manner, likewise.
  • Contrast: however, but, on the contrary, after all, nevertheless, still, and yet, notwithstanding, at the same time.
  • Concession: although, after all, naturally, it may be admitted, of course.
  • Exemplification: for example, for instance, in particular, specifically, in fact, incidentally, in other words.
  • Result, consequence: thus, as a result/consequence, in short, hence, therefore, accordingly, then.
  • Passage of time: of late, since, until, thereafter, soon, meanwhile, while, shortly, at length, from this point.
  • Summarisation: to conclude, to sum up, on the whole, in a nutshell, in brief.
  • Miscellaneous: without doubt, the question which arises, so far so good, in spite paradoxically, at the outset, as a matter of fact.

The paragraphs combine to build up the thesis of the essay. Neither the sentences nor the paragraphs can be though of as independent units. An essay is an organic whole in which part is fused into another. The conclusion a clever lawyer does not sum up a case simply by repeating the established facts. Instead, the lawyer hammers home the conclusion to be drawn from the facts: the unquestionable guilt (or innocent) of the accused. Try to think of your closing paragraph on similar lines.

The conclusion of an essay should carry the natural climax of the subject. It must growth out of the body of the essay and not be abrupt or seem imposed or forced. It should either put the point of the essay in afresh light or embody the thesis that has been developed through the essays. It is best not to be categorical, but the conclusion should give a sense of finality to the composition.


The subject and its organisation may not be enough to make your essay leave an impact on your reader. How you present the matter is equally important. Part of the presentation is, off course, the form of framework you adopt. It has should be suitable for the subject at hand. Logical development of ideas is important, too. The tones or perspective–humorous, ironic, serious, meditative, argumentative–should harmonies with the subject matter. Beside, attention must be paid to the mechanics of writing–spelling, punctuation, grammar and usage.


  1. Consider the title carefully – what its means and what its scope is. Is it asking you to generalise, establish a particular view, or take your own stand? If you do not agree with what a little states categorically do not attempt the essay, for generally you are not expected to argue against the title (some writers, no doubt, can do it but it requires flair and self-confidence). In this context, you may compare these two titles – “India is not fit to be a democracy” and “Is India fit to be a democracy?” The first requires you to support the statement, while the second allows you to choice your own view.
  2. Select a perspective and pattern to developing your thesis. Jot down your points and arrange them in the pattern without losing sight of your perspective.
  3. Use word effectively. This does not mean using a difficult words or “flowery” language. What is implies is that each word should contribute to the development or explanation of the idea. It is best to avoid archaic and obsolete usage; some examples–albeit, ere, methink and trow. Foreign words, unless they have achieved currency in English, had better be left out. Also to be avoided is slang, even what is known by journalese, i.e., words coins by journalist and newspapers for effect. A recent edition of a standard dictionary will help you to identify such slang expressions. Effective use of words also requires you to know which word to use and where. There are several synonymous words, but they are not always interchangeable.
  4. Stay clear of clichés or time worn-idioms, such as “keeping the wolf from the door”, “from the frying pan into the fire”. Sayings such as “variety is the spice of life”, “there is no time to stare and stand” have been overused and are thus hackneyed.
  5. If you have a good memory, you may be tempted to strew your essay with quotations to emphasise your point of view. Resist the temptation firmly. Quatations become dangerous props indicating by their presence the writer’s lack of ideas or inability to express what he or she feels. If you have to use quotations, use them rarely and only in context where they give depth to an idea.
  6. Check your writing for unnecessary repetition. Some avoidable repetitions:
    · Arun is never late for work; he is always either early or on time.
    · Mrs. Gupta kept her house spotless, and it was perfectly clean.
    In all these cases, the effectiveness of what is being said cab be doubled by saying it only once. The passage below exemplifies the kind of mindless use of words you should avoid. Mistaken for argumentation, it merely epitomizes the art of saying nothing in so many words.
  7. Check your writing for correctness. There is no place for ungrammatical sentences in an essay. And do not risk using words, phrases, expressions about whose meaning or correctness you are not sure. Avoid long and rambling sentences in which you as well as the reader may get lost.
  8. An essay is certainly bound to reflect the personality and views of the writer. However, it would be pragmatic, from the point of view of an examination, to keep extreme opinions to oneself and not express idiosyncrasies.
  9. Be clear, lucid and simple and you cannot go far wrong.

I hope this short article will help you to make a better essay. Good Luck!

New Delhi,
Pan Mohamad Faiz
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[1] Summarized from the “Book of Essays”.
[2] Writer is a Postgraduate Student of M.C.L. (Master of Comparative Law) at Faculty of Law, University of Delhi and a Researcher at The Constitutional Court of The Republic of Indonesia.


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