AskDefine | Define essay

Dictionary Definition



1 an analytic or interpretive literary composition
2 a tentative attempt


1 make an effort or attempt; "He tried to shake off his fears"; "The infant had essayed a few wobbly steps"; "The police attempted to stop the thief"; "He sought to improve himself"; "She always seeks to do good in the world" [syn: try, seek, attempt, assay]
2 put to the test, as for its quality, or give experimental use to; "This approach has been tried with good results"; "Test this recipe" [syn: test, prove, try, try out, examine]

User Contributed Dictionary




From essai.


  1. A test, experiment; an assay.
  2. An attempt.
  3. A written composition of moderate length exploring a particular issue or subject.


an attempt
written composition


en-verb [[]]
  1. To try.
  2. To move forth, as into battle.


To try

Extensive Definition

An essay''' is a short piece of writing, from an author's personal point of view. Essays are non-fiction but often subjective; while expository, they can also include narrative. Essays can be literary criticism, political manifestos, learned arguments, observations of daily life, recollections, and reflections of the author.
The definition of an essay is vague, overlapping with those of an article and a short story. Almost all modern essays are written in prose, but works in verse have been dubbed essays (e.g. Alexander Pope's An Essay on Criticism and An Essay on Man). While brevity usually defines an essay, voluminous works like John Locke's An Essay Concerning Human Understanding and Thomas Malthus's An Essay on the Principle of Population provide counterexamples.
It is very difficult to define the genre into which essays fall. The following remarks by Aldous Huxley, a leading essayist, may help:
"Like the novel, the essay is a literary device for saying almost everything about almost anything. By tradition, almost by definition, the essay is a short piece, and it is therefore impossible to give all things full play within the limits of a single essay. But a collection of essays can cover almost as much ground, and cover it almost as thoroughly, as can a long novel. Montaigne's Third Book is the equivalent, very nearly, of a good slice of the Comédie Humaine. Essays belong to a literary species whose extreme variability can be studied most effectively within a three-poled frame of reference. There is the pole of the personal and the autobiographical; there is the pole of the objective, the factual, the concrete-particular; and there is the pole of the abstract-universal. Most essayists are at home and at their best in the neighborhood of only one of the essay's three poles, or at the most only in the neighborhood of two of them. There are the predominantly personal essayists, who write fragments of reflective autobiography and who look at the world through the keyhole of anecdote and description. There are the predominantly objective essayists who do not speak directly of themselves, but turn their attention outward to some literary or scientific or political theme. … And how splendid, how truly oracular are the utterances of the great generalizers! … The most richly satisfying essays are those which make the best not of one, not of two, but of all the three worlds in which it is possible for the essay to exist" (Collected Essays, "Preface").


The word essay derives from the French infinitive essayer, 'to try' or 'to attempt'. In English essay first meant 'a trial' or 'an attempt', and this is still an alternative meaning. The first author to describe his works as essays was the Frenchman Michel de Montaigne (1533-1592); he used the term to characterize these as 'attempts' to put his thoughts adequately into writing. Inspired in particular by the works of Plutarch, a translation of whose Oeuvres morales (Moral works) into French had just been published by Jacques Amyot, Montaigne began to compose his essays in 1572; the first edition, entitled Essais, was published in two volumes in 1580. For the rest of his life he continued revising previously published essays and composing new ones.
Francis Bacon's essays, published in book form in 1597, 1612, and 1625, were the first works in English that described themselves as essays. Ben Jonson first used the word essayist in English in 1609, according to the Oxford English Dictionary.

The essay as a pedagogical tool

In recent times, essays have become a major part of a formal education. Secondary students are taught structured essay formats to improve their writing skills, and essays are often used by universities in selecting applicants (see admissions essay). In both secondary and tertiary education, essays are used to judge the mastery and comprehension of material. Students are asked to explain, comment on, or assess a topic of study in the form of an essay.
Academic essays are usually more formal than literary ones. They may still allow the presentation of the writer's own views, but this is done in a logical and factual manner, with the use of the first person often discouraged.

The five-paragraph essay

Some students' first exposure to the genre is the five paragraph essay, a highly structured form requiring an introduction presenting the thesis statement; three body paragraphs, each of which presents an idea to support the thesis together with supporting evidence and quotations; and a conclusion, which restates the thesis and summarizes the supporting points. The use of this format is controversial. Proponents argue that it teaches students how to organize their thoughts clearly in writing; opponents characterize its structure as rigid and repetitive.

Academic essays

Longer academic essays (often with a word limit of between 2,000 to 5,000 words) are often more discursive. They sometimes begin with a short summary analysis of what has previously been written on a topic, which is often called a literature review. Longer essays may also contain an introductory page in which words and phrases from the title are tightly defined. Most academic institutions will require that all substantial facts, quotations, and other supporting material used in an essay be referenced in a bibliography or works cited page at the end of the text. This scholarly convention allows others (whether teachers or fellow scholars) to understand the basis of the facts and quotations used to support the essay's argument, and thereby help to evaluate to what extent the argument is supported by evidence, and to evaluate the quality of that evidence. The academic essay tests the student's ability to present their thoughts in an organized way and tests their intellectual capabilities. Some types of essays are:


Essays in which the writer pulls out the main thesis and outline of a particular paper, and then writes an essay in his or her own style.
Synthesis Essays

Non-literary essays

Visual Arts

In the visual arts, an essay is a preliminary drawing or sketch upon which a final painting or sculpture is based, made as a test of the work's composition (this meaning of the term, like several of those following, comes from the word essays meaning of "attempt" or "trial").


In the realm of music, composer Samuel Barber wrote a set of "Essays for Orchestra," relying on the form and content of the music to guide the listener's ear, rather than any extra-musical plot or story.


Film essays are cinematic forms of the essay, with the film consisting of the evolution of a theme or an idea rather than a plot per se; or the film literally being a cinematic accompaniment to a narrator reading an essay. From another perspective, an essay film could be defined as a documentary film visual basis combined with a form of commentary that contains elements of self-portrait (rather than autobiography), where the signature (rather than the life-story) of the filmmaker is apparent. The genre is not well-defined but might include works of early Soviet documentarians like Dziga Vertov, or present-day filmmakers like Michael Moore or Errol Morris. The undisputed master of the essay film is French documentarian Chris Marker. Perhaps the most illuminating film theorist who has treated the essay form in film and video is Raymond Bellour.
Jean-Luc Godard describes his recent work as "film-essays" (discussion of film essays)


A photographic essay is an attempt to cover a topic with a linked series of photographs.


  • Theodor W. Adorno, The Essay as Form in: Theodor W. Adorno, The Adorno Reader, Blackwell Publishers 2000
  • Beaujour, Michel. Miroirs d'encre: Rhétorique de l'autoportrait. Paris: Seuil, 1980. [Poetics of the Literary Self-Portrait. Trans. Yara Milos. New York: NYU Press, 1991].
  • Bensmaïa, Reda. The Barthes Effect: The Essay as Reflective Text. Trans. Pat Fedkiew. Minneapolis: Univ. of Minnesota Press, 1987.

External links

How to write an essay

wikibooks How to write an essay
essay in Belarusian (Tarashkevitsa): Эсэ
essay in Bosnian: Esej
essay in Bulgarian: Есе
essay in Catalan: Assaig
essay in Czech: Esej
essay in Danish: Essay
essay in German: Essay
essay in Estonian: Essee
essay in Spanish: Ensayo
essay in Esperanto: Eseo
essay in French: Essai
essay in Galician: Ensaio (literatura)
essay in Hindi: निबंध
essay in Croatian: Esej
essay in Interlingua (International Auxiliary Language Association): Essayo
essay in Italian: Saggio
essay in Hebrew: מסה (חיבור עיוני)
essay in Georgian: ესეი
essay in Lithuanian: Esė
essay in Hungarian: Esszé
essay in Macedonian: Есеј
essay in Malayalam: ഉപന്യാസം
essay in Dutch: Essay
essay in Japanese: 随筆
essay in Norwegian: Essay
essay in Polish: Esej
essay in Portuguese: Ensaio
essay in Romanian: Eseu
essay in Russian: Эссе
essay in Simple English: Essay
essay in Slovak: Esej
essay in Slovenian: Esej
essay in Serbian: Есеј
essay in Finnish: Essee
essay in Swedish: Essä
essay in Tamil: கட்டுரை
essay in Thai: เรียงความ
essay in Turkish: Deneme (edebiyat)
essay in Ukrainian: Есе
essay in Chinese: 杂文

Synonyms, Antonyms and Related Words

acid test, approach, article, assay, attempt, autograph, bid, blank determination, brainchild, bring to test, brouillon, causerie, chance, composition, computer printout, confirm, copy, crack, criterion, crucial test, crucible, cut and try, descant, determination, discourse, discussion, disquisition, dissertation, docimasy, document, draft, edited version, effort, endeavor, engage, engrossment, etude, examination, excursus, exertion, experiment, explication, exposition, fair copy, feature, feeling out, fiction, final draft, finished version, first approach, first draft, flimsy, fling, gambit, give a try, give a tryout, go, go about, hassle, have a go, holograph, homily, introductory study, kiteflying, labor, letter, lick, lift a finger, literae scriptae, literary artefact, literary production, literature, lucubration, make an attempt, make an effort, manuscript, matter, memoir, monograph, morceau, move, nonfiction, note, offer, opus, ordeal, original, outline, pandect, paper, paragraph, parchment, penscript, piece, piece of writing, play, play around with, poem, practice upon, preliminary study, printed matter, printout, probation, production, prolegomenon, proof, prove, put to trial, reading matter, recension, research, research paper, road-test, rough draft, rough sketch, run a sample, sample, screed, scrip, script, scrive, scroll, second draft, seek, shake down, shot, sketch, sounding out, special article, stab, standard, step, strive, striving, stroke, strong bid, struggle, study, substantiate, survey, tackle, taste, tentative, term paper, test, test case, the written word, theme, thesis, toil, touchstone, tract, tractate, transcript, transcription, travail, treatise, treatment, trial, trial and error, try, try it on, try out, typescript, undertake, undertaking, validate, venture, venture on, venture upon, verification, verify, version, whack, work, writing
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