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Humanities Libertexts

1.3: What is an Essay?

If you were asked to describe an essay in one word, what would that one word be?

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Okay, well, in one word, an essay is an idea.

No idea; no essay.

But more than that, the best essays have original and insightful ideas.

Okay, so the first thing we need to begin an essay is an insightful idea that we wish to share with the reader.

But original and insightful ideas do not just pop up every day.  Where does one find original and insightful ideas?

Let’s start here: an idea is an insight gained from either a) our personal experiences, or b) in scholarship, from synthesizing the ideas of others to create a new idea.

In this class (except for the last essay) we write personal essays; therefore, we will focus mostly on a) personal experience as a source for our ideas.

Life teaches us lessons. We learn from our life experiences. This is how we grow as human beings.  So before you start on your essays, reflect on your life experiences by employing one or more of the brainstorming strategies described in this course. Your brainstorming and prewriting assignments are important assignments because remember: no idea; no essay. Brainstorming can help you discover an idea for your essay. So, ask yourself: What lessons have I learned? What insights have I gained that I can write about and share with my reader? Your reader can learn from you.

Why do we write?

We write to improve our world; it’s that simple.  We write personal essays to address the most problematic and fundamental question of all: What does it mean to be a human being? By sharing the insights and lessons we have learned from our life experiences we can add to our community’s collective wisdom.

We respect the writings of experts. And, guess what; you are an expert! You are the best expert of all on one subject—your own life experiences. So when we write personal essays, we research our own life experiences and describe those experiences with rich and compelling language to convince our reader that our idea is valid.

For example:

For your Narrative essay: do more than simply relate a series of events. Let the events make a point about the central idea you are trying to teach us.

For your Example essay: do more than tell us about your experience. Show us your experience. Describe your examples in descriptive details so that your reader actually experiences for themselves the central idea you wish to teach them.

For the Comparison Contrast essay: do more than simply tell us about the differences and similarities of two things. Evaluate those differences and similarities and draw an idea about them, so that you can offer your reader some basic insight into the comparison.

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Okay, one last comment. Often students say to me: “I am so young; I do not have any meaningful insights in to life.” Okay, well, you may not be able to solve the pressing issues of the day, but think of it this way. What if a younger brother or sister came to you and in an anxious voice said; “I’ve got to do X.  I’ve never had to do X. You’ve had some experience with X.  Can you give me some advice?” You may have some wisdom and insights from your own life experience with X to share with that person. Don’t worry about solving the BIG issues in this class. You can serve the world as well by simply addressing, and bringing to life in words, the problems and life situations that you know best, no matter how mundane. Please notice that with rare exception the essays you will read in this class do not cite outside sources. They are all written from the author’s actual life experiences. So think of your audience as someone who can learn from your life experiences and write to them and for them.

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