What Is an Essay?

The are various definitions for “essay.” But here, we will focus on the definition that’s become a significant element of education in such countries as the United States, Canada, the United Kingdom, and Australia.

If summarized within the academic context:

An essay is a short nonfictional piece of formal writing assigned to students to improve their writing skills or assess their knowledge of a given subject.

Alternative definitions:

  1. According to Frederick Crews, professor of English at the University of California at Berkeley, an essay is “a fairly brief piece of nonfiction that tries to make a point in an interesting way.”
  2. Aldous Huxley, a famous essayist, notes that “the essay is a literary device for saying almost everything about almost anything” and divides essays into personal-biographical, objectively-factual, and abstract-universal.
  3. The Oxford Dictionary defines it as “a short piece of writing on a particular subject.”

Note: Apart from the educational purpose, essays (also called papers or reports) are often required when applying to colleges and universities to help them select the best applicants during the admissions.

If you study the origin of the word, you might understand its purpose better. The word “essay” derives from the Middle French word essayer, which in its turn comes from Latin exigere meaning “to test,” “examine,” and “drive out.”

the origin of the word essay

This “archaeological” linguistic journey reveals the idea behind essays, which is encouraging learners to examine their ideas concerning a particular topic in-depth and test them. By nature, essays are short and require a clearly defined purpose of writing that you must adhere to in your paper.

There’s a lot to be learned from essay writing: critical analysis, observation, interpretation, narration, persuasion, close reading, preparation, and time management. All these skills can be valuable even beyond the school walls.

An essay is generally composed of three parts:

  1. Introduction (hook, background information, and your thesis statement)
  2. Body section (usually, one paragraph for each main idea)
  3. Conclusion

Generally, it must focus on the author’s argument and the evidence that backs it. But, the variety of essay types involves many other forms and styles.

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10 Features of a Good Essay

The structure and characteristics vary, but there are criteria you can apply to almost any essay.


You can find many works like Victor Segalen’s Essay on Exoticism: An Aesthetics of Diversity that span across many pages. But, as an academic assignment, essays are usually concise and range from 200 to 500 words.

Note: To learn more about essay length, check this article — How Long Should my Paper Be?

A narrowed-down topic

Because of the word count limit, your topic cannot be extensive and should focus on one aspect of the subject.

A subject is a broad concept: gun control, US history, WWII, Napoleonic Wars, business ethics, academic dishonesty, school dress code, etc. Those are not topics because you can write books on them.

Choose a more specific topic to cover. Ask yourself “Who? What? Where? When? Why? and How?” questions about the subject matter. That strategy will allow you to limit the number of choices and pick something you like.

For instance, let’s narrow down the gun control subject. Something like “Video games are not the problem, but poor gun control policies are” can be your topic.

Well-structured body paragraphs

In a nutshell, an essay’s body can be described as a series of paragraphs. But, they all have a uniform structure that you must maintain in the paper. It goes as follows:

1. Topic sentence

This is the first sentence, and it expresses the main idea of the paragraph. It acts like a mini-hook that attracts the reader’s attention.

Let’s say you’re working on a descriptive essay about your brother’s room.

Bad topic sentence:

My brother’s room is a mess.

Good topic sentence:

If they gave me one dollar every time I walked into my brother’s room and thought it was clean, I would be dead broke.

2. The main part

Here, you develop your topic sentence further, and there are many ways to do that:

  • Provide facts or statistics
  • Give reasons
  • Illustrate with examples
  • Use relevant quotes
  • Present your opinion
  • Share experiences
  • Leverage human senses

Note: Make sure to cite your sources properly, learn more here — How to Cite Sources (MLA and APA styles).

3. Conclusion with a transition

If you had to write only one paragraph, this is where you would end the narrative. But, in essays, this last sentence serves as a transition to the next idea — the next paragraph.

Clear thesis statement

A thesis is the main idea of your paper. It’s usually one sentence that shows the reader what your essay is about. The challenging part is to squeeze the purpose of your writing into one sentence and in such a way that would make the reader want to debate it.

To check if your thesis statement is correct, make sure:

  • It’s not just an announcement of purpose that starts with “In this paper.”
  • It’s not a question because thesis statements answer not ask.
  • It’s not a mere fact.
  • It’s not a broad topic without a challenging opinion.
  • It’s not a vague thought — make it more focused.
  • It’s not disconnected from the body paragraphs.

Personal motivation

This one seems quite simple, but you won’t always find the answer to the “Why do I want to write about this topic” question easily. Even if the subject feels like the last thing you’d be interested in, there’s always something that can motivate you to write.

The reader will notice if you had zero motivation while writing the essay.

There’s no trick — just start writing. Once you are working on it, brainstorm all the ideas related to the subject. If you find it challenging to organize your thoughts right away, try freewriting — start writing everything that comes to your mind. Yes, there will be a lot of ideas not connected with one another, you can choose the ones making sense and work with them further.

Evidence and examples support claims

Each of your topic sentences in body paragraphs should be supported. You can:

  • Explain what you meant by defining the main terms or phenomena
  • Provide more details about the topic sentence
  • Illustrate with examples, facts, or statistics
  • Cite field experts that support your opinion
  • Share your relevant experience, if any

Use the method you believe is the most appropriate in your case.

Evidence is analyzed

Just facts, statistics, or quotations are not enough. You must analyze the proof and show how you can compare data and establish causal links.

Note: Remember to use cohesive devices like transition words and conjunctions to hold your essay together as one unit.

No grammar mistakes

The last period is placed, and you think, “Finally, it’s done! Now back to the fun stuff.” By doing so, you will hand in an essay that is riddled with mistakes.

Proofreading matters. After the first draft is done, make sure to double-check it for all possible mistakes: grammar, punctuation, word usage, logic flow, etc.

  1. Read it out loud.
  2. Ask your friend or family member to give their opinion.
  3. Put it away for some time to proofread it later.

The structure is consistent

Ensure your paper follows the structure described before. Check if your conclusion and introduction are about the same — the same applies to the body paragraphs.

Note: This article will give you valuable insights into the structure — How to Write an Essay.

It is coherent

Another criterion they use to grade your essay is its coherence (unity). To check this point, ask yourself:

  • Are all ideas related to the essay’s topic and thesis statement?
  • Are all my evidence, arguments, and conclusions connected to my thesis statement?
  • Are all ideas arranged in a logical order?
  • Are there enough linking words? Or is it too many of them?
  • Are there enough pronouns and synonyms so that the essay isn’t repetitive?

The last tip on essay writing: always check your assignment sheet and clarify anything you don’t understand with your tutor or professor. Your college might have some special requirements regarding the content or style. So, make sure you studied all the instructions for the task thoroughly.

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The list of references

  1. What is an essay? — Bow Valley College
  2. Overview of the Academic Essay — Harvard University
  3. Essay Writing — Purdue University
  4. Basic Essay and Paragraph Format — Utah Valley University

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