Panic and despair are the reactions of many students when asked to write an essay. It does not matter that so many of us are constantly communicating through social media, which is immediate and short in length. By contrast, the essay demands and requires time and thought.
The modern essay is from Michel de Montaigne (1553-1592), who coined the term essai, from the French verb, essayer, to try or attempt. Non-fiction writing about ideas and thoughts goes back to the ancients. For centuries people have expressed their ideas and opinions about a variety of subjects: from the benefits of eating raisins to serious political and scientific ideas.
Throughout their education, students will be writing essays, and the best way to improve is to write, write, write. For the rest of us, we may find it necessary to create a form of essay when writing to a public official, a bank, a neighbor, or a company complaining about a product. All of us need to write more so that we can better express our thoughts clearly to someone else.
When writing an essay, you need to apply at least two types of critical thinking. First, you will be thinking about your subject. When you have finished the essay, you need to look at your own work with a critical eye, which you may have to do several times.
The University of North Carolina’s Chapel Hill Writing Center has an excellent section on their website for Tips and Tools. There are documents on a variety of topics to help students write and write well. They even have a document about “Procrastination” and how to overcome it. I highly recommend this site.
Included in the following list of collections of essays, are the works of three women: Joan Didion, M. F. K. Fisher, and Ursula K. Le Guin, who are the three modern graces or goddesses of essays. True originals, their essays are concise, evocative, surprising, and have unique writing styles.
When reading a collection of essays, it is not necessary to read them sequentially as listed in the book. Look at the table of contents and/or index, and select something that interests you, and proceed from there. And for what it’s worth, what you have just read is an essay, one that I hope is informative and convincing.
Essays for Essays' Sake
Here are some other essayists to consider: paleontologist, Stephen Jay Gould; social critic and novelist, Susan Sontag; poet, novelist, and film critic, James Agee; journalist and contributor to The New Yorker, A. J. Liebling; best known as the author of the children’s classic Madeline, Ludwig Bemelmans; journalist, food writer and wit, Calvin Trillin.