Although the basic requirements for a good essay are well known, they are often forgotten or neglected in the heat of the moment, when students are called upon to write one in an examination. It would, therefore, seem opportune to begin this essay on essay writing with a swift recollection of exactly what those requirements are. Firstly, at the level of structure, the essay writer is bound to a strict format with little scope for variation: introduction, the main body of the argument, and the conclusion. Secondly, with regard to the style and the way of writing, no less rigorous criteria have to be observed. The writer of an essay is expected to use standard, if not formal, English and to avoid colloquialisms and anything that might be considered ‘chatty’ or typical only of the spoken language. Thirdly, the writing of an essay requires that special attention be paid to the development of a clear, logical and tightly-knit line of argument which leaves the reader in no doubt as to the writer’s point of view and the reasons underlying it.
If we consider first of all the introduction to the essay, one point is of supreme importance. The purpose of the introduction is to make clear to the reader from the outset what lies in store for him. Although there are several ways of achieving this aim, some would seem to be less helpful than others. The widespread practice of simply regurgitating the examination question more or less verbatim, for example, baffles the reader who has just read that very the task himself and provides him with little information about the course the writer intends to pursue. In contrast, there is much to be said for the idea of using the introduction to give the reader an inkling of what the rest of the essay is about by letting him know the essay writer’s general opinion on the subject to be dealt with. In an essay investigating the validity of a quotation, for instance, the most obvious thing to do in the introduction would be to make clear to what extent one agrees or disagrees with the author of the quotation. In this way, the reader would be put in the right frame of mind with which to approach the rest of the essay, expecting to encounter partial, considerable or wholehearted agreement with the quotation or, conversely, little, extensive or complete disagreement.
The main body of the essay should be devoted to the various individual aspects of the subject under discussion. In the case of an essay based on a quotation, for example, the different claims made by the author quoted could be subjected to scrutiny with one paragraph dedicated to each assertion. In the absence of a quotation, the examination question itself might turn out, on closer investigation, to yield suitable topics for each of the paragraphs in the main body.
The conclusion of the essay is probably the most difficult part to provide hard-and-fast advice on. Nevertheless, two points should be highlighted in connection with the concluding paragraph. Firstly, it should round off the essay in some way, leaving the reader in no doubt that the final part of the writer’s line of argument has been reached, and, if possible, providing some kind of inference from or summing-up of things already stated before. Secondly, the conclusion should not merely reproduce what has already been said – for example, in the introduction – but should offer some new insight. One possible way of fullfilling both of these requirements would be to finish off the essay with an explanation for the opinion expressed in the preceding paragraphs. In the case of the assessment of a view put forward in a quotation, such an explanation could be linked to the person of the author of the quotation or to the time and place of writing. For example, it would hardly be surprising for Western Europeans writing at the beginning of the 21st century to find themselves in complete disagreement with a South African politician propounding the racist doctrines of the Apartheid régime in the 1960s.
On the question of the style and way of writing to which the writer of an essay should aspire it is much easier to offer clear-cut advice. The language of the essay should conform to the norms of standard written English and should be formal rather than informal. Short forms such as ‘can’t, he’s, I’ve’ must be written out in full. Likewise, slang and colloquial expressions normally have no place in an essay. ‘Kids’ must become ‘children’, ‘awesome gear’ must turn into ‘impressive attire’. (Even in a formal essay, there may, however, be circumstances in which it is appropriate to fall back on an informal term, which, in such cases, should be enclosed by inverted commas. In an essay on the importance of television to the British working classes in the 1950s and 1960s, for instance, it would be strange if the word ‘telly’ did not occur at some point, as the word itself is part of the topic.) In addition to meeting the demands of written English concerning spelling and vocabulary, the essay writer must also fulfil certain expectations regarding syntax. Although parataxis, the stringing together of simple main clauses, is perfectly acceptable in spoken English, where it does not cause any raised eyebrows, hypotaxis, the use of subordinate clauses and complex sentence structures, is definitely a driving force in the formal essay.
Intimately linked to the importance of the use of complex syntax in the essay is the final point I wish to deal with – the development of a clear, logical and tightly-knit line of argument. This can be achieved in several ways. Firstly, the division of the essay into paragraphs introduced by topic sentences and devoted to one particular subject each gives the reader a clear guide to the overall structure of the argumentation. Secondly, the use of appropriate conjunctions and other connectives indicates the logical links between the individual points in the chain of argumentation. Lastly, the use of striking examples to illustrate each individual argument can greatly enhance the clarity and effectiveness of the essay as a whole and thereby increase the likelihood of convincing the reader.
In conclusion, it must be admitted that the task of fulfilling all the requirements of a formal essay may seem very daunting indeed, and when today I reread my first attempts at the ‘genre’ as a young undergraduate, I can only blush with shame. However, experience has taught me that practice in this field as in many others, even if it does not always make perfect, usually leads to considerable improvements. And there I rest my case.