In its loosest definition, a written essay is any short piece of nonfiction. In a more specific definition, an essay goes beyond the mere facts of a newspaper article and includes analysis of facts and opinion about them. Essay writing is an essential skill and is taught in almost all middle schools and high schools. While almost anyone can write an essay, good essay writing is a rarer skill.
There are several different types of essays: formal or informal, personal or impersonal. Subject matter can range from personal experiences to literary criticism to analysis of current news events. An essay can compare similarities and differences between two or more books, movies, or events. It can explore causes and reasons for current or historical events, or recount lessons learned from significant life experiences. Good essay writing can be merely descriptive, but the best essays are also persuasive.
A very basic form of essay is the five-paragraph theme, which is taught in most high schools. It is very structured and formulaic:
Paragraph 1: begins with a statement of the topic and a description of how it will be discussed. It will list three aspects or points about the topic that will each be treated in a separate following paragraph. The first paragraph should move from a general statement to specific details.
Paragraphs 2, 3, and 4: each paragraph covers one of the three points outlined in paragraph 1.
Paragraph 5: summarizes the points covered in the earlier paragraphs and draws a conclusion about them.
While very common and useful in many situations, the five-paragraph format can be limiting. Some topics have more than three sub-topics that need to be discussed. In order to cover a subject in depth, such as in a college-level term paper or thesis, five paragraphs simply aren't enough.
All good essays have three main parts: an introduction, an argument, and a conclusion. The introduction contains a thesis statement which describes the subject of the essay and how it will be treated. The introductory section outlines the basics of the argument that will be discussed in detail in the following section. Good essay writing uses the introduction to grab the readers' attention and pique their interest in the topic. It draws readers in and makes them want to read what follows.
The argument section includes factual material but goes beyond the facts to analyze relationships, relative importance, causes and effects, or the impact of events on the people involved. The argument can have as many sub-points as necessary to thoroughly cover the subject. The word "argument" as used here does not mean hostile confrontation; rather, it is simply the outline of the writer's point of view. The argument section explains the writer's view, and may or may not attempt to convince the reader to adopt it.
After fully developing the argument, a good essay ends with a conclusion section. In the conclusion the main points of the argument are reviewed and summarized, and ideally tied together. This is where lessons learned will be described and the importance of the topic emphasized. The conclusion is the writer's last opportunity to persuade the reader.