What is an Essay ?
You might have been writing essays for years and you may have achieved great marks for your assignments, but have you ever stopped to ask: what is an essay, exactly?
If you look the word 'essay' up in a dictionary, you will likely find a definition which goes roughly like this: a short piece of prose writing on a specific topic. Not massively helpful, particularly if - at the time of writing - your word count does not feel very short! But let's pick this definition apart a little.
What do you mean 'short' ? !
...what do you mean by 'prose' ?
... erm, I think I know what 'writing' means.
The Right Balance
An Essay is a Discussion, not a Debate
A useful way to think about this is to consider the difference between a discussion and a debate. If you watch a politician on the news, being grilled by some quick-witted newscaster, it can be either amusing or distressing to see to what lengths they will go in order to avoid conceding a flaw in their argument. This is because they are engaged not in a discussion but a debate. Their aim is not to give all sides of the argument a fair hearing, but to explain their own pre-determined position as clearly and persuasively as possible. They will not present a balanced argument, but will instead choose the facts which best support their stance.
Unlike a debate, a discussion should represent all sides of the argument fairly, never suppressing facts which undermine our position. This is what your essays should be like. In a discussion, and during your essay research, you should always be willing to change your opinion if it is not supported by the facts. Once you are writing your essay, you should know all the facts and have an opinion which takes them all into account.
In writing a balanced essay, you must have an opinion, but you must not be afraid to concede that there are counterarguments or facts which contradict your view. Instead, you should see these as your chance to explain why you still hold your view despite these counterarguments or contradictions. A good way to do this is to start your sentences with words like 'while' and 'although'.
"Culling badgers is an ineffective and inhumane method of controlling bovine tuberculosis." Discuss.
Although there is evidence to suggest that badger culls can reduce the spread of TB in cattle populations, research to date has been largely inconclusive and there are at least as many studies which have presented precisely the opposite findings.
While the needs and interests of rural communities and farmers no doubt have to be taken into account, decisions taken at governmental level should be taken purely on the basis of the science, not in response to the threats of potential voters.
Why do we write Essays at all?
Essays are not just about words, they are about the ideas which those words convey. Getting the right ideas across in the right order is really what essays are all about. So when a teacher or lecturer sets you an essay, they are not simply asking you to churn out some words about a particular topic. Rather, they are asking you to engage with a set of ideas and present them in way which is coherent and persuasive.
When you understand that essays are about ideas, not just words, it becomes much easier to appreciate the many stages of writing an essay, and how important each stage is. If you suffer from the symptoms of using the wrong essay-writing method, the most likely explanation is that you are missing some of these stages. Without researching an essay thoroughly, you won't have the right ideas. Without planning your essay in detail, you won't get your ideas in the right order and the right balance.
Be Critical and Analytical, not just Descriptive
Summarising what happens or who says what is only descriptive and not the way to earn marks. Instead, your writing should be critical and analytical. For example, a student of English should appraise Shakespeare's use of language, i.e. his imagery, diction, stage directions and so on. A student of drama might discuss how a particular director has interpreted the staging of the scene (its lighting, set, mise en scene) , or how an particular actor has delivered their lines to particular effect. This kind of analysis is much more likely to earn marks than superficial description.
Another example might come from business studies. Have a look at this essay...
Discuss the benefits and costs of Just in Time and Just in Case as methods of controlling stock for a small manufacturing business
The 'Just in Time'(JIT) stock-control method maintains supplies at very low levels, according to demand. Raw materials are delivered according to specific orders, with no surplus being held by the company in anticipation of future orders. By contrast, the 'Just in Case' (JIC) method describes a system where companies stockpile materials or supplies for future sale, never letting them run out. Both systems are widely used by businesses of all sizes globally.
Comments: The above paragraph is descriptive: it does not analyse the benefits or the costs of either method, instead limiting itself to superficial description. This might be appropriate for an opening paragraph which 'sets the scene', but would not earn much in the way of marks. Subsequent paragraphs need to be more analytical to get the examiner nodding and ticking.
For a manufacturing business, the key benefit of 'Just in Time' is that very little storage space or upfront financial outlay are required, since no holding stock has to be bought or stored. In 1998, the Norfolk-based manufacturer Feldon Plant reduced its annual costs by £2.67m by changing from JIC to JIT, generating a further £1.25m in the process by selling off warehouse space and land it no longer needed.1 Although client waiting times increased by 11 per cent, customer satisfaction surveys the following year showed no significant change in perceived quality of service, and rival firms were quick to adopt a similar strategy in the years that followed (see Holmes & Burbidge, 2005, pp. 107-111).
Comments: This second paragraph is more critical and analytical. It begins to take a stance in the discussion (in favour of JIT) and starts to support its arguments with statistics.
1Statistics and entities referenced here are fictional and given as examples only.