What’s the point of an essay? — Genre & Form

In the classic sense, the purpose or point of an essay is to create meaning.

Nowadays, essays can mean many different things, but let’s stick with where the word comes from. Essay means “to try” in French. When you write an essay, you make an attempt to understand something.

Michel de Montaigne (1533 – 1592) popularized the form with “Les Essais,” a collection of personal reflections on major events of his time and common occurrences that held his curiosity: friendship, smells, thumbs, inequality, books, cannibals, romantic love, war, religion, etc.

Here’s a fun video about him:

Essays are practiced around the world now because they are very useful tools for thinking. In the process of writing an essay, you will often discover material you didn’t know was present in your mind. Also, it can be elucidating to have your words reflected back to you.

Zadie Smith
Zadie Smith

For an essay in the tradition of Montaigne, the point is to discover the point. The essay tests your openness for change and deep perception. In the course of writing a really good essay, you will likely uncover new perspectives. Aspects of your identity you thought were obvious may prove to be more complicated. You will need to grow as a person in order to accommodate this new knowledge. One of my favorite essay collections embodies this process in the title; it’s called Changing My Mind by Zadie Smith.

Classic essays can be about anything. They can incorporate anything. They’re also fun and rewarding to read because as the writer progresses from ignorance to knowledge, so does the reader. Ultimately, an essay tests your ability to move from ambiguity to clarity, a skill you will need to demonstrate throughout your collegiate and professional career.

Below are some common kinds of essays you can apply to your own work.

Essay Genre

For the purposes of this post, genre refers to the content of an essay:

  • Is the essay about one’s self? Basketball? Video games? Pioneers in K-pop? The meaning of yellow across time and cultures?

Form, also known as style, refers to what the essay literally looks like:

  • Does the essay use bullet points? Are parts redacted? Is it in first, second, or third person? Does the chronology start at the end then work backwards?

For centuries, artists, scholars, and writers have debated whether you can actually separate form and content. By the end of this post, you can decide for yourself if genre/content and form/style can actually be separated.

Here are some common essay genres:

  • Expository — expository literally means “to explain.” This essay by Véronique Hyland explains the name “millennial pink.” Other expository essays explain how Greenland received its name, how penicillin works, or the impact of Josephine Baker on American culture and Black identity (the last essay is by Hanif Abdurraqib and you can read it here).
  • Narrative — like a novel or book, an essay can visually relay events as they happened. This is what Ariel Levy powerfully does in her essay “Thanksgiving in Mongolia” and Richard Wright in an excerpt called “Writing and Reading” from his memoir Black Boy
  • Analytic — this genre analyzes a complex phenomenon, often using academic sources or relatively complex language to uncover fundamental but unseen truths. Some examples include Cathy Park Hong‘s analysis of comedy in race (from from Minor Feelings) and Elaine Scarry‘s “On Beauty and Being Just.”
  • Academic — some writers wish to expand the discourse on a topic. Paula Gunn Allen wanted literature scholars to be attuned to how colonialism impacts the translation of Indigenous works. Her powerful essay is called “Kochinnenako in Academe: Three Approaches to Interpreting a Keres Indian Tale.”
  • Reported — these essays often require talking to a few (or hundreds) of people. Some examples include “Your Body, His Instagram,” by Katherine Laidlaw, which considers plastic surgeons who livestream their surgeries; “The Museum of Broken Hearts,” by Leslie Jamison, about how people from around the globe deal with breakups as seen through a museum in Croatia; and “Once Upon a Quinceanera” by Julia Alvarez.
  • Persuasive – a persuasive essay inspires you to take action or think in a new way. Some examples are Roxane Gay‘s “The Careless Language of Sexual Violence.”; Dave Barry‘s “A Journey into My Colon — and Yours“; Susan Sontag’s “Against Interpretation.”
  • Travel — a writer of a travel essay has gone through unfamiliar landscapes and is ready to return and share how they have been changed by their travels. Some amazing examples are James Baldwin‘s “A Stranger in the Village” and “Ikons and Mermaids” by Gwendolyn MacEwen.
  • Sports — Examples: “How Tracey Austin Broke My Heart” by David Foster Wallace; “Champion of the World” by Maya Angelou; “Out in the Great Alone” by Brian Phillips.
  • Personal — this essay uses personal experience to understand a larger phenomenon. One famous example is George Orwell‘s “Shooting an Elephant,” which looks at the distorting effect of colonialism on the colonizer. Personal essays can be funny, too, without losing urgency: “My Bachelorette Application” by Samantha Irby; “I Feel Bad About My Neck” by Nora Ephron considers aging; “Hejira” by David Sedaris on being outed.

Essay Forms

Now that you’ve glimpsed the range of genres out there, let’s consider how writers represent those genres.

The appearance of an essay is called its form. In general, the form depends on the content and how the audience will best receive that content. You can remember this with the phrase “Form follows function.”

Depending on what you want your essay to do, you can mix and match the following forms:

Numbers & Alphabets:

In Dear Friend, From My Life I Write to You in Your Life, Yiyun Li structures an intense and beautiful personal essay with an linear, logical system that can hold her emotions:

In Bad Feminist, Roxane Gay uses subpoints to humorously interrogate the sexism that can complicate female relationships.

In the title essay from the collection When You Learn the Alphabet, Kendra Allen uses the alphabet to tell the story of a young Black woman growing up in the U.S.

Epistolary — Letters, Tweets, Captions

Sometimes writing to one specific person or group can focus your work. A clear perspective of your audience can also add urgency, since you can sense what they needed to know.

Ta-Nehisi Coates begins his bestselling memoir Between the World and Me with a direct address to his son:

The poet and memoirist Mary Karr has a similar entry point to her work. Here’s how she starts her memoir, Lit:

More and more writers are also including Tweets, emails, and blog posts to more effectively convey their search for and articulation of meaning.

Jill Louise Busby uses emails and blog posts to analyze hypocrisies in the seemingly Woke:

Time

Essay writers also have to decide how to best present the order of events.

Some start in medias res (in the middle) where the audience enters in the middle of the action, then hears some backstory (or foreshadowing), then is returned to the middle of the action, and the story continues until the end. The works really well in Janet Mock‘s Redefining Realness.

Your story may best be revealed backwards, e.g., Stuart: a Life Backwards by Alexander Masters.

Most stories are told linearly (beginning, middle, and end), and while I’m all for wild invention, this linear format holds up again and again because it’s clear and easy to build tension. Some linear stories use the calmness of this form to reveal something shocking: “The Fourth State of Matter” by Jo Ann Beard and “My Murder’s Futon” by Sarah Viren are two examples.

Photos

Some essays begin with just a photo.

With incredible economy, Christopher Sorrentino sketches his father’s life while reckoning with their relationship in his essay “Portrait of My Father.”

Édouard Louis uses the same method to understand his mother in his long essay (sometimes billed as a novella) called A Woman’s Battles and Transformations:

Definitions, Quotes & Subheaders

Some essays begin by trying to understand aspects of a definition, quote, or family expression. In this case, you can structure your essay based on different aspects of a phrase that you find captivating.

In his essay about family secrets and racial passing, “College Application #2” uses subheaders that unpack various definitions of “passing.”

This has been a broad overview of two major considerations in writing an essay — selecting a genre and determining a form. Future posts and discussions will clarify and expand upon these topics.

Until then, happy essaying!

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