TUMBY BAY - Who can remember the dreaded Monday afternoon announcement by your lecturer, “I want a 500 word essay on what we’ve been discussing on my desk by Friday morning, no excuses!”
Essays are the bane of every student’s life but what exactly is an essay?
They come in many forms and, in length, can range from a few hundred to several thousand words.
And they are an odd - but specific - form of writing.
They can range from the serious to the light-hearted and can be informative and moral, and also informal and flexible.
Usually, however, essays should never preach or rant.
A good essay doesn’t have to be structured logically or to be the last word on a matter. It is allowable to leave the reader uncertain about how the argument will develop.
It also doesn’t have to be final. It can raise an issue and speculate about it. It can canvas facts and evidence without reaching a conclusion.
An essay doesn’t have to set out arguments in logical order like a lawyer might do in court (expect your teacher or lecturer to argue against this).
An essay can be more personal and reflective as if the author is thinking aloud. It can appear as a set of free associations made by an active mind.
The word essay comes from basic French verb, ‘essayer’, meaning to try. In English, too, as a verb, it can mean to try.
As long ago as the 1500s, Michel de Montaigne described his attempts to put his thoughts into writing as essays.
In the twentieth century the English writer and essayist, Aldous Huxley, said that “the essay is a literary device for saying almost everything about almost anything".
Within that definition he included the personal, the autobiographical, the objective and the factual.
At the personal level, anecdote and description are important. At the factual and objective level, themes and data from which general conclusions can be drawn are important.
The best essays are usually a combination of the above elements but may also include abstractions that don’t directly relate to personal experience or facts.
Structured and formatted essays, in the sense your high school teacher means, are a relatively recent invention. One important function is to improve the writing skills of students but they are also used to improve (through research) or show your knowledge.
In that sense they are a constrained form of essay used to judge your mastery and comprehension of a subject you are studying.
The formality of school essays, while useful in gauging a student’s ability to understand, constrain the kind of free-wheeling expression promoted by writers like de Montaigne and Huxley.
If you want to see what a good essay looks like you can go to masters like George Orwell but in the Papua New Guinean context one of the best exponents was the late Francis Nii.
What both George Orwell and Francis Nii excelled at was adding a political context to the form.
Neither of them did this overtly and neither of them engaged in propaganda – although that in itself was a subject they occasionally wrote critically about.
Orwell wrote two hugely popular and influential books late in his career, Animal Farm and 1984, but his greatest writing was done earlier in the form of essays.
If you want to read a good example try his 1946 essay ‘Why I write’. You can read it by following this link. https://www.orwellfoundation.com/the-orwell-foundation/orwell/essays-and-other-works/why-i-write/
If you want to read an essay by Francis Nii, I’d recommend his award winning 2013 essay, ‘If Dekla says Papua New Guinea is Eden, then it is’. You can read it here. https://www.pngattitude.com/2013/08/if-dekla-says-papua-new-guinea-is-eden-then-it-is.html
Alternatively you can read his whole collection by in ‘Man Bilong Buk: The Francis Nii Collection’. It’s available for free download here. https://www.typepad.com/site/blogs/6a00d83454f2ec69e200d8341f8ea053ef/page/6a00d83454f2ec69e2026be4130d2b200d/edit
If you follow these suggestions you will discover that reading essays is a delight and, funnily enough, entirely different to what you might have experienced at school or university.