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 regime 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.