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Essay and report writing skills
Essay and report writing skills

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4.3 Essays

Now let's turn to essays.

Activity 4

Note down in your Learning Journal what you consider to be the purpose of an essay.


Michel de Montaigne, a French philosopher, developed the essay form in the 16th century. The term itself derives from the French word essai meaning ‘testing’ or ‘trying out’. The purpose was (and still remains):

To try out or test a proposition or ideas in the context of other thinkers and in the light of personal experience and judgement.

In Montaigne's day, the idea of applying your personal assessment to issues, rather than deferring to authority, was quite revolutionary. If you look ahead to the sample essay questions in Activity 9 (don't worry about how you would answer these questions; they are drawn from a wide range of subjects and levels), you can see how this approach applies. In most of them, you are given a statement to test, to try out the arguments and opinions for and against a particular position by demonstrating a use of evidence.

The essay should guide the reader from the issue(s) raised in the title to a conclusion, by developing a clear and logical line of thought so that the reader is not side-tracked by points that are not directly relevant. It is normally in the form of continuous prose, using paragraphs but probably not using headings or numbers. This means that, while the essay may be broken up into paragraphs, generally the writing flows along without interruption.

An essay needs:

  • an introduction, telling the reader what the essay is about;

  • a main body, containing the ‘meat’ of the essay, where you outline your particular point of view, while demonstrating awareness of other perspectives or interpretation;

  • a conclusion, summarising the content of the essay clearly and concisely.