1.2 What is an essay?
The different arts and humanities subjects make their own particular demands on you. You may have to do various kinds of writing – diaries, logs, project reports, case-studies – or even write creatively. In this chapter, though, we are going to concentrate on the essay because that is by far the most common form of writing in arts and humanities subjects.
The word ‘essay’ originally meant ‘an attempt’ or try at something, but now it usually means a short piece of writing on a specific subject. It is a complete piece of writing that can stand alone – it must make sense to the reader ‘in itself’. You are given an essay title or question, which sets out the isues you need to address, and a word limit of around one or two thousand words – possibly a bit shorter to begin with. You work from the title, putting together an argument that leads the reader towards a conclusion. Your tutor marks your essay, making comments not only about what you have said but also the way you have structured and written the essay. These ‘criticisms’ are meant to help you develop both your grasp of the subject and your powers of expression. So an essay opens up a teaching–learning dialogue between you and your teacher. In fact, it does still have some of the original sense of ‘trying your hand’ at something, with the idea that you can get better at it through practice.
Your tutor will usually grade your essay too, so that you can see where you ‘stand’ in relation to whatever standards apply to your course. This means that, over time, you can see what kind of progress you are making. However, you should not see essay-writing simply as something to be endured because your work must be assessed. It is an essential part of the learning process. When you look back over a course you have studied, you will find that the topics you have written about are the ones you understand most clearly and remember best.
Writing essays is a very important part of studying because:
it deepens your learning of the subject you are studying;
you learn to use ideas to argue a case;
it enables you to enter into a dialogue with your tutor through which you can extend and refine your thinking, and your writing skills;
it enables your tutor to assess your progress.