Essay Assignment

Purpose and Goals:

The French word from which “essay” is derived means “to try”—not to have the last word on, but to investigate, explore, or wander. Essays are not, however, random musings, but rather follow a particular line of thought. As our class readings suggest, essays combine narrative, generalization, and intimacy. Choose an idea, belief, tradition, or practice about which you are passionate as the topic for your essay. Your essay might draw some philosophical conclusions from an anecdote. Or it might take the form of a meditation on a single idea. It might consider various angles on an important issue. Whatever form your essay takes, it should have a purposeful structure, appropriate tone, and vivid details.

Genre Conventions:

  • Intimacy—essays are expressions of your personal ideas and feelings about your topic
  • Narrative—essays tell a story with a purposeful structure
  • Generalization—essays connect personal experiences with larger ideas and issues

Form and Content:

  • Topic
    • Almost anything can serve as the subject for an essay; however, your topic should be broad enough for sustained exploration, yet narrow enough to pose specific questions and make concrete observations
  • Structure
    • Your essay should have one overarching idea, which is developed through various subordinate ideas
    • What kind of structure best enables you to explore your topic?
      • You might structure your essay chronologically or use non-linear chronology (i.e. flashbacks)
      • You might discuss a series of anecdotes or examples of a common theme
      • You might pose a central question, then explore possible answers
    • Your structure should be clear, consistent, and appropriate to your topic
      • Each paragraph should fit into your overall structure
      • Clear transitions between paragraphs will help your reader follow your structure
    • Style
      • What tone best fits your topic?
        • Melancholy? Sardonic? Curious? Wistful? Impassioned? Clinical?
        • The tone of your essay should not shift abruptly, unless it does so deliberately
      • What kind of diction and syntax are appropriate to your topic?
        • Terse, staccato sentences vs. long, flowing sentences
        • Monosyllabic, “Germanic” words vs. polysyllabic, “Latinate” language
      • How can you use imagery, simile, and metaphor to develop your theme?


This assignment will comprise 5% of your total grade for the course. You will be graded on these four areas:

  • Topic—10%
  • Structure—40%
  • Style—40%
  • Grammar and Mechanics—10%

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