The Art of the Essay


Nothing beats an essay for

  • presenting evidence
  • making an argument
  • offering an opinion
  • showing how a conclusion is reached.

Essays written by thinkers hundreds of years ago were powerful enough to help create the world we live in today. Essays are about ideas, and ideas are what make us what we are.

“Essay” comes from a French word meaning to test, weigh up, evaluate. This is what every historian trains to do, which explains why they consider essays to be a basic tool. It’s not just historians who use them: there are English essays, economics essays, even mathematics essays. Newspaper articles are a variety of essay. An explanation written to get off a parking ticket is an essay. You are reading an essay now. They are a basic way of communicating ideas. And they are easy to write, with just a little training.

The structure

Essays have a structure. They progress in steps, like a staircase leading from the lowest step to the top step. Bounding over several steps at a time may be exciting, but it’s full of danger. Not only do you have to reach the top step safely, you have to get there consistently every time and part of the game is to demonstrate that you used each step. There are penalties for going toofartoofast and for stumbling. Following the rules of structure means success every time, which is a very satisfying thing.

The structure or shape is like this:

  • introduction (one step)
  • development (many steps)
  • conclusion (one step to the landing)

Simple enough so far: but what does each step do?

Introduction      outlines the topic and says briefly what you intend to achieve. The best introductions say where you will end up. Essays aren’t suspense stories: you say where you’re going, why you’re making the journey and how you intend to get there before you start.

Development    means to arrange a series of ideas so that they form the steps which will take you to the top of the staircase. Ideas have to be in order: leaping up to step six and then down to three and four and up to eight and back to two is a hard way to climb a staircase. Each step has to lead to and connect with the next one.

Conclusion        When the staircase has been built, take the last step to the landing. Turn and look back. If you want to, prove you got where you wanted to go by saying how each step helped you. Then make your conclusion: explain exactly where you are (and possibly, why you deserve to be there!).

The test

Testing your staircase is simple: can you climb the stairs the same way each time? Can someone else climb your staircase easily and safely? Build the staircase well and anyone can climb it. Make a poor job and there will gaps between the steps. In other words, make a good argument and anyone can follow it. Make a weak argument and your communication attempt fails. You didn’t persuade anyone to your point of view.

The Plan

Builders of staircases need plans. They must know where the staircase starts, what shape it is, how many steps it needs, how high it must be, where it goes to. Essays need plans just as much. Without a plan, essayists leap into space and hope they reach the next floor. If you feel that lucky you’d be better to invest in a Lotto ticket.

Planning the basics

Our language uses words arranged in sentences to express an idea. To expand the idea we write more sentences which give examples, expansions, modifications of the idea in the first sentence. This collection of linked sentences is a paragraph. Paragraphs deal with just one idea. Each paragraph is one step in the staircase.

Each paragraph has one main sentence which introduces or states the key idea. This is called the topic sentence. Planning a paragraph means working out what the topic sentence should say. Planning an essay means working out the topic sentences for each of the paragraphs you intend to use as steps leading towards the conclusion. It really is that simple: just like climbing stairs.

… conclusion

topic + argument…

 topic + argument
topic + argument


 Sample Plan, using topic sentences

Time to demonstrate how topic sentences can be used to create the perfect, quick essay plan. Take this essay topic:

How effectively did the League of Nations keep peace in the world from 1919 to 1939 ?

Assume that the topic has been researched, leading to a judgment that the League had some successes and some failures caused by the fact that it didn’t have the right membership and had no power to carry out its decisions. These are the key ideas for the introduction. It makes sense to write the opening paragraph in full, because this helps focus the ideas and suggest topics for the first development paragraphs.

The League of Nations, formed after World War I with the aim of ending all wars, was successful at keeping peace in the world during the 1920. However it experienced failures through the 1930s. The League relied on mediation which in turn worked only when nations allowed it to work. Weakened by the USA’s isolationist policies, it proved powerless to act when faced with deliberate armed aggression by nations which chose to ignore the League. The result was World War Two.

Each key idea should be written up as a topic sentence.

  1. The League of Nations was created during the peace settlement at Versailles in 1919- 20 by nations determined to find a way of preventing war.
  2. There were important successes for the League’s peacekeeping efforts through the 1920s
  3. However, the 1930s saw the rise of powerful nations who wanted to expand their empires.
  4. The League relied on mediation rather than armed force.
  5. A major problem was that the nations which could have supplied the muscle for the League refused to join or resigned when things didn’t go their way.
  6. The League couldn’t cope with even just one expansionist power, but when faced with three at once it collapsed.
  7. The most powerful argument against the League’s effectiveness at keeping world peace was World War Two.

At the end, your conclusion sums up your arguments and restates the main idea of the introduction:

The League had a mixed bag of successes and failures. Because it relied on nations wanting to be peaceful, and refused to use armed force out of respect for that ideal, the League could never cope with nations determined to go to war. The refusal of several key powers, like the USA, Germany, Italy and the USSR to join or remain committed to the League meant that it could never be effective at keeping European, let alone world, peace. The outbreak of World War Two was a shocking demonstration of just how irrelevant the League had been.

Each of the topic sentences is a restatement of ideas in the introductory paragraph. Each topic can be used to introduce a series of examples and explanations and it’s easy to note these beside each sentence: for example, topic sentence 1:

1. The League of Nations was created during the peace settlement at Versailles in 1919- 20 by nations determined to find a way of preventing war.

idealism (Wilson’s 14 points)/ horror of war/ small nations could band together for protection/ Big Powers were still bullies

and so on for each of the topics/ paragraphs.

The Test

There is simple test to tell you if the plan is right: read the introduction, the topic sentences and the conclusion all together. If they read like a short essay and you can see connections between them, then the plan’s good. There’s a bonus: in an exam, with time running out fast, a plan as good as this will actually get some marks even though it’s not a full essay!

Plans like this don’t take long to write (provided you’ve already done the research). The five or ten minutes spent planning will halve the time it takes to write the full essay, because you know exactly where you are going. If you number each planned paragraph, then changing the sequence of ideas is just a matter of changing the numbers.

Conquer the essay and you’ll conquer the world! (The world of ideas, anyway.)

Topic sentences in the real world.

Now here’s a test of all of this stuff. Go and find a textbook. The subject doesn’t matter so long as it has WORDS and paragraphs in it. In a pinch, find a newspaper instead or some other kind of formal writing that has been edited.

Select a page of text (or choose a long article). Read each paragraph quickly and select just ONE sentence (or part of a sentence) in each paragraph because you think it is the TOPIC of the paragraph. When finished, quickly read just those selected sentences. Did they make sense? Did they summarise the article or argument? Could you use them as a set of notes?

If so, you have discovered topic sentences: and their power to create structured arguments. Now go and conquer the word, Grasshopper.

(Thinking about word limits? Guess the word count for this article. Ready? Check your guess against the purple-coloured  number at the top of the text. )

Editing, language and writing