What's In An Essay?

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A-level English By: Please log in to see tutor details
Subject: English » A-level English
Last updated: 07/02/2018
Tags: brian dillon, essay writing, essayism, writing essays

The cultural impact the tradition of essay writing has left cannot and should not be underestimated. In his recent collection of essays, Essayism, Brian Dillon makes a case for essay writing by describing the genre's two sided nature: as an instruction manual and an elusive, intuitive mode of self-expression.

The most intriguing aspect of reading 'Essayism' is understanding the shifts in the history of thought and the way that cultural constructs that people take for granted were crafted and challenged. The book acts as a testament to both the failure and the success of essays, as the blurred boundaries of its structures are capable of both guiding and misleading the reader. This is shown in the numerous examples from literary history including William Gass' original discussion on whether language can achieve its descriptive potential, 'On Being Blue'.

In one essay, 'On Origins', Dillon attempts to define the genre by quoting Jean Starobinski's definition: 'the essay is first of all a type of measurement or judgement, not so much a test of itself, of its own powers, or its author's powers, as a weighing of something outside of itself' (1). This is a useful way of thinking. The essay seems to try to engage with an 'other' and assess it using critical thinking.

It is not only a way of familiarising yourself with the unfamiliar, but picking up on patterns and similarities that make reading an essay about a potentially obscure topic interesting and exciting.The essay aims to instruct, since the essay is meant to 'perform a combination of exactitude and evasion that seems to me to define what writing ought to be. A form that would instruct, seduce and mystify in equal measure.' (2) The brilliance of this quote lies in its ability to capture the combination of fluidity and precision that makes reading an essay so appealing. You feel like you are learning something whilst having a more intuitive, personal connection with the subject matter and you are also able to challenge it. This creates an even playing field between the reader and an author, and creates an inclusive, welcoming dynamic.

One of my favourite points in this essay collection is Brian Dillon's description of how he used to think about academic writing at university. A successful essay, according to Dillon, should have a 'guiding metaphor' that would encourage the essay to 'write itself, the figure unfolding and fulfilling its promise' (3).

There is something very comforting and life affirming about the essay form. It is both direct and open-ended, both creative and rooted in reality. Essay has an ability to put into words something you did not even know you were capable of expressing through the familiar and dramatic vessel of a metaphor. This is not to say that every successful English student must have a 'guiding metaphor' in her or his essay, however it is a helpful way of thinking of how imagery can unify and streamline your argument if you are dealing with more complex, abstract literary concepts. It both simplifies and complicates it, because if you can engage with the metaphor, the essay is a lot easier to understand. An essay that is easy to understand allows the reader the opportunity to form an intellectual relationship with it, meaning the subject matter will inevitable be confronted with the reader's values. This, arguably, is one of the most exciting aspects of critical thinking: the ability to break down your pre-conceived notions and entertain a possibility of looking at an argument from a different angle. One could say that truly good essays are able to open your mind.

Essays help us engage with the world around us in ways we may not anticipate. 'On picking up an essay for the first time, the reader faces the tantalizing prospect of the potential that their understanding may be shattered but also may be affirmed.. While teaching you more about a subject its argumentative properties can also improve your understanding of your wider life. It allows you to locate yourself emotionally and intellectually and to realise the links between your life and the life of others, history and the present, fact and fiction. Writing an essays is a way of engaging with someone else's ideas, reading one is like looking through into the room, trying to listen to it all at once.

1. Dillon, Brian, Essayism, p 16
2. Dillon, Brian, Essayism, p 13
3. Dillon, Brian, Essayism, pp 104-5


Natalie Kondratii A-level English Tutor (South West London)

About The Author

A recent English graduate who is really keen on empowering students through reading and writing. With my mentoring experience, I know that I have the empathy, patience and enthusiasm to tutor students and ensure they get top grades in their exams




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