You Can Teach Writing

Don't teach essay format.

You won't find essay format or essay writing listed as a requirement in the Common Core State Standards. The Common Core hasn't stopped requiring essays; the standards simply avoid using the term.

Since few students know what an essay is, or care, the omission does no harm. (And since most under-age-30 teachers don't know or care either, the omission is a blessing.)

Essay terminology is not help to writers.

Although essays are useful, essay terminology isn't useful — and probably hasn't been since the last great bison herds disappeared from the prairies.

Nevertheless, because many English teachers are stuck with old textbooks and some old colleagues who use the traditional terms, I'm providing this quick overview of what our ancestors called essays so you understand their value and shortcomings.

Do not attempt to teach the material on this to anyone who isn't an English major.

A definition of essay format isn't helpful.

An essay is a short (less than book-length) expository nonfiction composition built in support of a thesis statement.

That definition of essay format is so comprehensive as to be worthless. It does not help a writer know how to go about the process of writing an essay, nor does it help a reader know how to go about deconstructing an essay.

Unfortunately, few of the other qualities of essays are distinctive either. Certainly they aren't distinctive enough to guide writers in preparing documents.

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Essayists are respectful of their readers.

Although we rarely say it, most of us who work with words recognize that an essay is distinctive in one important way: Essayists are respectful.

Essayists show their respect to readers by presenting their position clearly and gracefully.

They don't embarrass readers by using acronyms and terminology that the general reader won't recognize.

They cite sources so readers can check them.

Essayists are respectful of other writers.

Essayists are also respectful of other writers. Any difference of opinion with another writer that, if spoken aloud, would sound like bullying is not a true essay.

Essayists may disagree over a source's qualifications to speak on a particular topic or the quality of the source's information, but they do not imply that writers (or readers) who disagree with their opinions are mentally or morally unsound.

Five ways to sort essay format nonfiction

Nonfiction presented in essay format can be sorted five basic ways:

  • by degree of formality  
  • by overall organizational pattern.
  • by subject matter
  • by publication medium
  • by purpose.

None of the five is particularly helpful to a reader, and certainly none of them help a writer to organize and present information.

Essays classified as formal or informal

The distinction between a formal and an informal essay is primarily a matter of grammar.

The formal essay is written in the third person. That grammatical stance allows the writer to assume an objective stance. It does not mean the writer is more objective than the person who writes in first person. Third person can obscure the fact that the content is opinion without any factual basis—or even opinion in defiance of fact.

An informal essay is characterized by the writer speaking from his/her personal perspective,  perhaps addressing the reader directly. The informal essay is person-to-person writing, even though the author and reader may not be personally acquainted. The first-person perspective gives  the informal essay its alternative name, personal essay.

Essays classified by organizational pattern

Essay format does not exist as a distinctive organizational pattern. Unlike some writing genres, such as sonnets, for example, essays cannot be identified just by appearance.

Essays may be presented as narratives, arguments, or in the catch-all, none-of-the-above category that Common Core calls informative/explanatory texts or just I/E texts.

The essays that fit into the I/E texts category may have elements that are organized like narratives and elements that are organized like arguments. The expository essay continuum shows how the three essay categories are related.

Essays classified by subject matter

Essays are written on all aspects of experience from free range chickens to the philosophical implications of human freedom. The essayist is not limited to a particular subject or subjects.

Aside from a how-to essay, it would be hard to tell from its appearance how most essays should be classified: You'd have to read.

Essays classified by purpose

Here, too, from just a casual look at an essay's appearance, you'd have trouble distinguishing any particular type of essay other than the how-to, which often has numbered steps.

The persuasive essay so dear to English teachers' hearts has faded into literary myth replaced by persuasive writing which, like its predecessor, has no external characteristics by which be identified.

Essays classified by publication medium

These days, essays are published in many different media. Magazines, which were for years the predominant essay medium, now are being overtaken by internet publications. Some of these are digital versions of print publications. Others are online-only publications.

Essays still appear in newspapers as editorials and op-ed pieces by the newspapers'  regular op-ed writers or by guest columnists. Once in a blue moon, an essay appears as a letter to the editor.

Some, but certainly not all, blog posts are essays.

If you survived that lengthy explanation, you should understand why using essay terminology when you try to teach expository writing is not helpful.

There are far easier ways of earning your paycheck than trying to explain essay format to high school sophomores — and most of those jobs don't require even a high school diploma.

What to read next

If you had read the instructional strategy teach required writing before detouring to visit this page, you can go on to instructional strategy 2 from here.

If you followed a search engine to this page, you may want to visit the home page to get an overview of the site.

Content on this page was first posted at you-can-teach-writing.com on 2008-08-11 and updated 2013-03-28 by Linda Aragoni. She posted this version to yctwriting.com on 2018-01-01. 
Comment about teaching writing from Linda Aragoni.

Is that term really necessary?

Although recall is a lower level cognitive process, in many situations only experts need to recall specific terms.

In their revision of Bloom's taxonomy, editors Anderson and Krathwohl recommend that until students make their career choices, teachers keep discipline-specific terminology to a minimum.

YCTWriting webmaster's signature below note on essay format terms.