‘To Essay Or Not To Essay’ by Lucia Sellars

Most people that have come across the essay, that is, writing an essay, have done so, because of academic reasons, e.g. school and university. These reasons being essentially your choice in the first place, don’t stop from being actions imposed by authorities. Such authorities, including: your tutor, your parents, the university or school, and the social conditioning that everyone must attend these places, to be successful in life. Here, I will take you into a humbler journey through the essay genre. Independent of which writing genre you are coming from, if at all, exploring your thought process as mirrored by an essay, can be a pleasant rollercoaster.

I remember during outdoor rowing on the Avon, in Bristol, that to balance and keep equilibrium of the rowing boat was an effective way to focus your attention. If you didn’t want to fall in the freezing water, that is. Not only that, but a side effect, sometimes, of having a focussed attention, is time distortion: time becomes non-existent, and everything else too. So, I cherished the moment when our coach, Julien, would shout: AND SMILE! Not only I would smile, but breathe in, too. A surviving skill, not to be underestimated.

So is the case, of writing an essay; it requires a focussed attention, to hold your thought process in place. Imagine all your thoughts, like small jigsaw puzzle pieces, floating in the air. The moment you reach that focussed attention, it will be equivalent to having all your pieces together, in a coherent and sensible way.  You will see the actual picture, the actual point you wanted to put across or wanted to open for discussion. Perhaps, you will have an answer, or a further question, or neither.

Also, allow yourself to be surprised, this being from your findings, or from your own mind. Secretly, this will feed your inner purpose, your raw passion. Yes, passion: the moment you are conscious of your ‘idea and its shape’.

Definitions and Permissions

The dictionary definition of an essay says: prose composition, short treatise. I don’t disagree with this definition. However, I will enhance it, for the sake of argument. What follows are permissions[1], including the suggestion to break the rules. I will do this by briefly touching on each of these three categories:


The dictionary tells us that an essay is written in prose. Though, allow yourself, to explore not only prose, but verse, with or without break lines, or empty spaces, images, scribbles, numbers, or all. Even, moving image. You can have an essay film, or a collage of mix media (text and images). Independent of the medium you use, the essence of essay writing is to explore an idea, and to put that idea across to the ‘other’, as best as is possible, so to be understood. With as much information as you wish to reveal for the sake of the context of your piece, and the audience. For example, artist Michael Harford, from Indiana, USA, never names his art pieces because he likes to allow observers to have their own interpretation.

In this example, you can see his idea. Though, the space of separation from what you see as his idea, to what I think is his idea, or even to the actual idea of Michael, cannot be universally defined, explained, or interpreted. Even though it is self-explanatory. The point is, the essay-image takes you and informs you of an idea, independent of what that might be. That is what matters.


With technique I mean form, the structure of your piece. Whether you follow the rules or break them, you need a pattern to set your thought pieces together. There are many ways in which you can do this. Scribbling and writing notes of what that structure could be, is one of the most helpful methods, that I find work for me. However, one of the key things when scribbling and noting your structure, is to ask yourself questions about your idea. But your idea can have many legs, many heads, and many arms, it could fit in many pages. That is the problem. Not the physiology, but the dissection.

Here the secret is to have a visual impact upon yourself, by having all those legs, head and arms thoughts, in one place, in one body, in one page. It is a simple trick, but the visual impact of interconnections through your sight and the place of your thoughts in your mind, finally click. Like reading an incomplete text, your mind will fill the gaps. That is, in terms of titles, and subtitles which will help your thought process rollercoaster to find a path, a journey towards your idea.

This understanding came to me thanks to a pocket size booklet I found at Blackwell’s Bookshop, when I lived in Oxford[2]. It cost me a beauty of £1. Here you can see an example of the diagram they propose. I personally call it a Tree Thought Diagram.

A key thing to notice in the above diagram is the way in which the branches spread. Divide your tree into: Who, What, Why, When, How. This will help with the structuring of your ideas.


Content relates to the topic or idea you have and wish to explore. This is the jewel of your essay; this is what will feed your passion. Please, do not write an essay with a topic that doesn’t interest you. If you are going through an academic course, even then, do choose something that ticks for you, something that ignites your creativity. Of course it is important to see what other people have said about the topic, but essentially in order to write an essay, you should allow yourself to fix the problem, find the tension, answer the question, or open the discussion, yourself.

If you are writing the essay, the essay is YOUR playground. Thus, it must be something fun, that you are interested about. This will form the Doric pillar of your idea. Otherwise, if there is no interest, you are in for a session of torture, or complete oblivion and at the end, sadly, no writing fun.  

Purpose of the Essay

We all know (it is written in many books) that the purpose of the essay is to be direct and answer the title question. However, additionally to this, the purpose of an essay is as open to opportunities as is a white canvas. In fact, to ‘answer the question’ is the purpose of your tutor. Your purpose is to have the pleasure to think creatively. For example, in the last few years the UK has always had two major political parties, that is the Conservative and the Labour Parties. If you were asked the question: How can you improve the current political status of the UK? I wouldn’t recommend you to say: Oh we can’t reinvent the wheel, we just have to use either party, because that’s what we know. But what I would suggest, is that you come up with an alternative idea, a new idea, even to obliterate both parties, be radical, be thoughtful, be challenging to yourself and the context of the question.

You can still answer your tutor’s question, but you can argue your point of view in the discussion too. The point is, don’t write because you have to, because you have to comply with some academic requirement. Write, because you want to, because the topic inspires you.

The Evident Ingredient

The evident ingredient of the essay is inscribed within the history of its own word. Below an extract of the Online Etymology Dictionary:

Essay (n.)=1590s, “trial, attempt, endeavor,” also “short, discursive literary composition” (first attested in writings of Francis Bacon, probably in imitation of Montaigne), from Middle French essai “trial, attempt, essay” (in Old French from 12c.), from Late Latin exagium “a weighing, a weight,” from Latin exigere “drive out; require, exact; examine, try, test,” from ex “out” (see ex-) + agere “to set in motion, drive” (from PIE root *ag- “to drive, draw out or forth, move”) apparently meaning here “to weigh.”[3].

To trial, to attempt, to weigh, to test, to set in motion, are some of the phrases embodied by the subject. To set an idea in motion, is the essence of the essay, to develop it, to start it, to set it on fire.


As proposed above to write an essay we need a focused attention. As in the rowing example at the beginning, imagine the different movements that are incorporated in the act of rowing. These are equivalent to all your thoughts about an idea. When you reach your focused attention, is when you have put all your thoughts in a coherent shape, and you see the idea, the picture in its context. This is equivalent to the balanced flow of the boat when you are performing all the movements of the rowing technique in harmony. The boat moves forward smoothly, the idea is set in motion.

Remember, you are sitting in the boat, because it is your choice. Same as why you should write that essay, because it is your choice, for enjoyment.

Read, research, think of possibilities, and think that there is a potential for possibilities to really exist. Same as the blank page in front of you, in the same way your mind is a white canvas. Paint your mind, into the blank page. To essay or not to essay, is up to you.

[1] Permission: a word used in this context, by writer Tania Hershman (https://www.writersandartists.co.uk/writers/advice/1156/dedicated-genre-advice/writing-poetry/)

[2] How to write essays, Sandra Ashman & Phyllis Crème, Blackwell, 1996 Edition.

[3]www.etymonline.com/word/essay – Sep, 2020

Reading recommendations

  • On Solitude, Michael de Montaigne
  • The Art of the Essay, Lydia Fakundiny
  • Nature and Selected Essays, Ralph Waldo Emerrson

About the contributor

Lucia Sellars
Lucia Sellars is a poet/writer, artist and film-maker. Her work has been selected and screened in many Film Festivals around the world. Her writing has been published in various poetry magazines and anthologies. You can see more of her work at www.luciasellars.org.

Related Articles


More Like This