Essays: show what you know


What is the difference between the idea of an essay and an essay of ideas?

It’s often tempting to begin an essay with this question in mind: ‘What do I (read: my teacher) want my essay to sound like?’  If you answer this question with , ‘Like an essay,’ then chances are you are going to use vocabulary and phrases which you can string together to make your essay sound like an essay.  EssayspeakWorse still, you might answer this question with: ‘Like I know what I’m talking about when actually I’m not at all sure.’  This is going to be a very mysterious read for anyone seeking knowledge and understanding of the thing about which your are writing.

These students are focusing more on sounding like an essay rather than presenting their knowledge or understanding:

The main idea that the poem seems to revolve around is a very important one…

The poem is one that describes an old man in relation to his surroundings in a very imaginative way….

Plath uses this technique as many readers can relate to this.  She does this extremely well and it helps her get her point across to the reader.


So, what if you being with the question: ‘What do I know or understand and how can I show this in my essay?’  Notice the focus here.  Assume we can all communicate our ideas in writing (the ‘essay’ bit of the task), and instead the focus is on what we know or understand about the subject matter of the essay.   Guess what?  An essay is simply sharing your knowledge and understanding with others in writing.  So the focus should not be about appearing to write an essay but rather the knowledge and understanding that is being communicated by it’s very nature is an essay.  The quality of the student’s thinking is the focus; how that gets written up is secondary to the content.

Remember that an essay is your big ideas about others’ big ideas and how they are presented.

In short:



  • Re-read one of your essays.  Highlight those sentences where you have used ‘essayspeak’ without showing any knowledge or understanding specific to the text at hand.  Rewrite them to show what you know.



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