How to learn an essay

"Like the novel, the essay is a literary device for saying almost everything about almost anything. By tradition, almost by definition, the essay is a short piece, and it is therefore impossible to give all things full play within the limits of a single essay. But a collection of essays can cover almost as much ground, and cover it almost as thoroughly, as can a long novel. Montaigne's Third Book is the equivalent, very nearly, of a good slice of the Comédie Humaine. Essays belong to a literary species whose extreme variability can be studied most effectively within a three-poled frame of reference. There is the pole of the personal and the autobiographical; there is the pole of the objective, the factual, the concrete-particular; and there is the pole of the abstract-universal. Most essayists are at home and at their best in the neighborhood of only one of the essay's three poles, or at the most only in the neighborhood of two of them. There are the predominantly personal essayists, who write fragments of reflective autobiography and who look at the world through the keyhole of anecdote and description. There are the predominantly objective essayists who do not speak directly of themselves, but turn their attention outward to some literary or scientific or political theme. … And how splendid, how truly oracular are the utterances of the great generalizers! … The most richly satisfying essays are those which make the best not of one, not of two, but of all the three worlds in which it is possible for the essay to exist" (Collected Essays, "Preface").

Researching and writing your essay will have consolidated your learning of the subject at hand. However, the feedback you get from your lecturers can be used as further learning. They might, for example, suggest new ideas, fresh examples or different opinions. These are really worth considering while the ideas and arguments are still fresh in your mind.

There may be simple corrections of facts or mistakes. Note these! There may be ideas on how you could express yourself more clearly or remarks about the detailed aspect of the structure of your essay. Study them all carefully.
The overall comment you receive will evaluate your essay as a whole, and probably involve some justification of the mark you receive. These comments have been thought through carefully and are designed to help you to improve your work - use them, don't waste them. You may get the opportunity to discuss your work with the marker: use this as a positive opportunity, especially if you haven't done as well as you expected, and build on what you learn.

It should be clear to you by now that essays are about a lot more than just covering a few sides of A4 paper. They are a vital part of your learning and it is up to you to maximise their usefulness to you.

How to learn an essay

how to learn an essay

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