Although these genres, also known as the modes of discourse, have been criticized by some composition scholars, the Purdue OWL recognizes the wide spread use of these genres and students’ need to understand and produce these types of essays. The essay is a commonly assigned form of writing that every student will encounter while in academia.
Therefore, it is wise for the student to become capable and comfortable with this type of writing early on in her training.
In English essay first meant "a trial" or "an attempt", and this is still an alternative meaning.
The Frenchman Michel de Montaigne (1533–1592) was the first author to describe his work as essays; he used the term to characterize these as "attempts" to put his thoughts into writing, and his essays grew out of his commonplacing.
Furthermore, Huxley argues that "essays belong to a literary species whose extreme variability can be studied most effectively within a three-poled frame of reference".
These three poles (or worlds in which the essay may exist) are: Huxley adds that the most satisfying essays "..the best not of one, not of two, but of all the three worlds in which it is possible for the essay to exist." The word essay derives from the French infinitive essayer, "to try" or "to attempt".
Formal essays are characterized by "serious purpose, dignity, logical organization, length," whereas the informal essay is characterized by "the personal element (self-revelation, individual tastes and experiences, confidential manner), humor, graceful style, rambling structure, unconventionality or novelty of theme," etc.
Essays are commonly used as literary criticism, political manifestos, learned arguments, observations of daily life, recollections, and reflections of the author.
This means that there is no room for the student’s thoughts to wander or stray from his or her purpose; the writing must be deliberate and interesting.
This handout should help students become familiar and comfortable with the process of essay composition through the introduction of some common essay genres.