Sample Essays (not for sale)
March 30, 2008 6:10 PM   Subscribe

What are some good sources for examples of well-written essays?

I've been having a very hard time writing essays in college. I've read Strunk and White multiple times, which also goes for Orwell's Politics and the English Language. They're great and helpful but now I'm looking for essays that exemplify the good writing that Strunk, White, and Orwell write about. I'm not having much luck googling and I can't find anything in the archives, though there may be threads I overlooked.

I'm not necessarily looking for essays by famous writers--any author as long as it's writing that you consider outstanding. In fact I'd prefer essays by students or non-professionals. I just want more than the limited examples I've found in the books that teach you how to write.

Ultimately, I just need to read more but as a science major I don't often read essays and my writing probably reflects the dry and rigid writing found in abstracts. I'm looking for essays specifically because they are short (compared to entire books) and focused.
posted by saoyama to Writing & Language (21 answers total) 19 users marked this as a favorite
 
Orwell's essays. I'm serious. They are terrific and he does a nice job of illustrating his own points. There are several collections out there. Maybe start with "Shooting an Elephant."
posted by foxy_hedgehog at 6:12 PM on March 30, 2008 [2 favorites]


All writing is purposeful and there are different guidelines and styles for different sorts of writing. So, what do you want examples of? Orwell's essays are great, he has a lovely way with language. But they're not the same kind of thing you would do in writing, for example, literary analysis essays for an English class. Is there a specific class or type of writing that you want to improve at?
posted by LobsterMitten at 6:20 PM on March 30, 2008


The problem is that nearly all the examples you see in textbooks or anthologies of "good essays" are examples of good classic, belletristic or periodical prose, which are not the same as a good academic essay, and this is my chief complaint about college writing textbooks. Belletristic essay writers (like Orwell, Annie Dillard, yata yata) tend to be idiosyncratic in style, more meandering or at least associational in organization than the conventions of academic essay permit, often excessively writer-centered by academic standards, which tend to value a third-person perspective. And so on.

I can't remember off top of head the titles of specific anthologies that buck this trend and actually provide models of academic writing, but most textbooks with phrases like "across the curriculum," "in the disciplines," or "fields of writing" in their titles tend to eschew the New Yorker essay style in favor of college-type writing.
posted by FelliniBlank at 6:26 PM on March 30, 2008


Try the "Best American Essays Of (insert year here)" series.
You can get it in paperback on Amazon.
posted by Dizzy at 6:29 PM on March 30, 2008


I just want to point out that you can read more Orwell texts to read here. I woudln't want you buying a collection of essays only to discover you could have read them for free on the web. He wrote perfect essays on a variety of topics, but as others are pointing out, his style isn't always the best to emulate for college classes. Anyway, good luck!
posted by boubelium at 6:32 PM on March 30, 2008 [1 favorite]


Hmm, what subject?

Assuming that it's not science, I would go to the Writing Center (or whatever it's called), and/or the Creative Writing Program, or whatever it might be called, and ask if they can recommend a reader. Something like "In Depth - Essayists for Our Time," edited by Carl Klaus. If the library doesn't have it there's a ton of these on abebooks for a few bucks, depending on condition. And while you're in the library, ask at the reference desk for suggestions. Librarians love questions like this. And also look at an issue of the New Yorker.
posted by carter at 6:33 PM on March 30, 2008


Do you just want to read/write essays? One thing definitely to remember - there is no 'right' nor 'wrong' way to write a good essay. There's no formula.

Or do you need advice specifically for your non-major (perhaps humanities) courses? If the latter I would definitely go to the Writing Center and explain this. If you're writing for a prof s/he is probably looking for what counts as the basics in the area you're studying. Introduction, conclusion, topic sentences, a good narrative, that sort of thing.
posted by carter at 6:39 PM on March 30, 2008


The Art of the Personal Essay: An Anthology from the Classical Era to the Present by Phillip Lopate. I also recommend Lopate's own essays.
posted by grumblebee at 6:43 PM on March 30, 2008


In fact I'd prefer essays by students or non-professionals. I just want more than the limited examples I've found in the books that teach you how to write.

It might be fruitful to talk this over with your instructors or advisor, or with the writing center if your school offers such a thing. Some professors put examples of excellent essays on their university webpages, something I only learned when a professor asked if he could post my term paper as an example for students.

This offers one striking advantage: it provides examples approved by the very instructors who will be evaluating your work, so you know you've seen exactly what they're looking for.
posted by Elsa at 6:44 PM on March 30, 2008


You might want to talk to an English major friend you have. I was an English major and loved writing essays. My friends in other majors would help me with assignments related to what they studied (poli. sci, bio, etc.) and I would gladly help them with essays, even letting them read some of mine. This would be free, minus the cost of helping a friend with skills you already have.
posted by PinkButterfly at 7:17 PM on March 30, 2008


A standard book I recommend on writing college-level humanities essays -- very cheap and short like Strunk and White, and more focused on the argument an essay makes, rather than the word choices and style:

Anthony Weston, A Rulebook for Arguments

But yes, if you want examples of college-type essay writing, the recommendation to head to your university's writing center is excellent.

If you want some nonfiction to read, you might try any of these authors (just a few off the top of my head, there are many more). Take a look at their stuff on Amazon and see if any of their subjects interest you, and go from there. Your university library is likely to have books by all of them, and they write about science, so it might be an easier way in for you:
Stephen Jay Gould
John McPhee
Oliver Sacks
Richard Feynman
posted by LobsterMitten at 7:19 PM on March 30, 2008 [1 favorite]


As a graduation gift from a high school I got a copy of EB White's Essays, with the injunction to write like this. These are mainly essays from the New Yorker and John McPhee and Ved Metha are two additional New Yorker writers who are well worth reading.
posted by shothotbot at 7:26 PM on March 30, 2008


I'm not sure how narrow of a definition you're using for "essay," but if you're looking for great non-fiction writing, pick up as much John McPhee as you can. You might start with The John McPhee Reader or The Second John McPhee Reader, or Giving Good Weight, or Pieces of the Frame. I've seen enthusiastic recommendations for "The Search for Marvin Gardens," which you'll find in the first Reader.

(In fact, a Google Books search for john mcphee essay brings up a number of books about analyzing and writing great essays.)

Also, E. B White wrote a lot of essays, and there are some collections out there.

I also love Sue Hubbell's writing; there are a couple of collections, including Far-Flung Hubbell.
posted by kristi at 7:33 PM on March 30, 2008


Seconding Dizzy's recommendation of the Best American Essays series. Yes, the series may feel a bit institutional, but I can almost promise you that in a given issue you'll find at least a handful of essays to appreciate as examples of style or providers of insight.

As FelliniBlank and others have noted, the "academic essay" often requires students to articulate and defend a central claim less ambiguously than Montaigne, etc. might have done in the more literary or "Belletristic" style that usually characterizes the essay outside of the classroom. Still, I think that looking at the essays in something like the BAE series will be useful to you, since you're interested in developing your prose style.

One thing you might notice in a collection such as BAE, is the variety of effective styles--not all of which would have met with Strunk and White's wholehearted approval. You'll have a chance to see both how S&W's advice is put into action, and also how it's sometimes set aside.
posted by washburn at 8:44 PM on March 30, 2008




Check out MIT Open Courseware.

Some of the classes--humanities, for example--have as part of the course package student papers. Not all of these are essays of course, some are research projects. But here and there you can find samples of student essays.

Dizzy mentioned the Best American Essays collection--comes out every year. I would also recommend the yearly collections by subject. These are also part of the "best American Series."

A favorite of mine is "Best American Science and Nature Writing." There are also yearly volumes on travel and sports writing. In these you can get a variety of types of writing, but none are "academic" type papers.
posted by subatomiczoo at 9:05 PM on March 30, 2008


Excellent question. I wish I had asked it when I was in college, as I, too, struggled with composing essays for courses outside my major. I, too, read Stunk & White, and Zinsser's "On Writing Well," so I had a good idea of the rules, but what would have helped most of all was... examples of what the beast looks like. "Example is better than precept."
posted by exphysicist345 at 9:18 PM on March 30, 2008


Harper's Magazine.
posted by spacewaitress at 10:02 PM on March 30, 2008


Wow, thanks a bunch everyone. I've never more than skimmed through the New Yorker. It sounds like it could be a valuable resource. Same with the Best American Essays series. And I've used MIT's OCW dozens of times but never thought to look for essays there. Great suggestion subatomiczoo.

Is there a specific class or type of writing that you want to improve at?

Not really but I am more interested in Non-Fiction. \

Thanks again everyone!
posted by saoyama at 10:44 PM on March 30, 2008


It's very easy to write the classical three part essay. For, against, conclusion. Thesis, antithesis, synthesis. It also reads well — it has an organic feel to it if done correctly.*

*I don't mean it smells like tofu and hippies' toenails. I mean it reads and flows easily.
posted by Wolof at 11:37 PM on March 30, 2008 [1 favorite]


Also, some more well-regarded essayists. One mentioned there is Malcolm Gladwell -- he's always fun (he picks very interesting subjects) and his old New Yorker columns are online.
posted by LobsterMitten at 11:51 PM on March 30, 2008


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