In text-books on written English, a distinction is often drawn between the reflective and the argumentative essay. The first is primarily an exercise in contemplation upon any given subject, the second — an exercise testing your ability to discuss a problem, to argue for or against a proposition. In the first you rely more on your imagination and power of observation, in the second — on general knowledge. Because both these types present similar difficulties in writing, we have combined them under one heading. However, the model essays which we include offer sufficient contrast in subject-matter and treatment to show you the difference. The variety to which this or that essay belongs is indicated in brackets, and the subjects which are set after each essay are representative of this particular variety.

Compared with the narrative and the descriptive essays, these are more difficult to write, not only because it is more difficult to arrange one's ideas logically, but also because one has to devote more thought and time to the collection of ideas relevant to the subject. Here a plan is essential.

Tile best way is probably to jot down ideas as they come into your head. Let us presume that your subject is The Value of Travel. You might have thought of the following:

1. Seeing how other people live.

2. Visiting places known from books.

3. Talking a foreign language.

4. Mountains.

5. Other people’s customs.

6. Broadening one’s mind.

7. Meeting interesting people.

8. National food.

9. Visiting the Leningrad Hermitage.

10. Seeing big cities like Moscow and Leningrad.

11. Seeing hydroelectric power stations.

12. Getting to know one's country better.

Having put down all these ideas, you can now try to group them together and then arrange them in the order best suited for your purpose. You will find that your ideas naturally fall under five main headings.

1. Scenery.

2. Places of interest.

3. People: their customs, habits.

4. Getting to know, one's country better.

5. Broadening one’s mind.

The outline of the essay is now complete. All that you need is a paragraph introducing your subject.

There are a number of things against which you must guard, particularly in an essay of this kind. Remember that it is better to deal with only a few things in full rather than skip casually over many. If, for instance, in an essay on travelling you simply write that this gives you a chance to become acquainted with different national customs and leave it at that, you will have said little of interest. But if you take one example and describe it, this will not only make your writing more vivid but will also convey some real information to the reader. Thus, rather than spreading out, concentrate and take care not to become too abstract.

Here is an example of a reflective essay.

On beginning

By J. B. Priestley (abridged)

How difficult it is to make a beginning. I speak of essay-writing, an essentially virtuous practice, and not of breaking the ten commandments. It is much easier to begin, say, a review or an article than it is to begin an essay, for with the former you attach yourself to something outside yourself, you have an excuse for ^writing and therefore have more courage. If it is a review that has to be written, well, there, waiting for you, inviting your comment, is the book. Similarly with an article, you have your subject, something that everybody is excited about, and thus you know what is expected of you and you can take up your pen with a light heart. But to have nothing to cling hold of, to have no excuse for writing at all, to be compelled to spin everything out of oneself, to stand naked and shivering in the very first sentence one puts down, is clearly a very different matter, and this is the melancholy situation in which the essayist always finds himself. It is true that he need not always be melancholy; if he is full of himself, brimming over with bright talk, in "a mood to take the whole world into his confidence, the essayist will find his task a very pleasant one indeed, never to be exchanged for such drudge's work as reviews and articles; and he will step briskly on to the stage and posture in the limelight without a tremor. But such moments are rare, and the essayist at ordinary times, though he would eagerly undertake to defend his craft, cannot quite rid himself of the feeling that there is something both absurd and decidedly impudent in this business of talking about oneself for money; this feeling haunts the back of his mind like some gibbering spectre, and it generally produces one of three effects. According to his temperament, it will prevent him from doing anything at all that particular day or perhaps any other day, or it will allow him to write a few brilliant opening sentences and then shut up, or it will keep him from making a start until the last possible moment.

For my own part, I am one of those who find it difficult to begin; I stand on the brink for hours, hesitating to make the plunge; I will do anything but the work in hand. This habit is certainly a nuisance, but perhaps it is not quite so intolerable as that of some other persons, men of my acquaintance, who fall into the second category mentioned above and always find themselves making dashing openings and then coming to a stop. They will stare at what they have written, well pleased with it as an opening, and then discover that the flow has ceased, and horrible hours will pass, and perhaps many more dashing openings will have been made, before any real progress will have come about and their essay taken some sort of shape. Such writers seem to me even more unfortunate than I am, for I do at least go forward once I have made a beginning; as soon as I have summoned up courage to ring the bell I am at least admitted into the house of my choice, and am not, like these others, left kicking my heels in the vestibules of half a dozen houses perhaps without ever seeing the interior of any of them.

Notes

The ten commandments — the ten Mosaic laws: thou shalt not kill; thou shalt not commit adultery; thou shalt not steal; thou shalt not bear false witness against thy neighbour, etc. (The Bible, Exodus, Ch. 20)

Comments

The passage is an example of a reflective essay. Such essays, as we have shown, are developed through analysis, that is, one starts by breaking down the subject into parts, then groups the various ideas together and finally arranges them in an order best suited for one's purposes. Let us briefly examine how the model essay is built up. Judging by the passage, the following sets of ideas occurred to the writer.

It is particularly difficult to make a beginning when one has to write an essay. It is easier to do this when one has to write something else, for instance an article or review. There are specific difficulties connected with essay writing. Essayists have different temperaments, so each approaches the task in his own way. How I feel and behave when I set about writing an essay.

We have listed the items in the order in which they are dealt with in the text. From this list we can see that in the arrangement of his ideas the author worked from the general lo the particular and from the impersonal to the personal.