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Essay Sampler: Models of Good Writing (Part 1)

Essays by Emerson, Orwell, Woolf, and White

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One of the most effective ways to improve our own writing is to spend some time reading the best writing of others. This collection of essays, articles, and letters--some written within the past few years, others more than a century old--offers some very good reading indeed. Enjoy these works--and observe the various strategies employed by their authors to describe, narrate, explain, argue, and persuade.


  1. "Advice to Youth," by Mark Twain (1882).
    "Always obey your parents, when they are present. This is the best policy in the long run, because if you don’t, they will make you. Most parents think they know better than you do, and you can generally make more by humoring that superstition than you can by acting on your own better judgment."

  2. "The Land of Little Rain," by Mary Austin (1903).
    "The rainbow hills, the tender bluish mists, the luminous radiance of the spring, have the lotus charm. They trick the sense of time, so that once inhabiting there you always mean to go away without quite realizing that you have not done it. Men who have lived there, miners and cattlemen, will tell you this, not so fluently, but emphatically, cursing the land and going back to it."


  3. "The Death of the Moth," by Virginia Woolf (1942).
    "Again, somehow, one saw life, a pure bead. I lifted the pencil again, useless though I knew it to be. But even as I did so, the unmistakable tokens of death showed themselves. The body relaxed, and instantly grew stiff. The struggle was over. The insignificant little creature now knew death."

  4. The Education of Women," by Daniel Defoe (1719).
    "I have often thought of it as one of the most barbarous customs in the world, considering us as a civilized and a Christian country, that we deny the advantages of learning to women."

  5. "Farewell, My Lovely," by E. B. White (1936).
    "The last Model T was built in 1927, and the car is fading from what scholars call the American scene--which is an understatement, because to a few million people who grew up with it, the old Ford practically was the American scene. It was the miracle that God had wrought. And it was patently the sort of thing that could only happen once."
    E.B. White: "Not Bad"

  6. "A Hanging," by George Orwell (1931).
    "It is curious, but till that moment I had never realized what it means to destroy a healthy, conscious man. When I saw the prisoner step aside to avoid the puddle, I saw the mystery, the unspeakable wrongness, of cutting a life short when it is in full tide."
    Reading Quiz: "A Hanging"
    Sentence Combining: Orwell's "A Hanging"

  7. "Letter from Birmingham Jail," by Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. (1963).
    "We know through painful experience that freedom is never voluntarily given by the oppressor; it must be demanded by the oppressed. Frankly, I have yet to engage in a direct-action campaign that was 'well timed' in the view of those who have not suffered unduly from the disease of segregation. For years now I have heard the word 'Wait!' It rings in the ear of every Negro with piercing familiarity. This 'Wait' has almost always meant 'Never.' We must come to see, with one of our distinguished jurists, that 'justice too long delayed is justice denied.'"

  8. "A Piece of Chalk," by G. K. Chesterton (1905).
    "I was sitting on an immense warehouse of white chalk. The landscape was made entirely of white chalk. White chalk was piled more miles until it met the sky."

  9. "Professions for Women," by Virginia Woolf (1942).
    'You have won rooms of your own in the house hitherto exclusively owned by men. You are able, though not without great labour and effort, to pay the rent. You are earning your five hundred pounds a year. But this freedom is only a beginning--the room is your own, but it is still bare. It has to be furnished; it has to be decorated; it has to be shared."

  10. "Self-Reliance," by Ralph Waldo Emerson (1841).
    "There is a time in every man's education when he arrives at the conviction that envy is ignorance; that imitation is suicide; that he must take himself for better, for worse, as his portion. . . . Whoso would be a man must be a nonconformist."

  11. "Shooting an Elephant," by George Orwell (1936).
    "When I pulled the trigger I did not hear the bang or feel the kick--one never does when a shot goes home--but I heard the devilish roar of glee that went up from the crowd. In that instant, in too short a time, one would have thought, even for the bullet to get there, a mysterious, terrible change had come over the elephant. He neither stirred nor fell, but every line of his body had altered. He looked suddenly stricken, shrunken, immensely old, as though the frightful impact of the bullet had paralysed him without knocking him down."

  12. "Why I Write," by George Orwell (1946).
    "From a very early age, perhaps the age of five or six, I knew that when I grew up I should be a writer. Between the ages of about seventeen and twenty-four I tried to abandon this idea, but I did so with the consciousness that I was outraging my true nature and that sooner or later I should have to settle down and write books."

ESSAY SAMPLERS: Models of Good Writing
Part Two
Part Three
Part Four
Part Five

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