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formal essay



A short, relatively impersonal composition in prose.

In contrast to the familiar or personal essay, the formal essay (also known as the impersonal essay) is typically used for the discussion of ideas. Its purpose is generally to inform or persuade.

See also:

Examples of Formal Essays:

Examples and Observations:

  • "'Formal' essays were introduced in England by [Francis] Bacon, who adopted Montaigne's term. Here the style is objective, compressed, aphoristic, wholly serious. . . . In modern times, the formal essay has become more diversified in subject matter, style, and length until it is better known by such names as article, dissertation, or thesis, and factual presentation rather than style or literary effect has become the basic aim."
    (L. H. Hornstein, G. D. Percy, and C. S. Brown, The Reader's Companion to World Literature, 2nd ed. Signet, 2002)

  • "The Victorian era saw a turn toward the formal essay, the so-called essay of ideas written by [Thomas] Carlyle, Ruskin, [Matthew] Arnold, Macaulay, Pater. Between Lamb and Beerbohm there was scarcely an English personal essay, with the exception of those by Robert Louis Stevenson and Thomas De Quincey."
    (Phillip Lopate, Introduction to The Art of the Personal Essay. Anchor, 1994)

  • "The technique of the formal essay is now practically identical with that of all factual or theoretical prose in which literary effect is secondary."
    (William Harmon, A Handbook to Literature. Pearson, 2006)

  • "[E]ven when 'I' plays no part in the language of an essay, a firm sense of personality can warm the voice of the impersonal essay narrator. When we read Dr. [Samuel] Johnson and Edmund Wilson and Lionel Trilling, for instance, we feel that we know them as fully developed characters in their own essays, regardless of their not referring personally to themselves."
    (Phillip Lopate, "Writing Personal Essays: On the Necessity of Turning Oneself Into a Character." Writing Creative Nonfiction, ed. by Carolyn Forché and Philip Gerard. Writer's Digest Books, 2001)

  • Crafting the Impersonal "I"
    "Unlike the exploratory 'self' of Montaigne, Francis Bacon's impersonal 'I' appears already to have arrived. Even in the comparatively expansive third edition of the Essays, Bacon provides few explicit hints as to either the character of the textual voice or the role of the expected reader. . . . [T]he absence of a felt 'self' on the page is a deliberate rhetorical effect: the effort to efface voice in the 'impersonal' essay is a way of evoking a distant but authoritative persona. . . . In the formal essay, invisibility must be forged."
    (Richard Nordquist, "Voices of the Modern Essay." Univ. of Georgia, 1991)
Also Known As: impersonal essay
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