WRITING AN ESSAY: The house you build with words, is a house of thought

An argument, like a building, has a design. That means it has both a purpose for which it was made and a structure conducive to the fulfilment of that purpose. With thinking, presenting and writing, just as with designing: form is content, the two cannot be separated without violence to both.  Writing an essay is like designing and making a house. By knowing how essays work, that is, how the parts are fitted together to perform a particular activity, you will find both reading and writing easier.


What is an essay?

The word essay can mean two things. It can mean an attempt, from the French essayer: “to try” or “to attempt”. More familiarly it is the name for a short written composition establishing a well-argued, personal point of view on a subject. Let’s keep both those meanings in the back of our head for the moment.


The essay as we understand it, was invented by Michel de Montaigne. He lived in France from 1533-1592. On Conversation; On Smells and On Thumbs are among his most famous essays. They display a sensitivity, depth of thought and broad-mindedness which is astonishing and refreshing for those wild and aggressive times.


Why write essays?

As aspiring architects you have to learn all about designing and making places that are appropriate to specific functions in society and special to the people who use and see them. Architects make places for people. People need good places to do what they do.


So why write essays? Because essays are places for thought. Essays are places where you practise thinking about architecture. Thought is about finding out how things work, about what is right and what is wrong for a certain time and for a certain place. It is about measuring all the relevant factors against each other and placing them in relation to each other, thoughtfully. Essays are places to try out ideas about good architecture. Essays are ways to find the appropriate attitude with regard to a task or event. It is a way of thoughtfully establishing a structure in all the competing factors within a design decision.


How do I write an essay?

Well, you need some vital ingredients. You need a subject, of course, and you need a point of view regarding that subject. These are things we discussed in the section on Building Arguments. However, as you cannot hold water without a jug, it might be worth taking a good look here at the form or structure of an essay.


The form of the essay as a whole.

Think of the design of an essay in the same way that you think about the design of the house. The two are not identical by any means, but there are some general ideas which are similar.

Remember that a house has a context or setting, it must have an exterior, proper foundations, a firm structure, a convenient plan and appropriate furniture, and above all a reason for being there. All these demands also apply to essays.


The context of the essay is an awareness shown by the author of where the essay fits in within the greater scheme of things. How, for example, does the essay relate to other writings on the same subject? Or how does the subject or issue relate to the wider landscape, that is wider issues? What is the particular orientation of your point of view? Who are you writing this essay for? These are all questions you have to ask yourself. They place the essay in the landscape of thought so to speak.


The exterior of the essay is given us by the title, and to some extent by the way we present the work.

The entry to the essay is the introduction. The introduction tells the reader briefly in what kind of place the reader has arrived by providing us with a quick insight about what the essay is about, and what it is setting out to do.

The introduction also gives us reassurance about the foundations of the whole work by explaining the basis of our argument by briefly stating the central problem and indicating the answer to that problem.

The introduction also gives us a quick indication of how to proceed through the rest of the essay.


The body of the essay takes us through the various rooms. With that I mean the various issues which need to be dealt with in order to complete the argument or the picture. These elements form the various steps of the argument, each well argued and furnished with the appropriate evidence.

Lastly then there is the conclusion, which may rehearse our journey briefly but more importantly shows us the way out, or in other words, points us to the future.

The above is essentially a summary of what we discussed in the section on building an argument.


For a proper essay you need to go through this whole process. You need a beginning: which includes a panoramic view of the whole topic and an explanatory entry; a middle, which takes you from issue to issue; and an end, a way out.