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An essay has been defined in a variety of ways. One definition is a "prose composition with a focused subject of discussion" or a "long, systematic discourse". It is difficult to define the genre into which essays fall. , a leading essayist, gives guidance on the subject. He notes that "the essay is a literary device for saying almost everything about almost anything", and adds that "by tradition, almost by definition, the essay is a short piece". Furthermore, Huxley argues that "essays belong to a literary species whose extreme variability can be studied most effectively within a three-poled frame of reference". These three poles (or worlds in which the essay may exist) are:

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An essay is, generally, a piece of writing that gives the author's own — but the definition is vague, overlapping with those of an , a , and a . Essays have traditionally been sub-classified as formal and informal. Formal essays are characterized by "serious purpose, dignity, logical organization, length," whereas the informal essay is characterized by "the personal element (self-revelation, individual tastes and experiences, confidential manner), humor, graceful style, rambling structure, unconventionality or novelty of theme," etc.


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Essays are commonly used as , political , learned , observations of daily life, recollections, and reflections of the author. Almost all modern essays are written in , but works in have been dubbed essays (e.g., 's and ). While brevity usually defines an essay, voluminous works like 's and 's are counterexamples. In some countries (e.g., the United States and Canada), essays have become a major part of formal . Secondary students are taught structured essay formats to improve their writing skills; are often used by in selecting applicants, and in the humanities and social sciences essays are often used as a way of assessing the performance of students during final exams.