Definition and Examples of Formal Essays

Glossary of Grammatical and Rhetorical Terms

formal essay
"A formal essay is aphoristic, structured, and serious," according to Jo Ray McCuen-Metherell and Anthony C. Winkler. "An informal essay is personal, revelatory, humorous, and somewhat loosely structured" ( Readings for Writers, 2016). (Dimitri Otis/Getty Images)

In composition studies, a formal essay is a short, relatively impersonal composition in prose. Also known as an impersonal essay or a Baconian essay (after the writings of England's first major essayist, Francis Bacon).

In contrast to the familiar or personal essay, the formal essay is typically used for the discussion of ideas. Its rhetorical purpose is generally to inform or persuade.

"The technique of the formal essay," says William Harmon, "is now practically identical with that of all factual or theoretical prose in which literary effect is secondary" (A Handbook to Literature, 2011).

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)
  • A Blurred Distinction Between Formal Essays and Informal Essays
    "Francis Bacon and his followers had a more impersonal, magisterial, law-giving, and didactic manner than the skeptical Montaigne. But they should not be viewed as opposites; the distinction between formal and informal essay can be overdone, and most great essayists have crossed the line frequently. The difference is one of degree. [William] Hazlitt was essentially a personal essayist, though he wrote theater and art criticism; Matthew Arnold and John Ruskin were essentially formal essayists, though they may have tried a personal essay once in a while. Personality creeps into the most impersonal of writers: it is difficult to read Bacon on friendship or having children, for instance, without suspecting he is talking about autobiographical matters. Dr. Johnson was probably more a moral essayist than a personal one, though his work has such an individual, idiosyncratic stamp that I have persuaded myself to place him in the personal camp. George Orwell seems split fifty-fifty, an essay hermaphrodite who always kept one eye on the subjective and one on the political. . . .
    "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)
  • Voice in the Impersonal Essay
    "[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." University of Georgia, 1991)
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Your Citation
Nordquist, Richard. "Definition and Examples of Formal Essays." ThoughtCo, Feb. 16, 2021, Nordquist, Richard. (2021, February 16). Definition and Examples of Formal Essays. Retrieved from Nordquist, Richard. "Definition and Examples of Formal Essays." ThoughtCo. (accessed June 7, 2023).