Due Dates

  • Unessay précis due: Friday, October 9 by 10 pm to Blackboard
  • Unessay due: Friday, October 30 by 5 pm (to Blackboard, or to me in person – it depends on what you’re doing)

Prelude: Or, why essays can be boring as class assignments

Many thanks to Daniel Paul O’Donnell and Ryan Cordell for this assignment, which I’ve only slightly modified for this class. For more on the research behind the Unessay assignment, see the work of Emma Dering and Matthew Galea.

The essay is a wonderful and flexible tool for engaging with a topic intellectually. It is a very free format that can be turned to discuss any topic – works of literature, of course, but also autobiography, science, entertainment, history, and government, politics, and so on. There is often something provisional about the essay (its name comes from French essai, meaning a trial), and almost always something personal. At its best, essay writing is about what Paul Graham calls “ferret[ing] out the unexpected;” a good essay will surprise readers not only with what they didn’t know, but also with things that contradict what they thought they knew.

Unfortunately, however, as Wikipedia notes:

In some countries (e.g., the United States and Canada), essays have become a major part of formal education. Secondary students are taught structured essay formats to improve their writing skills, and admission essays are often used by universities in selecting applicants and, in the humanities and social sciences, as a way of assessing the performance of students during final exams.

One result of this is that the essay form, which should be extremely free and flexible, is instead often presented as a static and rule-bound monster that students must master in order to get a particular score or grade. Far from an opportunity to explore intellectual passions and interests in a personal style, the essay is transformed into a formulaic method for discussing set topics in five paragraphs. This has a tendency to produce some very predictable, safe, and, on the whole, uninteresting writing: the compulsory figures of academia.

Project Overview: The Unessay

By contrast, the unessay is an assignment that attempts to undo the damage done by this approach to teaching writing. It works by throwing out all the rules you have learned about essay writing in the course of your primary, secondary, and post-secondary education and asks you to focus instead solely on your intellectual interests and passions. In an unessay you choose your own topic, present it any way you please, and are evaluated on how compelling and effective you are. Here are the basic guidelines:

1. You choose your own topic

The unessay allows you to write about anything you want provided you are able to associate your topic with the subject matter of the course (i.e., your unessay should be about one of the works of literature we are reading in this course). You can take any approach; you can use as few or as many resources as you wish; you can even cite Wikipedia. The only requirements are that your treatment of the topic be compelling: this means that it’s presented in a way that leaves the reader thinking that you are being accurate, interesting, and as complete and/or convincing as your subject allows.

2. You can present it any way you please

There are also no formal requirements. Your essay can be written in five paragraphs, or three, or twenty-six. If you decide you need to cite something, you can do that anyway you want. If you want to use lists, use lists. If you want to write in the first person, write in the first person. If you prefer to present the whole thing as a video, present it as a video. Use slang. Or don’t. Write in sentence fragments if you think that would be effective. In other words, in an unessay you have complete freedom of form: you can use whatever style of writing, presentation, citation, or media you want. What is important is that the format and presentation you do use helps rather than hinders your explanation of the topic.

3. You are evaluated on how compelling and effective you are

If unessays can be about anything and there are no restrictions on format and presentation, how are they graded?

The main criteria is how well it all fits together. That is to say, how compelling and effective your work is.

An unessay is compelling when it shows some combination of the following:

  • It is as interesting as its topic and approach allows
  • It is as complete as its topic and approach allows (it doesn’t leave the audience thinking that important points are being skipped over or ignored)
  • It is truthful (any questions, evidence, conclusions, or arguments you raise are honestly and accurately presented)

In terms of presentation, an unessay is effective when it shows some combination of these attributes:

  • It is readable/watchable/listenable (i.e. the production values are appropriately high and the audience is not distracted by avoidable lapses in presentation)
  • It is appropriate (i.e. it uses a format and medium that suits its topic and approach)
  • It is attractive (i.e. it is presented in a way that leads the audience to trust the author and his or her arguments, examples, and conclusions).

See Ryan Cordell’s assignment page for examples of unessays his students have done if you’re looking for inspiration. These examples don’t model the potential content of your unessays, since they were done for very different classes than ours, but they can give you a sense of what kind of work you might complete.

Why Unessays Are Not a Waste of Your Time

The unessay may be quite different from what you are used to doing in English class. If so, a reasonable question might be whether I am wasting your time by assigning them. If you can write whatever you want and present it any way you wish, is this not going to be a lot easier to do than an actual essay? And is it not leaving you unprepared for subsequent instructors who want you to write the real kind of essays?

The answer to both these questions is no. Unessays are not going to be easier than “real” essays. There have fewer rules to remember and worry about violating. But unessays are more challenging in that you need to make your own decisions about what you are going to discuss and how you are going to discuss it.

And you are not going to be left unprepared for instructors who assign “real” essays. Questions like how to format your page or prepare a works cited list are actually quite trivial and easily learned. You can look them up when you need to know them and, increasingly, can get your software to handle these things for you anyway. In our class, moreover, we have already spent some time via your blog posts on what English professors normally expect to see in the essays you submit to them.

But even more importantly, the things you will be doing in an unessay will help improve your “real” ones: excellent “real” essays also match form to topic and are about things you are interested in; if you learn how to write compelling and effective unessays, you’ll find it a lot easier to do well in your “real” essays as well.


  • I highly prize creative takes on this assignment. Before jumping into typical paper writing mode, consider other media, presentation styles, and modes of critical engagement you might employ instead.

  • I would be thrilled to see unessays that do rather than simply describe. Consider using your unessay assignment to get your hands dirty (perhaps literally) with another medium instead of or in addition to writing.

  • Take advantage of me as a resource as you develop your unessay ideas. I’m here to help. In fact, as the unessay précis assignment sheet makes clear, talking with me about your ideas is a required part of the unessay process.