Reverse detail from Kakelbont MS 1, a fifteenth-century French Psalter. This image is in the public domain. Daniel Paul O'Donnell

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The unessay

Posted: Sep 04, 2012 15:09;
Last Modified: Sep 28, 2018 12:09


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.


Unfortunately, however, as the 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 not to lose marks (for a vigorous defence of the flexible essay, see software developer Paul Graham’s blog). 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: the compulsory figures of academia.

The unessay

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.

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 and unit we are working on. You can take any approach; you can use as few or as many resources as you wish; you can cite the Wikipedia. The only requirements are that your treatment of the topic be compelling and effective: that is to say 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.

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. 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,… even media you want. What is important is that the format and presentation you do use helps rather than hinders your explanation of the topic.

Be 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 criterion 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:

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

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 (though remember, the compositions you usually are asked to do in class are actually far less “real” examples of the genre as it is used professionally than are your unessays)? 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. They have fewer rules to remember and worry about violating (actually there are none). 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 (i.e. the kind of thing many students obsess about in such classes) are actually quite trivial and easily learned. You can look them up when you need to know them (that’s what I do, anyway). Increasingly, you can get your software to handle these things for you (ditto). In our class, moreover, I will be giving you separate instruction 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. But more importantly, you might find yourself writing real “real” essays (i.e. essays that are true to the experimental and personal origins of the genre) instead.

Given a choice, most instructors would rather read those kinds of papers anyway.


Comment [12]

  1. Dr. Vi Rajagopalan (Wed Jul 22, 2020 (09:12:25)) [PermLink]:

    Would it be alright with you if I used this idea that you have here. I have heard so much about unessay these days but you have the information and its applications here. Thank you.

  2. Dan O'Donnell (Sat Jul 25, 2020 (21:35:57)) [PermLink]:

    Dear Dr. Rajagopalan,

    Of course. This is actually the origin of the Unessay; it’s often cited as 2018, but it actually goes back to 2012 (you can see the original date at the top).

    Have fun. It works an absolute charm!

  3. Ela (Sun Aug 23, 2020 (13:35:47)) [PermLink]:

    Fantastic! Will probably adapt to one of my classes.. Too late for the other one.

  4. Andie Palmer (Tue Oct 13, 2020 (10:22:58)) [PermLink]:

    We are using your terrific advice in my classes this term— it seems very appropriate to COVID times, when a radical rethink of courses is needed. Thanks for the inspiration, and I will let you know how it works out!

  5. Bridget C. Taylor (Wed Apr 21, 2021 (23:52:46)) [PermLink]:

    Hello, I think this Unessay project is wonderful. Can I have your permission to use this idea to help my students? Do you have the rubric?

  6. Daniel O'Donnell (Wed May 26, 2021 (09:26:59)) [PermLink]:

    @Bridget: Of course, please use it. In terms of rubric, the Rubric is really what’s listed under “Compelling” and “Effective” above. I found myself, anyway, that I couldn’t go beyond that, because you don’t know what students are going to produce — anything more detailed will direct them in a way YOU want rather than THEY want.

    It is also based on my research from a couple of decades ago on grading-as-expert-system: i.e. as instructors, we are experts who are able to put a number (i.e. a grade) on a performance in a university classroom and that that as a rule should be reasonable in the context of students’ entire university careers.

  7. Jamie L. Wood (Wed Jun 2, 2021 (12:33:49)) [PermLink]:

    Dr. O’Donnell,
    I first heard about the UnEssay from colleagues using it with Intro Bio and other life sciences courses. I tried it this year with my postbaccalaureate students, most of whom want to go to med school. What they created was astounding, and they saw the experience as an overall positive one. Thanks so much for this contribution to pedagogy.

  8. Stacy Bodus (Tue Jul 6, 2021 (23:41:12)) [PermLink]:

    Thank you for posting this.
    I would like to tweak it for my comp class this fall. Is this permissible? I ask because it states below that we should contact you to use the work in some other fashion and I’m not sure what that means under the Creative Commons policy.
    —Followed you on Twitter, too.

  9. Daniel O'Donnell (Sun Jul 25, 2021 (17:32:41)) [PermLink]:

    Stacy, Of course you can use it. By “some other fashion” I mean if for some reason you need terms other than “NC-SA,” that you should contact me for a negotiated licence. the CC is for non-negotiated use, but one can always have other negotiated uses.

    I wonder if I shouldn’t change that, anyway. I probably haven’t adjusted the footer in years.

  10. Rosamond (Mon Dec 20, 2021 (15:41:20)) [PermLink]:

    Thank you so much for your generosity with these. As I read through your discussion I am encouraged and enthused about taking a more flexible and less rigid approach to writing requirements. Again, thanks.

  11. Rachel Hammond (Fri Jul 14, 2023 (09:22:15)) [PermLink]:

    Thank you for posting this – I have been using a version of the unessay in one of my courses and would like to present the process in a proposal for a conference – would that be okay with you? I would cite you properly.

  12. Maureen Niwa (Tue Aug 22, 2023 (13:24:44)) [PermLink]:

    Thank you Daniel for this exciting approach. Just wondering if I can adapt the unessay guidelines you have there for two of my courses this term.



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