Essay Writing Ideas, Topics, and Publishing Tips

essay writing

Tips for developing essay writing ideas

Around here, we’re usually so focused on fiction, poetry, and journaling that we often forget about another form of creative writing: the essay.

The first essay that captured my attention and got me interested in essay writing was Jonathan Swift’s “A Modest Proposal,” which was also my first introduction to satire:

Written and published anonymously in 1729, the essay suggested that impoverished Irish might ease their economic troubles by selling their children as food for rich gentlemen and ladies. This satirical hyperbole mocked heartless attitudes towards the poor, as well as Irish policy in general. (Source)

“A Modest Proposal” is a harsh piece of writing, but it’s both creative and socially conscious. Essays can also be academic, personal, or analytic. In terms of subject matter, essays can run the gamut. And while essays are often associated with academia because they are often assigned by schoolteachers and professors, plenty of writers have eked out careers publishing essays on a wide range of topics.

Today, we’ll focus on developing essay writing ideas, but first let’s look at a few types of essays.

What is an Essay?

The word essay comes from the French word essayer, which means “to try” or “to attempt.” An essay is a short format of writing, which usually presents an author’s personal point of view and can include criticism, arguments, observations, recollections, and reflections around a focused topic. Usually written in prose, the essay falls somewhere between an article and a short story.

According to Wikipedia there are three branches of essay writing:

Personal and autobiographical essays: These use “fragments of reflective autobiography” to “look at the world through the keyhole of anecdote and description.”

Objective and factual: In these essays, the authors “do not speak directly of themselves, but turn their attention outward to some literary or scientific or political theme.”

Abstract-universal: These essays “make the best … of all the three worlds in which it is possible for the essay to exist.” This type is also known as Giraffe Style Writing.

So, how does one come up with essay writing ideas? One place to start is by thinking about the type of essay you want to write.

Types of Creative Essays

Because essays are so broad and can range from academic or analytic to highly personal, we can further place various types of essays in an unlimited number of categories. Let’s look at a few options in essay writing that we can explore:

Narrative Essay: Narrative essays are similar to short stories except they are nonfiction and usually relate to a core topic or theme. Such an essay usually makes a point using story as an example. These are excellent essays for journal keepers and short fiction writers.

Descriptive Essay: A descriptive essay avoids the author’s personal thoughts and feelings and focuses on the who, what, where, when, why, and how. These essays are ideal for anyone who likes to examine a subject from every angle and for writers who enjoy composing descriptive prose.

Personal Essay: A personal essay relates an author’s thoughts or feelings on any given subject. Subject matter can range from food, health, and parenting to political or philosophical beliefs. The writer’s personal experiences may be the basis for such an essay; however, personal experiences may be absent.

Reflective Essay: A reflective essay is a stand-alone piece, which is usually intended for publication. This is an essay about a personal experience, which is intertwined with thoughts (reflections) on it.

Response Essay: A response essay is similar to a personal essay in that it relates the author’s thoughts and feelings, except it speaks specifically about the author’s reaction to something; books, movies, travels, and other events and experiences are all fair game.

Argumentative of Persuasive Essay: These essays present the author’s position on an issue and apply logic, reason, and often, statistics and research, to back up the author’s opinions. Persuasive essays are designed to convince readers to do something or see some issue from a certain perspective.

This is just a small sample of the various types of creative essays you might write. You may find that just by reviewing the different types of essays, something clicks and you’re struck with inspiration. However, you may need to look to your passions and interests to generate essay writing ideas; you may need to start with a topic.

Essay Writing Ideas: Choosing a Topic

In the world of essays, there are unlimited topics that you can explore. Here are a few good strategies for selecting a topic if you’re looking for essay writing ideas:

  1. What are you most passionate about? What gets your blood boiling or makes you want to do a happy dance? Write an essay about it.
  2. What do you know a lot about? It could be something you studied in school or it could be career-related. Your knowledge base provides great fodder for essay writing.
  3. What do you want to learn more about? You can always conduct research for an essay, and if there’s some subject you’d like to learn about, then conducting that research for an essay is a great way to get started.

Let’s say you’re writing a science fiction novel and want to learn more about our solar system so you can depict space travel. You could write a descriptive essay of our solar system and start the project by writing a long list of questions to which you need the answers in order to get started.

Tips for Publishing Essays

Many publications accept essay submissions. You can write an essay for a specific publication or you can write an essay and find a publication for it later. Be sure to check the publications’ submission guidelines and follow them accordingly. For example, some publications only take academic or analytic essays; others may be looking for essays that deal with specific subject matter. In traditional publishing, you might find essay collections difficult to break into. You usually need a few publication credits (clips) or expertise in a field before landing a publishing deal in this form.

If you’re a prolific essay writer, you can always self-publish your essays on your website or through any of the many self-publishing avenues available.

Do You Write Essays?

Essay writing is a broad field for writers to explore. Some of the greatest artists, thinkers, and leaders have been essayists and contributed their thoughts, feelings, and perspectives to the greater culture through the written word.

Have you ever written an essay that wasn’t assigned? What subject matter do you like to explore in essays? Where do you find essay writing ideas? Share your thoughts and experiences by leaving a comment, and keep writing!

Adventures in Writing The Complete Collection

About Melissa Donovan
Melissa Donovan is a website designer and copywriter. She writes fiction and poetry and is the founder and editor of Writing Forward, a blog packed with creative writing tips and ideas.


12 Responses to “Essay Writing Ideas, Topics, and Publishing Tips”

  1. Ty Unglebower says:

    I have never had an essay published, per se, but it is a form with which I am quite familiar. I often write humorous essays in order to entertain my Facebook friends. (One I have posted each year at Christmas time for several years.) But I am also no stranger to writing a persuasive essay on any given forum or web space.

    Most contemporary people seem to lack the patience to read essays. Yet the essay is one form by which I feel I can say all on a subject that I want to say.

    • I’m a big fan of essays, as long as they deal with subjects in which I’m interested. The rules are so loose, you can do a lot with them (as evidenced by Swift’s work). I suspect there are more essays written today on the web than there were fifteen or twenty years ago, which is super cool. I love that the Internet provides a space for everyone to have a voice. Keep using that space, Ty!

  2. Mikaela D says:

    Thanks for this Melissa! Essays are my favorite form of writing, but I’ve been having trouble getting my writing brain in gear; this gave me some great ideas!

  3. Comparison essay says:

    Perfect tips on picking a topic. If you choose a topic that you have strong feelings for the words will just flow.

  4. Barbara says:

    I have a question that came up on a recent state writing exam for middle school students. The writing prompt told students to “write a narrative” about an imagined fictional scenario. At the same time, the directions stated that in their “essay” they should include basic story elements. This was confusing for students- since I teach that there is a difference between the structure of a fictional story and an essay. I know about narrative essays, as stated above they are nonfiction in character, and relate a personal experience.

    What do you think? Was the use of the word “essay” in this a case a misnomer where students were expected to write a fictional piece?

    • That’s a tricky one, Barbara. I would agree that an essay is not fictional although a narrative can be fictional or nonfictional. I suppose the test could have intended for the students to come up with a fictional scenario and write an essay about it. They were told to write a narrative “about” a fictional scenario rather than to simply “write” a fictional scenario.

      For example, they could write an essay on the meaning behind characters’ names in works of fiction. To illustrate their ideas, they could use a made-up story and set of characters.

      I agree, though, that the instructions aren’t clear enough. I had to read what you provided several times and think about it carefully. I wouldn’t want to have to do that under the timed pressure of taking a state test.

  5. Joice says:

    I am presently working on an essay and some other write ups and have been having a few challenges but this article has opened me up to things i never really understood . Thanks a lot

  6. Sheila Good says:

    Thank you so much for this information. I am currently working on an essay, specifically for magazine publications. This article was most helpful. I can fine tune and send it out.