Good Sample Essays

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One of the most effective ways to improve our own writing is to spend some time reading the best writing of others. This collection of essays, articles, and letters--some written within the past few years, others more than a century old--offers some very good reading indeed. Enjoy these works--and observe the various strategies employed by their authors to describe, narrate, explain, argue, and persuade.

  1. "Advice to Youth," by Mark Twain (1882). "Always obey your parents, when they are present. This is the best policy in the long run, because if you don’t, they will make you. Most parents think they know better than you do, and you can generally make more by humoring that superstition than you can by acting on your own better judgment.
  2. "Becoming Mary Poppins: P. L. Travers, Walt Disney, and the Making of a Myth," by Caitlin Flanagan (The New Yorker, 2005)."'Mary Poppins' advocates the kind of family life that Walt Disney had spent his career both chronicling and helping to foster on a national level: father at work, mother at home, children flourishing. It is tempting to imagine that in Travers he found a like-minded person, someone who embodied the virtues of conformity and traditionalism. Nothing could be further from the truth."
  3. "The Death of the Moth," by Virginia Woolf (1942)."Again, somehow, one saw life, a pure bead. I lifted the pencil again, useless though I knew it to be. But even as I did so, the unmistakable tokens of death showed themselves. The body relaxed, and instantly grew stiff. The struggle was over. The insignificant little creature now knew death."
  4. The Education of Women," by Daniel Defoe (1719). "I have often thought of it as one of the most barbarous customs in the world, considering us as a civilized and a Christian country, that we deny the advantages of learning to women."
  5. "Farewell, My Lovely," by E. B. White (1936). "The last Model T was built in 1927, and the car is fading from what scholars call the American scene--which is an understatement, because to a few million people who grew up with it, the old Ford practically was the American scene. It was the miracle that God had wrought. And it was patently the sort of thing that could only happen once. E.B. White: "Not Bad"
  6. **"A Hanging," by George Orwell** (1931). "It is curious, but till that moment I had never realized what it means to destroy a healthy, conscious man. When I saw the prisoner step aside to avoid the puddle, I saw the mystery, the unspeakable wrongness, of cutting a life short when it is in full tide."
  7. "Letter from Birmingham Jail," by Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. (1963)."We know through painful experience that freedom is never voluntarily given by the oppressor; it must be demanded by the oppressed. Frankly, I have yet to engage in a direct-action campaign that was 'well timed' in the view of those who have not suffered unduly from the disease of segregation. For years now I have heard the word 'Wait!' It rings in the ear of every Negro with piercing familiarity. This 'Wait' has almost always meant 'Never.' We must come to see, with one of our distinguished jurists, that 'justice too long delayed is justice denied.'"
  8. "A Piece of Chalk," by G. K. Chesterton (1905)."I was sitting on an immense warehouse of white chalk. The landscape was made entirely of white chalk. White chalk was piled more miles until it met the sky."
  9. "Professions for Women," by Virginia Woolf (1942). 'You have won rooms of your own in the house hitherto exclusively owned by men. You are able, though not without great labour and effort, to pay the rent. You are earning your five hundred pounds a year. But this freedom is only a beginning--the room is your own, but it is still bare. It has to be furnished; it has to be decorated; it has to be shared."
  10. "Self-Reliance," by Ralph Waldo Emerson (1841)."There is a time in every man's education when he arrives at the conviction that envy is ignorance; that imitation is suicide; that he must take himself for better, for worse, as his portion. . . . Whoso would be a man must be a nonconformist."
  11. "Shooting an Elephant," by George Orwell (1936)."When I pulled the trigger I did not hear the bang or feel the kick--one never does when a shot goes home--but I heard the devilish roar of glee that went up from the crowd. In that instant, in too short a time, one would have thought, even for the bullet to get there, a mysterious, terrible change had come over the elephant. He neither stirred nor fell, but every line of his body had altered. He looked suddenly stricken, shrunken, immensely old, as though the frightful impact of the bullet had paralysed him without knocking him down."
  12. "Why I Write," by George Orwell (1946)."From a very early age, perhaps the age of five or six, I knew that when I grew up I should be a writer. Between the ages of about seventeen and twenty-four I tried to abandon this idea, but I did so with the consciousness that I was outraging my true nature and that sooner or later I should have to settle down and write books."
  13. Bookshop Memories," by George Orwell (1936)"Seen in the mass, five or ten thousand at a time, books were boring and even slightly sickening. Nowadays I do buy one occasionally, but only if it is a book that I want to read and can't borrow, and I never buy junk. The sweet smell of decaying paper appeals to me no longer. It is too closely associated in my mind with paranoiac customers and dead bluebottles."
  14. "The Candy Man," by Margaret Talbot (The New Yorker, 2005) "Roald Dahl, the British author of children’s books, wrote in a tiny cottage at the end of a trellised pathway canopied with twisting linden trees. He called it the 'writing hut,' and, since Dahl was nearly six feet six, he must have inhabited it like a giant in an elf’s house."
  15. "A Fable," by Mark Twain (1876) "You can find in a text whatever you bring, if you will stand between it and the mirror of your imagination."
  16. "The Hills of Zion," by H. L. Mencken (1925) "At a signal all the faithful crowded up to the bench and began to pray--not in unison, but each for himself. At another they all fell on their knees, their arms over the penitent. The leader kneeled facing us, his head alternately thrown back dramatically or buried in his hands. Words spouted from his lips like bullets from a machine-gun--appeals to God to pull the penitent back out of Hell, defiances of the demons of the air, a vast impassioned jargon of apocalyptic texts." **Reading Quiz on "The Hills of Zion"**
  17. "I Have a Dream" by Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. (1963) "We can never be satisfied as long as our children are stripped of their self-hood and robbed of their dignity by a sign stating: 'For Whites Only.' We cannot be satisfied as long as a Negro in Mississippi cannot vote and a Negro in New York believes he has nothing for which to vote. No, no, we are not satisfied, and we will not be satisfied until 'justice rolls down like waters, and righteousness like a mighty stream.'" **Reading Quiz on "I Have a Dream"**
  18. "On the Decay of the Art of Lying," by Mark Twain (1882) "Lying is universal--we all do it; we all must do it. Therefore, the wise thing is for us diligently to train ourselves to lie thoughtfully, judiciously; to lie with a good object, and not an evil one; to lie for others' advantage, and not our own; to lie healingly, charitably, humanely, not cruelly, hurtfully, maliciously; to lie gracefully and graciously, not awkwardly and clumsily; to lie firmly, frankly, squarely, with head erect, not haltingly, tortuously, with pusillanimous mien, as being ashamed of our high calling."
  19. On National Prejudices," by Oliver Goldsmith (1763) "Is it not very possible that I may love my own country, without hating the natives of other countries? that I may exert the most heroic bravery, the most undaunted resolution, in defending its laws and liberty, without despising all the rest of the world as cowards and poltroons?"
  20. "Once More to the Lake," by E. B. White (1941) "I began to sustain the illusion that [my son] was I, and therefore, by simple transposition, that I was my father. This sensation persisted, kept cropping up all the time we were there. It was not an entirely new feeling, but in this setting it grew much stronger. I seemed to be living a dual existence. I would be in the middle of some simple act, I would be picking up a bait box or laying down a table fork, or I would be saying something, and suddenly it would be not I but my father who was saying the words or making the gesture. It gave me a creepy sensation." Drafting and Revising "Once More to the Lake" Writers on Writing: E.B. White
  21. "Paradise Sold: What Are You Buying When You Buy Organic?" by Steven Shapin (The New Yorker, 2006) "It all depends on what you think you’re buying when you buy organic. If the word conjures up the image of a small, family-owned, local operation, you may be disappointed."
  22. "This Is the Life," by Annie Dillard (2003) "Everyone knows times and cultures are plural. If you come back a shrugging relativist or tongue-tied absolutist, then what? If you spend hours a day looking around, high astraddle the warp or woof of your people's wall, then what new wisdom can you take to your grave for worms to untangle? Well, maybe you will not go into advertising."
  23. "Two Ways of Seeing a River," by Mark Twain (1883) "Now when I had mastered the language of this water and had come to know every trifling feature that bordered the great river as familiarly as I knew the letters of the alphabet, I had made a valuable acquisition. But I had lost something, too. I had lost something which could never be restored to me while I lived."
  24. "Why I Write," by Joan Didion (1976) "In many ways writing is the act of saying I, of imposing oneself upon other people, of saying listen to me, see it my way, change your mind. It's an aggressive, even a hostile act."
  25. Inaugural Address of Barack Obama (2009)"We remain a young nation, but in the words of Scripture, the time has come to set aside childish things. The time has come to reaffirm our enduring spirit; to choose our better history; to carry forward that precious gift, that noble idea, passed on from generation to generation: the God-given promise that all are equal, all are free, and all deserve a chance to pursue their full measure of happiness."
  26. "Grant and Lee: A Study in Contrasts," by Bruce Catton (1956) "So Grant and Lee were in complete contrast, representing two diametrically opposed elements in American life. Grant was the modern man emerging; beyond him, ready to come on the stage was the great age of steal and machinery, of crowded cities and a restless burgeoning vitality. Lee might have ridden down from the old age of chivalry, lance in hand, silken banner fluttering over his head."
  27. "A Hashish House in New York," by H. H. Kane (Harper's, 1883) "Suddenly I heard a fierce clamor, felt the scrawny arms of these foul spirits wound about my neck, in my hair, on my limbs, pulling me over into the horrible chasm, into the heart of hell, crying, shrilly, 'Come! thou art one of us. Come! come! come!' I struggled fiercely, shrieked out in my agony, and suddenly awoke, with the cold sweat thick upon me."
  28. "How It Feels to Be Colored Me," Zora Neale Hurston (1928) "At certain times I have no race, I am me. When I set my hat at a certain angle and saunter down Seventh Avenue, Harlem City, feeling as snooty as the lions in front of the Forty-Second Street Library, for instance. So far as my feelings are concerned, Peggy Hopkins Joyce on the Boule Mich with her gorgeous raiment, stately carriage, knees knocking together in a most aristocratic manner, has nothing on me. The cosmic Zora emerges. I belong to no race nor time. I am the eternal feminine with its string of beads."
  29. "In Praise of Idleness," by Bertrand Russell (1932) "I think that there is far too much work done in the world, that immense harm is caused by the belief that work is virtuous, and that what needs to be preached in modern industrial countries is quite different from what always has been preached."
  30. "Life Under the Chief Doublespeak Officer," by William Lutz (1989) "If there's one product American business can produce in large amounts, it's doublespeak. Doublespeak is language that only pretends to say something; it's language that hides, evades or misleads."
  31. "A Modest Proposal for Preventing the Children of Poor People in Ireland from Being a Burden to Their Parents or Country, and for Making Them Beneficial to the Public," by Jonathan Swift (1729) ”I have been assured by a very knowing American of my acquaintance in London, that a young healthy child well nursed is at a year old a most delicious, nourishing, and wholesome food, whether stewed, roasted, baked, or boiled . . ..”
  32. "My Mother, My Hair," by Deborah Tannen (2006) "Daughters and mothers agree on what the hurtful conversations are. They disagree on who introduced the note of contention because they have different views of what the words imply. Where the daughter sees criticism, the mother sees caring."
  33. "My Wood," by E. M. Forster (1936) "It is not a large wood--it contains scarcely any trees, and it is intersected, blast it, by a public foot-path. Still, it is the first property that I have owned, so it is right that other people should participate in my shame, and should ask themselves, in accents that will vary in horror, this very important question: What is the effect of property upon the character? . . . Let's keep to psychology. If you own things, what's their effect on you? What's the effect on me of my wood?"
  34. "Salvation," by Langston Hughes (1940) "Suddenly the whole room broke into a sea of shouting, as they saw me rise. Waves of rejoicing swept the place. Women leaped in the air. My aunt threw her arms around me. The minister took me by the hand and led me to the platform."Reading quiz on "Salvation"
  35. "What Is Poverty?" by Jo Goodwin Parker (1971) "You ask me what is poverty? Listen to me. Here I am, dirty, smelly, and with no 'proper' underwear on and with the stench of my rotting teeth near you. I will tell you. Listen to me. Listen without pity. I cannot use your pity. Listen with understanding. Put yourself in my dirty, worn out, ill-fitting shoes, and hear me."
  36. "Why I Want a Wife," by Judy Brady (1971) "Not too long ago a male friend of mine appeared on the scene fresh from a recent divorce. He had one child, who is, of course, with his ex-wife. He is looking for another wife. As I thought about him while I was ironing one evening, it suddenly occurred to me that I too, would like to have a wife." Reading quiz on "Why I Want a Wife"
  37. Inaugural Address, by John F. Kennedy (1961) "I do not believe that any of us would exchange places with any other people or any other generation. The energy, the faith, the devotion which we bring to this endeavor will light our country and all who serve it. And the glow from that fire can truly light the world."
  38. "Drugs: The Case for Legalizing Marijuana," by Gore Vidal* (The New York Times, September 26, 1970) "It is possible to stop most drug addiction in the United States within a very short time. Simply make all drugs available and sell them at cost. Label each drug with a precise description of what effect--good and bad--the drug will have on whoever takes it. This will require heroic honesty." To access Vidal's essay, you must register with Registration is free.
  39. "Happiness," by Nikos Kazantzakis (Report to Greco, 1965) "Hungrily, avidly, I inhaled the fragrance of the steam rising from the pot. The meal must have been baked beans; the aroma was overwhelming. Once more I realized to what an extent earthly happiness is made to the measure of man. It is not a rare bird which we must pursue at one moment in heaven, at the next in our minds. Happiness is a domestic bird in our own courtyards."
  40. "Homeless," by Anna Quindlen (Newsweek, 1987) "It has been customary to take people's pain and lessen our own participation in it by turning it into an issue, not a collection of human beings. We turn an adjective into a noun: the poor, not poor people; the homeless, not Ann or the man who lives in the box or the woman who sleeps on the subway grate."
  41. "In Defense of Talk Shows," by Barbara Ehrenreich (Time magazine, December 4, 1995) "As anyone who actually watches them knows, the talk shows are one of the most excruciatingly moralistic forums the culture has to offer. Disturbing and sometimes disgusting, yes, but their very business is to preach the middle-class virtues of responsibility, reason and self-control."
  42. "The Kitchen," by Alfred Kazin (from A Walker in the City, 1951) "All my memories of that kitchen are dominated by the nearness of my mother sitting all day long at her sewing machine, by the clacking of the treadle against the linoleum floor, by the patient twist of her right shoulder as she automatically pushed at the wheel with one hand or lifted the foot to free the needle where it had got stuck in a thick piece of material. The kitchen was her life. Year by year, as I began to take in her fantastic capacity for labor and her anxious zeal, I realized it was ourselves she kept stitched together." Sentence Combining #5: "The Kitchen"
  43. "Politics and the English Language," by George Orwell (1946) "A man may take to drink because he feels himself to be a failure, and then fail all the more completely because he drinks. It is rather the same thing that is happening to the English language. It becomes ugly and inaccurate because our thoughts are foolish, but the slovenliness of our language makes it easier for us to have foolish thoughts. The point is that the process is reversible."
  44. "Portrait of a Londoner," by Virginia Woolf (1931) "The village was London, and the gossip was about London life. But Mrs Crowe's great gift consisted in making the vast metropolis seem as small as a village with one church, one manor house and 25 cottages. She had first-hand information about every play, every picture show, every trial, every divorce case. She knew who was marrying, who was dying, who was in town and who was out."
  45. "The Ring of Time," by E.B. White (1956) "Under the bright lights of the finished show, a performer need only reflect the electric candle power that is directed upon him; but in the dark and dirty old training rings and in the makeshift cages, whatever light is generated, whatever excitement, whatever beauty, must come from original sources—from internal fires of professional hunger and delight, from the exuberance and gravity of youth. It is the difference between planetary light and the combustion of stars."
  46. "Stone Soup," by Barbara Kingsolver (from High Tide In Tucson, published by HarperCollins, 1995) "The sooner we can let go the fairy tale of families functioning perfectly in isolation, the better we might embrace the relief of community. Even the admirable parents who've stayed married through thick and thin are very likely, at present, to incorporate other adults into their families--household help and baby-sitters if they can afford them, or neighbors and grandparents if they can't."
  47. "The Story of an Eyewitness: The San Francisco Earthquake," by Jack London (1906) "Not in history has a modern imperial city been so completely destroyed. San Francisco is gone. Nothing remains of it but memories and a fringe of dwelling-houses on its outskirts. Its industrial section is wiped out. Its business section is wiped out. Its social and residential section is wiped out." Sentence Combining #3: "The San Francisco Earthquake"
  48. "Watching Out for Loaded Words," by Frank Trippett (Time magazine, May 24, 1982) "Via eye and ear, words beyond numbering zip into the mind and flash a dizzy variety of meaning into the mysterious circuits of knowing. A great many of them bring along not only their meanings but some extra freight--a load of judgment or bias that plays upon the emotions instead of lighting up the understanding."
  49. The Death of My Father,” by Steve Martin (2002)“I sometimes think of our relationship graphically, as a bell curve. In my infancy, we were perfectly close. Then the gap widened to accommodate our differences and indifference. In the final days of his life, we again became perfectly close.”
  50. ”The Gettysburg Address,” by Abraham Lincoln (1863) “The brave men, living and dead, who struggled here, have hallowed it, far above our poor power to add or detract. The world will little note, nor long remember what we say here; while it can never forget what they did here.” Reading Quiz: "Gettysburg Address" See also:: “The Gettysburg PowerPoint Presentation,” by Peter Norvig
  51. ”How to Mark a Book,” by Mortimer Adler (1940) “Why is marking up a book indispensable to reading? First, it keeps you awake. (And I don't mean merely conscious; I mean awake.) In the second place; reading, if it is active, is thinking, and thinking tends to express itself in words, spoken or written. The marked book is usually the thought-through book. Finally, writing helps you remember the thoughts you had, or the thoughts the author expressed.”
  52. ”How to Say Nothing in 500 Words,” by Paul Roberts (1958)“Can you be expected to make a dull subject interesting? As a matter of fact, this is precisely what you are expected to do. This is the writer's essential task. All subjects, except sex, are dull until somebody makes them interesting. The writer's job is to find the argument, the approach, the angle, the wording that will take the reader with him.”
  53. ”The Moon Under Water,” by George Orwell (1946) “The great surprise of the Moon Under Water is its garden. You go through a narrow passage leading out of the saloon, and find yourself in a fairly large garden with plane trees, under which there are little green tables with iron chairs round them. Up at one end of the garden there are swings and a chute for the children.”
  54. ”Of Studies,” by Francis Bacon (1625) “Some books are to be tasted, others to be swallowed, and some few to be chewed and digested; that is, some books are to be read only in parts; others to be read, but not curiously; and some few to be read wholly, and with diligence and attention.”
  55. "Street Haunting: A London Adventure," by Virginia Woolf (1930) “That is true: to escape is the greatest of pleasures; street haunting in winter the greatest of adventures. Still as we approach our own doorstep again, it is comforting to feel the old possessions, the old prejudices, fold us round; and the self, which has been blown about at so many street corners, which has battered like a moth at the flame of so many inaccessible lanterns, sheltered and enclosed.”
  56. ”Thinking As a Hobby,” by William Golding (1961) “While I was still a boy, I came to the conclusion that there were three grades of thinking; and since I was later to claim thinking as my hobby, I came to an even stranger conclusion--namely, that I myself could not think at all.”
  57. ”Walking,” by Henry David Thoreau (1851) “I think that I cannot preserve my health and spirits unless I spend four hours a day at least--and it is commonly more than that--sauntering through the woods and over the hills and fields absolutely free from all worldly engagements. You may safely say a penny for your thoughts, or a thousand pounds. When sometimes I am reminded that the mechanics and shop-keepers stay in their shops not only all the forenoon, but all the afternoon too, sitting with crossed legs, so many of them--as if the legs were made to sit upon, and not to stand or walk upon--I think that they deserve some credit for not having all committed suicide long ago.”
  58. The Whistle,” by Benjamin Franklin (1779) "I conceive that great part of the miseries of mankind are brought upon them by the false estimates they have made of the value of things, and by their giving too much for their whistles."
  59. "Why Are Beggars Despised?" by George Orwell (1933) "People seem to feel that there is some essential difference between beggars and ordinary "working" men. They are a race apart--outcasts, like criminals and prostitutes. Working men "work," beggars do not 'work'; they are parasites, worthless in their very nature."
  60. "The Writing Life,” by Stephen King (2006) "There's a mystery about creative writing, but it's a boring mystery unless you're interested in this one small animal, sometimes quite vicious, that makes its home in the bushes. It's a scruffy little thing with fleas and often smells of whatever nasty mess it's been rolling in."