Becoming a Great Essayist

Connect a personal experience, an idea, or a memory to the world outside of yourself. Discover the keys to unlocking your potential in essay writing with an award-winning author.
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Discover the keys to unlock your potential in essay writing. If you have a clever anecdote, an interesting memory, or a strong opinion, then you have an essay in you. These illuminating lectures explore many genres of essays, challenge you with stimulating writing prompts, and provide insights into how to write compelling essays. In mastering this versatile form, you gain skills to apply to any other form of writing.


Jennifer Cognard-Black
Jennifer Cognard-Black

Each of us has the capacity to write meaningful essays that tap into the heartbeat of humanity.


St. Mary’s College of Maryland

Dr. Jennifer Cognard-Black is Professor of English at St. Mary's College of Maryland, a public liberal arts college. She graduated summa cum laude from Nebraska Wesleyan University with a dual degree in Music and English. She studied under Jane Smiley for her M.A. in Fiction and Essay Writing at Iowa State University and received her Ph.D. in 19th-Century British and American Literature from The Ohio State University. Among her awards for teaching and writing, she was named a Fulbright Scholar to Slovenia, where she taught the American novel and creative writing. She was the recipient of a Maryland State Arts Council individual artist award and was twice the recipient of the Faculty Student Life Award, the most prestigious teaching award at St. Mary's, selected by the students themselves. She was awarded Mellon Foundation grants on three separate occasions, and she won a gold medal in the national 2016 Independent Publisher Book Awards contest for an anthology she edited. Nebraska Wesleyan University has named her a Distinguished Alumna and an Outstanding Graduate. Professor Cognard-Black's publications are extensive and eclectic, reflecting her intellectual background as both a writer and a literary critic. She is the author of numerous books, has published her essays and short fiction in a number of journals, and she has appeared on NPR.

By This Professor

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Steal, Adopt, Adapt: Where Essays Begin

01: Steal, Adopt, Adapt: Where Essays Begin

First, learn what the essay is-and what it is not. See how the practice of writing essays has evolved over centuries yet has remained versatile, and examine the many uses of essays across the ages. Numerous essayists find starting out to be the most daunting part of writing. Professor Cognard-Black alleviates these hesitations, using examples from Aristotle to Michel de Montaigne to Edgar Allan Po...

34 min
Memory Maps and Your Essay's Direction

02: Memory Maps and Your Essay's Direction

Much like a photographer who can change the angle, lens, lighting, and focus of a scene to evoke emotion from viewers, a writer colors an essay with his or her individual perspective simply by relaying his or her truth of it. This lecture focuses on looking at the world around you with a new lens, showing you how to convey those memories you've kept as an experience rather than just a recounting o...

29 min
Secrets, Confession, and a Writer's Voice

03: Secrets, Confession, and a Writer's Voice

One of the most remarkable consequences of essay writing is the illuminating insights you discover about yourself. The nature of the essay doesn't allow for plot building or outlines-you simply sit and write, which means the story takes its own direction. Professor Cognard-Black encourages this process of discovery and shares stories of how many an essay she started on one topic turned into a diff...

29 min
The Skeptical Essayist: Conflicting Views

04: The Skeptical Essayist: Conflicting Views

Many essayists find themselves doing an about-face as they write, sometimes because they may not have fully researched or thought through an idea before making claims about it. Essays that present conflicting views are not uncommon; Socrates would commonly switch sides in order to test all parts of an argument, and many others have followed his example. Learn how writing essays that provide both s...

30 min
The Reasonable Essayist: Artistic Proofs

05: The Reasonable Essayist: Artistic Proofs

Professor Cognard-Black introduces you to artistic proofs, which are grounded in your expertise and colored by your own observations and experiences. The most important artistic proof in any essay is ethos-the writer's ethical appeal or credibility. She demonstrates how to effectively use ethos along with logos or rationality to bring reasonableness into your essays, which vital to writing effecti...

31 min
The Unreasonable Essayist: Strategic Irony

06: The Unreasonable Essayist: Strategic Irony

After discussing the importance of presenting a reasonable essay, Professor Cognard-Black explores the world of unreasonable essays, often written for the sake of humor or irony, or to be provocative, such as Jonathan Swift's "A Modest Proposal." You'll explore an example of an essay that showcases conflicting views yet remains reasonable, and then look at examples where unreasonable writers use p...

31 min
The Empathetic Essayist: Evoking Emotion

07: The Empathetic Essayist: Evoking Emotion

Revisit Aristotle to master the craft of pathos-being able to express empathy for the subject of any essay. Learn how to elicit emotions from your readers while remaining authentic and not manipulative, clichéd, or contrived. Reflect on honest and moving uses of language from Maxine Hong Kingston and Barack Obama, who once perfectly summed up the importance of pathos in a speech by saying, ...

30 min
When an Essayist's Feelings Face Facts

08: When an Essayist's Feelings Face Facts

To help keep your essays from becoming overly sentimental, Professor Cognard-Black discusses pitfalls for writers to avoid. You'll be introduced to three examples of what rhetorical theorists call logical fallacies and then take on the challenge of an assignment that brings together emotional appeals with rational ones to achieve credibility, empathy, and candor. You'll examine Naomi Shihab Nye's ...

30 min
Unabashedly Me: The First-Person Essay

09: Unabashedly Me: The First-Person Essay

The use of a first-person perspective in essay writing is a powerful tool that invokes intimacy, empathy, and witness. Ethos is more inherent in an "I" essay because the person sharing the story actually experienced the events. Learn how to write concisely to avoid an "I" story becoming simply an outlet for your own feelings, instead using your emotions to develop a broader appeal that will intere...

31 min
Essayists as Poets: Tapping into Imagery

10: Essayists as Poets: Tapping into Imagery

This lecture opens by inviting you to "walk into" a photograph taken by Alfred Stieglitz in 1893 and reflect on what you would feel, smell, hear, and taste if you were actually in the scene. Only after you've noted the reactions of those senses are you then invited to describe what you might see. Using imagery in essays does more than describe and evoke a scene, however. When done well, imagery ca...

30 min
The Visual Essay: Words + Pictures

11: The Visual Essay: Words + Pictures

Writing a visual essay requires you to detach yourself from how you have been taught to view images your whole life. Rather than passively observing and judging, you must challenge yourself to get into the visual. Repeated and lengthy viewings of visual artifacts are one step. Once you start writing, though, the goal is to not recreate the exact image that you saw, but instead to reimagine it-to v...

31 min
Writing Inch by Inch: From Draft to Polish

12: Writing Inch by Inch: From Draft to Polish

Professor Cognard-Black guides you through Aristotle's process of inventio or invention, which is that period of discovery as you write your first draft. You'll examine openings from a number of published works, gaining a powerful toolkit that can help you craft the first sentence of your first draft. From there, Professor Cognard-Black provides a multitude of invaluable tools for revising, editin...

30 min
Short Forms: Microessays and Prose Poems

13: Short Forms: Microessays and Prose Poems

Learn how essays can break the rules of conventional writing, allowing you to design essay forms to match your needs rather than being forced to fit the rules of more conventional forms. Examine structures that reimagine the essay, such as the microessay and the prose poem or "proem." Professor Cognard-Black shares her own students' work to explore what elements went into these examples to make th...

30 min
The Memoir Essay

14: The Memoir Essay

A memoir is often confused with a personal essay, but Professor Cognard-Black shows you the difference, once again using examples from her own students' work. She then provides numerous tips to help you recreate your memories and turn them into fascinating pieces of writing. Learn techniques that allow you to get as detailed as possible in your descriptions while still maintaining a central focus ...

31 min
Lyric Essays: Writing That Sings

15: Lyric Essays: Writing That Sings

From the Greek "lyre," a lyric poem expresses a writer's thoughts and feelings through the intimacy of the first-person narrator, evoking a strong emotional reaction in the audience. Professor Cognard-Black demonstrates the similarities between a lyric poem and a lyric essay and shares a moving example of a lyric piece written by one of her own students that uses memory fragments and figurative la...

29 min
The Epistolary Essay: Letters to the World

16: The Epistolary Essay: Letters to the World

Professor Cognard-Black reveals a common form of communication that is rarely thought of as an essay, though it often is: the letter. Coupled with an engaging activity, you'll see how a handwritten letter differs from any other form of direct communication. You'll explore the similarities between letters and the epistolary essay as they both speak to a specific audience and convey a strong sense o...

31 min
Portrait Essays: People in Words

17: Portrait Essays: People in Words

One of the most important parts of portrait essays is to understand that any depiction of another person-whether a famous stranger or a family member-is also a depiction of the writer. With this lecture, you'll delve into this dynamic between a subject and its writer and examine this power struggle as it plays out in a portrait essay. Using examples from Truman Capote and Scott Russell Sanders, yo...

32 min
The Essayist as Public Intellectual

18: The Essayist as Public Intellectual

While public intellectual essays don't step outside personal reflection, they do grapple with social issues, often myth-busting popular beliefs. This style of writing is distinct from a portrait or lyric essay. Professor Cognard-Black demonstrates this difference through her own examples and those of well-known public intellectuals, such as Ralph Waldo Emerson and Salman Rushdie. You'll learn how ...

33 min
Polemical Essays: One-Sided Arguments

19: Polemical Essays: One-Sided Arguments

Originating in the medieval period, polemical essays are the form for writers who wish to focus on a topic from one perspective only. They are often written to be deliberately polarizing. Refusing to shy away from volatile issues, it takes a strong writer to turn an antagonistic rant into a persuasive, polemical argument. Professor Cognard-Black shares examples of both well-written and overly stri...

31 min
Historical Essays: Past as Present

20: Historical Essays: Past as Present

See how non-artistic proofs are immensely important when crafting a historical essay, especially since history is subjective, and the way you tell the story shapes how it will be understood. The non-artistic proofs of research and data set the scene for a historical essay, which connects personal memory to a larger project of human history. Professor Cognard-Black shares samples of strong historic...

32 min
Humor Essays

21: Humor Essays

One of the most surprising insights into humor essays is the revelation that most humor comes from misfortune. This idea has been around for centuries, as even Aristotle noted that laughing at tragedy is cathartic for both the writer and the audience. You'll delve into how self-deprecating humor lends itself to creating ethos or credibility in this particular form of essay. Professor Cognard-Black...

31 min
Nature Essays

22: Nature Essays

Nature essays can easily come across as unrealistic. Since the first nature essays were written in the 19th century, such pieces have often romanticized the natural world-but there is value in not sentimentalizing the great outdoors. Examining works by William Wordsworth, Henry David Thoreau, Deb Marquart, and Michael P. Branch, Professor Cognard-Black explores the various takes on nature that off...

33 min
Food Essays: My Grandmother's Recipe Box

23: Food Essays: My Grandmother's Recipe Box

Professor Cognard-Black shows you how a simple recipe is itself a story. As she explains, "It sets a scene, forms a plot, arrives at a climax, and ends with a denouement." Recipes form the basis of edible essays, which start out as instructions and ingredients, but when you mix in personal connections between a dish and your own culinary culture, add a dash of imagery, and stir in the history behi...

32 min
Sharing Your Essays: From Blog to Book

24: Sharing Your Essays: From Blog to Book

The modern form of the essay may be seen daily in blogs, although not all blogs are essays-instead, many are no more than personal journals, rants, or fantasies without broader connections and appeals. Professor Cognard-Black provides examples of what components are required for a piece to be a fully formed blog essay. While looking at examples from her students and professional writers, including...

34 min