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An essay is, generally, a piece of writing that gives the author's own argument — but the definition is vague, overlapping with those of a paper, an article, a pamphlet, and a short story.Essays have traditionally been sub-classified as formal and informal.The defining features of a "cause and effect" essay are causal chains that connect from a cause to an effect, careful language, and chronological or emphatic order.
Kenkō described his short writings similarly to Montaigne, referring to them as "nonsensical thoughts" written in "idle hours".
Another noteworthy difference from Europe is that women have traditionally written in Japan, though the more formal, Chinese-influenced writings of male writers were more prized at the time.
Formal essays are characterized by "serious purpose, dignity, logical organization, length," whereas the informal essay is characterized by "the personal element (self-revelation, individual tastes and experiences, confidential manner), humor, graceful style, rambling structure, unconventionality or novelty of theme," etc.
Essays are commonly used as literary criticism, political manifestos, learned arguments, observations of daily life, recollections, and reflections of the author.
English essayists included Robert Burton (1577–1641) and Sir Thomas Browne (1605–1682).
In France, Michel de Montaigne's three volume Essais in the mid 1500s contain over 100 examples widely regarded as the predecessor of the modern essay.
A photographic essay covers a topic with a linked series of photographs that may have accompanying text or captions.
He notes that "the essay is a literary device for saying almost everything about almost anything", and adds that "by tradition, almost by definition, the essay is a short piece".
In Italy, Baldassare Castiglione wrote about courtly manners in his essay Il Cortigiano.
In the 17th century, the Jesuit Baltasar Gracián wrote about the theme of wisdom.