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When it comes to expressing your thoughts in French, there’s nothing better than the essay.
It is, after all, the favorite form of such famed French thinkers as Montaigne, Chateaubriand, Houellebecq and Simone de Beauvoir.
But writing an essay in French is not the same as those typical 5-paragraph essays you’ve probably written in English.
In fact, there’s a whole other logic that has to be used to ensure that your essay meets French format standards and structure. It’s not merely writing your ideas in another language.
And that’s because the French use Cartesian logic, developed by René Descartes, which requires a writer to begin with what is known and then lead the reader through to the logical conclusion: a paragraph that contains the thesis.
Sound intriguing? The French essay will soon have no secrets from you!
We’ve outlined the four most common types of essays in French, ranked from easiest to most difficult, to help you get to know this concept better. Even if you’re not headed to a French high school or university, it’s still pretty interesting to learn about another culture’s basic essay!
Must-have French Phrases for Writing Essays
Before we get to the four types of essays, here are a few French phrases that will be especially helpful as you delve into essay-writing in French:
Introductory phrases, which help you present new ideas.
- tout d’abord– firstly
- premièrement– firstly
Connecting phrases, which help you connect ideas and sections.
- et – and
- de plus – in addition
- également – also
- ensuite – next
- deuxièmement– secondly
- or – so
- ainsi que – as well as
- lorsque– when, while
Contrasting phrases, which help you juxtapose two ideas.
- en revanche– on the other hand
- pourtant – however
- néanmoins– meanwhile, however
Concluding phrases, which help you to introduce your conclusion.
- enfin– finally
- finalement– finally
- pour conclure – to conclude
- en conclusion – in conclusion
4 Types of French Essays and How to Write Them
1. Text Summary (Synthèse de texte)
The text summary or synthèse de texte is one of the easiest French writing exercises to get a handle on. It essentially involves reading a text and then summarizing it in an established number of words, while repeating no phrases that are in the original text. No analysis is called for.
A synthèse de texte should follow the same format as the text that is being synthesized. The arguments should be presented in the same way, and no major element of the original text should be left out of the synthèse.
Here is a great guide to writing a successful synthèse de texte, written for French speakers.
The text summary is a great exercise for exploring the following French language elements:
- Synonyms, as you will need to find other words to describe what is said in the original text.
- Nominalization, which involves turning verbs into nouns and generally cuts down on word count.
- Vocabulary, as the knowledge of more exact terms will allow you to avoid periphrases and cut down on word count.
While beginners may wish to work with only one text, advanced learners can synthesize as many as three texts in one text summary. The concours exam for entry into the École Supérieure de Commerce de Paris calls for a 300-word synthesis of three texts, ranging from 750 to 1500 words, with a tolerance of more or less 10 percent.
Since a text summary is simple in its essence, it’s a great writing exercise that can accompany you through your entire learning process.
2. Text Commentary (Commentaire de texte)
A text commentary or commentaire de texteis the first writing exercise where the student is asked to present analysis of the materials at hand, not just a summary.
That said, a commentaire de texte is not a reaction piece. It involves a very delicate balance of summary and opinion, the latter of which must be presented as impersonally as possible. This can be done either by using the third person (on) or the general first person plural (nous). The singular first person (je) should never be used in a commentaire de texte.
A commentaire de texte should be written in three parts:
- An introduction, where the text is presented.
- An argument, where the text is analyzed.
- A conclusion, where the analysis is summarized and elevated.
Here is a handy guide to writing a successful commentaire de texte, written for French speakers.
Unlike with the synthesis, you will not be able to address all elements of a text in a commentary. You should not summarize the text in a commentary, at least not for the sake of summarizing. Every element of the text that you speak about in your commentary must be analyzed.
To successfully analyze a text, you will need to brush up on your figurative language. Here are some great resources to get you started:
- This guide, intended for high school students preparing for the BAC—the exam all French high school students take, which they’re required to pass to go to university—is great for learning how to integrate figurative language into your commentaries.
3. Dialectic Dissertation (Thèse, Antithèse, Synthèse)
The French answer to the 5-paragraph essay is known as the dissertation. Like the American 5-paragraph essay, it has an introduction, body paragraphs and a conclusion. The stream of logic, however, is distinct.
There are actually two kinds of dissertation, each of which has its own rules.
The first form of dissertation is the dialectic dissertation, better known as thèse, antithèse, synthèse. In this form, there are actually only two body paragraphs. After the introduction, a thesis is posited. Following the thesis, its opposite, the antithesis, is explored (and hopefully, debunked). The final paragraph, what we know as the conclusion, is the synthesis, which addresses the strengths of the thesis, the strengths and weaknesses of the antithesis, and concludes with the reasons why the original thesis is correct.
For example, imagine that the question was, “Are computers useful to the development of the human brain?” You could begin with a section showing the ways in which computers are useful for the progression of our common intelligence—doing long calculations, creating in-depth models, etc.
Then you would delve into the problems that computers pose to human intelligence, citing examples of the ways in which spelling proficiency has decreased since the invention of spell check, for example. Finally you would synthesize this information and conclude that the “pro” outweighs the “con.”
The key to success with this format is developing an outline before writing. The thesis must be established, with examples, and the antithesis must be supported as well. When all of the information has been organized in the outline, the writing can begin, supported by the tools you have learned from your mastery of the synthesis and commentary.
Here are a few tools to help you get writing:
4. Progressive Dissertation (Plan progressif)
The progressive dissertation is a slightly less common, but no less useful, than the first form.
The progressive form basically consists of examining an idea via multiple points of view—a sort of deepening of the understanding of the notion, starting with a superficial perspective and ending with a deep and profound analysis.
If the dialectic dissertation is like a scale, weighing pros and cons of an idea, the progressive dissertation is like peeling an onion, uncovering more and more layers as you get to the deeper crux of the idea.
Concretely, this means that you will generally follow this layout:
- A first, elementary exploration of the idea.
- A second, more philosophical exploration of the idea.
- A third, more transcendent exploration of the idea.
This format for the dissertation is more commonly used for essays that are written in response to a philosophical question, for example, “What is a person?” or “What is justice?”
Let’s say the question were, “What is war?” In the first part, you would explore dictionary definitions—a basic idea of war, i.e. an armed conflict between two parties, usually nations. You could give examples that back up this definition, and you could narrow down the definition of the subject as much as needed. For example, you might want to make mention that not all conflicts are wars, or you might want to explore whether the “War on Terror” is a war.
In the second part, you would explore a more philosophical look at the topic, using a definition that you provide. You first explain how you plan to analyze the subject, and then you do so. In French, this is known as poser une problématique (establishing a thesis question), and it usually is done by first writing out a question and then exploring it using examples: “Is war a reflection of the base predilection of humans for violence?”
In the third part, you will take a step back and explore this question from a distance, taking the time to construct a natural conclusion and answer for the question.
This form may not be as useful in as many cases as the first type of essay, but it’s a good form to learn, particularly for those interested in philosophy.
Here are a few resources to help you with your progressive dissertation:
As you progress in French and become more and more comfortable with writing, try your hand at each of these types of writing exercises, and even with other forms of the dissertation. You’ll soon be a pro at everything from a synthèse de texte to a dissertation!
And One More Thing…
Of course, French is a lot more than writing essays.
To cover all your other language bases, there’s always FluentU.
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Since this video content is stuff that native French speakers actually watch on the regular, you’ll get the opportunity to learn real French—the way it’s spoken in modern life.
One quick look will give you an idea of the diverse content found on FluentU:
Love the thought of learning French with native materials but afraid you won’t understand what’s being said? FluentU brings authentic French videos within reach of any learner. Interactive captions will guide you along the way, so you’ll never miss a word.
Tap on any word to see a definition, in-context usage examples, audio pronunciation, helpful images and more. For example, if you tap on the word “suit,” then this is what appears on your screen:
Don’t stop there, though. Use FluentU’s learn mode to actively practice all the vocabulary in any video with vocabulary lists, flashcards, quizzes and fun activities like “fill in the blank.”
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Notes for Japanese-speaking learners of English
In English, it is important to write an essay logically and clearly. To do so, you must remember to:
• State clearly your argument (主張をはっきり書く)
• Support your argument by clearly stating your reasons ‘why’ (主張の根拠を述べる)
• Avoid vague expressions (あいまいな表現を避ける)
For example, in Japanese essay writing, even when expressing your argument, you might end your sentences with ～ではないだろうか/～でよいのだろうか which are similar to saying I wonder/I guess in English. If you do this, you are asking your readers to judge for themselves whether your argument holds true or not. Similarly, if you use ～ではないかと思う/～と思われる which is similar to saying I think that～/It is thought that～, in your English essay, even if you are confident in your argument, your argument cannot be seen as an argument, but just a thought. So, you should avoid these vague expressions when putting forward your argument.
Essay writing in French
There are several key differences between writing an essay in English and writing an essay in French. Often, lower marks are given to French students if they express their opinion in the Introduction of their essay, because the French convention is to leave opinions for the concluding sentence(s) of the whole essay. So, in many ways, the structure and organisation rather than the content and style are the most important aspects of a French essay.
In universities across France, students are often evaluated on their ability to write 1500-word dissertations, or what in English we might call the ‘argument driven essay’. These dissertations can be thematic (in which a given subject is analysed, such as “The Films of Audrey Tautou”); interrogative (in which a question is posed, and an argument developed, such as “What is Audrey Tautou’s best performance?”); or implicit (in which the student links two or more themes to each another, such as “Love and Sadness in the Films of Audrey Tautou”). Having received the subject of the essay – in the above case, Audrey Tautou, her films, and the themes in those films – the student then needs to do something quite different to what we do in English essays.
To start the essay in French, students are told to find the ‘problem’, or what the French call the problématique. This is a bit like the research question, the thesis statement, or the research topic, and will often involve a series of complicated, interlinked questions. Indeed, French students are often reminded of the great French ethnologist and anthropologist Claude Lévi-Strauss, who stated that “Le savant n’est pas celui qui donne les bonnes réponses mais celui qui pose les bonnes questions” (“the scholar is not he who gives the right answers, but he who asks the right questions”). In other words French essays do not ask you to argue for one point of view over another; instead, the essay should elucidate and provide concrete examples of the various aspects of the problématique. This is not easy, and takes a lot of practice, but it is something all French students are expected to do, and to do well – argumentation, rhetoric, dialectical logic. Once the problématique has been identified, the rest of the essay will flow logically from this. Jacob W. Getzels and Mihaly Csikszentmilhalyi, in The Creative Vision, define this approach: “the critical ability which distinguished successful artists was not technical skill, but what the authors called problem-finding — the ability to envision, pose, formulate, or create a new problematic situation.”
On finding the problématique, the argument and the structure then develop. Usually, the dissertation will have three distinct parts, each consisting of one paragraph only, so that the final essay will contain five paragraphs (if we also add the introduction and conclusion). Each paragraph is then subdivided, often into three parts, so as to introduce one major argument plus shorter examples. In this way, the three main paragraphs will present an argument (“Audrey Tautou’s films are some of the best in French cinema”), a counter-argument (“Audrey Tautou’s films are some of the worst examples of French cinema”), and a synthesis (“Audrey Tautou’s films – whether good or bad – reveal a great deal about contemporary French cinema”).
Each paragraph will be of equal length (students are often penalised if there are word-count imbalances in their overall structure) and will contain a series of mots charnières (linking words) to help the writer sum up the last paragraph and introduce the following one, and provide an easy, comprehensible road-map to the reader so that they know which part of the problématique is now being discussed. For example, in French, common words and phrases that introduce an opposite or opposing idea include mais (but), cependant (nevertheless), toutefois (however), pourtant (yet), and au contraire (on the contrary).
Once the three main paragraphs have been completed, students will then go back to retrofit the Introduction and the Conclusion. As we have seen, the introduction will outline the problématique but must not contain opinions which are personal to the reader. An overview of the structure of the essay will also happen here, such as “In our opening part of this essay, we will look closely at…” and so on. It is only in the conclusion that students may finally offer up their opinion, by relating that opinion to the series of arguments put forward in the preceding four main paragraphs.
So, to sum up, French essays:
• pose the problem (la problématique) in the introduction so that it is immediately clear, to someone who has not seen the question, what the topic for discussion actually is.
• do not answer the question or give opinions in the introduction—that is left for the conclusion!
• do not, under any circumstances, introduce extraneous information: students may assume that the reader knows who the author/director is, when he/she lived, when the book was written/the film made, who the characters are and what the story is, etc.
Jacob W. Getzels and Mihaly Csikszentmilhalyi, The Creative Vision: A Longitudinal Study of Problem Finding in Art (New York: John Wiley and Sons, 1976)
http://writing-poetry.knoji.com/how-to-write-a-french-dissertation-type-essay/ (accessed 15 August 2014)