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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.
FluentU lets you learn French from real-world content like music videos, commercials, news broadcasts, cartoons and inspiring talks.
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.”
As you continue advancing in your French studies, FluentU keeps track of all the grammar and vocabulary that you’ve been learning. It uses your viewed videos and mastered language lessons to recommend more useful videos and give you a 100% personalized experience.
Start using FluentU on the website with your computer or tablet or, better yet, download the FluentU app from the iTunes store.
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How to memorise a complete essay or speech
Christmas and New year is over and for some there looms the prospect of mid term exams. A lot of these exams will be closed book exams. A closed book exam tests your knowledge and memory of a subject. One of the ways in which some students prepare is to actively learn the subject areas and also look at past questions and anticipate a question which might come up. At the moment my wife is studying for exams in which she is actively learning her subjects and also she has written 3 x 500 word essays on the three areas of study.
Together we have come up with a system which means that she can memorise a 500 word essay in 1 day and 3 x 500 word essays in 3 days. Together with actively learning the subject she is confident that she has prepared well.
In this article I will show you the system we came up with to memorise 1500 words verbatim. Sound hard? It is actually quite easy and is a system I used when at university studying for my psychology degree for 2 x 1000 word essays.
This method can also be used for memorising any kind of written work or speech.
Before you begin
Before you begin this it is important to actually believe that you can memorise a complete essay or speech whether it be 500 words or 2000 words. When I first suggested using this method to my wife she said that she would never be able to memorise an essay word for word.
Once she got over this and started telling herself that she could do it we started.
First off, this method of memorising an essay should not be substituted for actively learning a subject. Active learning is when you read, not skim, the subject area and take note of the key points. Cross reading is also very good for active learning. This is when you read books on the subjects by different authors. Some authors are not good at getting information across so cross reading is an excellent way learning.
The method for memorising an essay or speech.
You will need to write out the essay or speech first. Treat this part of the process as if you were writing an essay to hand in for marking by your lecturer. In other words make sure it is worthy of memorising.
When you have written the essay make sure it is grammatically correct as you will be memorising every comma and full stop.
When you are sure you have a good essay or speech print it off and mark down the left margin the number of paragraphs e.g. if you have 6 paragraphs write at the side of each paragraph the numbers 1 – 6. In the right hand margin write the number of sentences in each paragraph. This is the first part of the memorisation process.
A quiet place to study
Now, make sure you have quiet space to be able to read, walk and vocalise your essay. When you are sure you will not be interrupted you can start.
With your printed essay start walking and reading out loud the essay or speech. When you have read it out loud a few times go back to the first sentence and read it out loud. Then read it again and again until you have memorised it. When you are confident you have memorised it word for word go on to the next sentence. When you have memorised the second sentence, whilst walking vocalise the first two sentences without looking at your printed essay. If you are okay with this go on to do the same with your 3rd sentence and so on until you have memorised your first full paragraph. This can take anywhere between 15 – 45 depending on motivation, alertness, quietness etc.
The reason I ask you to walk is to keep your blood flowing whilst memorising. If you are sitting down you might nod off, by walking it will prevent you from nodding off. I find walking up and down an excellent way to concentrate on reading.
Keep reading, and vocalising your essay or speech until you have memorised it completely. When you are confident of having memorised it. Vocalise it without looking at your printed sheet. If you get it right, do it again, and if you get it right a second time reward yourself with a cup of tea or coffee or whatever is your want and leave it for a few hours.
When a few hours have passed go back to the essay, read it out loud whilst walking and looking at the printed sheet and then try to memorise it again.
Once you are confident that you have memorised it completely, at the bottom of the page write down the first few words of each sentence of your essay, separated by a comma, and number each line for each paragraph. When you have done that put in the number of sentences at the end of the list and bracket it.
For example if I was writing out the first few words of this article for the first 3 paragraphs it would look like this;
- Christmas and New year, A lot of, A closed book, One of the, At the moment
- Together we have, Together with actively (2)
- In this article, sound hard? (2)
Now what you should do is only look at the list at the bottom of the paper and read out from that whilst walking. This way you are only looking at the first few words and finishing the sentence without looking at it. If you get stuck just go back to the main essay and look at it, until you have got it completely.
Now memorise the bottom of the sheet of paper with the first few words of the essay and how many sentences are in each paragraph. This should only take 10-15 minutes at the most.
This sounds a very convoluted way of memorising an essay but it is a lot easier than it reads here.
Time taken to memorise
You should be able to memorise a full 500 word essay in about 3 hours, for your first time, using the above method. When you are practiced you should be able to memorise a 500 word essay in about 60 – 90 minutes.