Reflective Essays

reflect: v. 1: to bend or fold back; to make manifest or apparent; 2: to think quietly or calmly; to express a thought or opinion resulting from reflection.

Reflective writing is thoughtful writing. Reflective essays take a topic— any topic—and turn it around, up and down, forward and backward, asking us to think about it in uncommon ways. Reflective writing allows both writer and reader to consider—but especially reconsider things thoughtfully, seriously, meditatively—but demands neither resolution nor definitive answers.

When you reflect, you figure out something for yourself, in addition to sharing your reflections with somebody else. Such writing is commonly characterized by a slight sense of indirection, as if the writer were in the actual process of examining a subject closely for the first time.

Purpose, more than subject, distinguishes reflective writing from other types of writing. In reflective essays, writers ask why? Why do people live and behave the way they do? Why does society develop this way rather than that? Why does one thing happen rather than another? In asking these questions—and offering possible answers—writers try to make sense of some small portion of their world.

Reflective essays are as varied as the thought processes of the people who write them, but one especially common pattern is worth extra attention. Many reflective essays describe a concrete subject or actual situation, pause for a moment, focus on a larger topic stimulated by the subject or situation, make a point, and then conclude by coming back to the subject that prompted the reflection. The subject that causes the reflection in the first place is not the actual topic of the essay.

For example, you could write a reflective essay on a subject such as electric light bulbs, in which your topic became the influence of artificial light on twentieth-century American culture. Here the topic is a clear subcategory of the subject. However, a reflective essay that started with the subject of electric light bulbs could just as easily move to personal memories of summer camp—the cabin illuminated by the light of a single electric bulb—and end up a meditation on the value of summer camp for American adolescents. In this case, the light bulb is a catalyst to deeper, more reflective thoughts about youth. In other words, in reflective essays the nominal subject may or may not be closely connected to the actual topic of the essay.

Like personal narratives, reflective essays invite your opinion. Assignments that contain direction words such as imagine, speculate, or explore invite a kind of writing that features your ability to see a given subject from several sides and to offer tentative answers to profound questions. These assignments are common in the more speculative disciplines such as history, philosophy, and religion, as well as in writing classes. In these assignments, it may be important to include factual information; however, such information is background, not foreground material.

Reflection may also be asked for in assignments that are not literally called reflective. For example, in an English class you might be asked to summarize and then discuss Yeats' poem "Leda and the Swan." In a political science class you may be asked to summarize the results of an election, then discuss its implications. Likewise, in a biology class you might be asked to analyze the causes of fruit fly reproduction and then discuss the implications.

Reflective essays are about something that's on your mind, perhaps something that's especially intriguing, even distracting, that raises questions worth speculating upon. No matter where or with what object or idea you start, your job as a writer is to bring that object or idea into sharper focus for your readers, perhaps helping them to see it differently than they have before.

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  • Daisy
    What are the types of reflective essays?
    8 years ago
  • Vito
    How to be more reflective in personal essay?
    8 years ago

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