The Guide to Essay Types

For anyone a bit nervous about essay-writing, the prospect becomes even more overwhelming when you attempt to research “types of essays” and find that every site provides a different list using different categorizations and names for the kinds of essays they include. There are so many variations out there that it gets quite confusing. To help, we have narrowed the list down to three main categories based on the objective of the essays included in the grouping. Hopefully this organization will give you a better understanding of what is expected of you for any essay your teacher assigns:

Describe:

Essay types grouped in this category include Descriptive, Narrative, and Personal.

The goal of these essays is exactly what it sounds like—to describe, narrate, or get personal. Essays broadly labeled as descriptive tend to describe an object, person, place, experience, emotion, or situation. Narrative essays tell a story which is usually anecdotal, experiential, or personal, describing the setting, characters, and plot. Personal essays will describe any of the same things, placing an emphasis on your emotions, insights, and the first person point of view.

Essays that describe will include lots of detail and “show, not tell” the idea the writer hopes to convey. Although describing may seem like the easiest objective, it can be difficult to do well because it demands the least structure, leaving much up to choice. Personal essays, especially, allow and encourage writers to play around with literary devices and conventional structure to convey their own personal style. Regardless, it is important that your essay is not “describing for description’s sake” but instead achieves a purpose. You must always have a goal to your writing— a lesson that is learned or a question answered.

Never leave your reader thinking “So what?” Remember that logical movement throughout your essay is essential to convey the purpose well. Additionally, good narratives often leave out that “little bit more” that readers would like to know. This is the only category of essays where it can be best to leave a bit up to the imagination.

For these essays, the use of the first person (“I”) is acceptable and encouraged (especially for the personal essay).

Explain:

Essay types grouped in this category include Analytical, Research, and Expository (ie. Comparison and Contrast essay, Cause and Effect essay, and the “How to” or Process essay).

In all of the essay types in this category, the writer must provide explanation of a theme, idea, or issue. The difference between the types is merely the depth and focus of this explanation.

Essays broadly labeled as expository typically involve the least amount of intensive research and aim to simply present an idea with supporting evidence. Expository essays are common for in-class or standardized test writing. They provide evidence, taking into account the intended audience, but they are concise. Research papers, essentially, accomplish the same objectives as expository essays but they require much more in-depth investigation and are more expansive. Research papers explain investigation findings, accompanied by your own thoughts and analysis.

Take particular care with research papers as they must follow a very strict set of formatting rules (including details regarding margins, spacing, heading/title, and page numbers). To familiarize yourself with the style your teacher requires, consult a style handbook like the online resource Purdue OWL for details. Analytical essays are expository essays that specifically analyze, examine, and interpret an event, book, poem, play, or other work of art. Again, be sure to keep your essay well-organized and present “personal response” throughout the analysis. For all of the variations, be sure to differentiate between information you found in other sources (and your analysis to avoid plagiarism. Proper citation of the text or sources is important!

Remember, although you should include your ideas in essays that explain, remain objective by only presenting opinions you can support with facts and statistics and avoid the use of the first person.

Convince:

Essay types grouped in this category include Persuasive and Argumentative.

Essays in this category aim to impress upon the reader a particular point or position on an issue.
Persuasive essays present an opinion and explicitly attempt to convince the reader to adopt the writer’s position. In order to do this, persuasive essays require a definite point of view, sound reasoning, pertinent and convincing evidence, attention to the intended audience, and (usually) thorough research to assist the writer in doing so.

Argumentative essays focus less on persuading the reader (although a successful argumentative essay will still do so). This type of essay focuses on arguing one position over others, presenting the debate in a balanced manner, while still proving the superiority of only one side. Like the persuasive essay, the argumentative essay presents convincing evidence and analysis. It uses solid transitions, comparisons, and mechanics to make the essay flow logically.

In both variations it can be helpful to cite authorities, use analogies, include personal experiences, and anticipate the opposition. Make sure not to rely on generalizations, stereotypical thinking, guilt by association (instead of true cause-and-effect), or ad hominem arguments that attack the character of the opposition rather than their ideas. You will want the reader to agree with your position, but not at the cost of losing your credibility.

Using the first person is commonly acceptable for this category but remember that it can be more convincing to present opinions as statements. Avoid phrases such as “I believe” or “in my opinion.” Back up your views with evidence and present them as logical conclusions that stand alone, without needing your explicit point-of-view.

Although you may encounter essay assignments by different titles throughout your academic career, this guide will come in handy because every type of essay will aim to either describe, explain, or convince. The specifics of different variations within categories often overlap, so don’t stress over understanding the nuances. Rather, determine which objective your teacher expects you to accomplish and focus on meeting the expectations of that category.

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