5 Different Types of Essays – It’s All about Purpose
Generally, students either love or hate to write – there doesn’t seem to be much middle ground. It’s rather like anything in life. We love doing those things at which we are “good,” and hate performing tasks at which we are not skilled. Housecleaning and mowing the lawn are probably somewhere in between. Loving or hating to write essays is really a moot point for students anyway, because they have to write, and by the time they reach college, essay assignments have permeated every. single. course. Understanding the types and purposes of essays, moreover, is pretty important, if assignments are going to meet instructors’ expectations. So here is a quick rundown which may help to understand exactly what it is an instructor might want.
Not everyone agrees that there are 5 essay types. Some say 4; others say 6-7. It doesn’t really matter so long as all of “sub-types” are addressed. For purposes of this explanation, however, we’re just going to accept the number 5.
The Expository Essay
Of all the different types of essays, this category is the largest, so we’ll dispense with it first. The whole point of an exposition is to explain something. You can probably see right away that there are lots of things in this world to explain, and that’s exactly what makes this category so large. Broken down, however, the sub-categories are pretty self-explanatory, and in assigning this type of essay, instructors will always refer to the sub-category (at least we hope they will).
- Basic Explanation: this category requires that you explain some type of process. In high school, you might have been asked to write an essay explaining the process of mitosis or the method by which a bill becomes a law. These are pretty straight-forward topics, and the approach will be pretty objective – you probably wouldn’t be able to present a subjective argument that mitosis is bad or good.
- Definition: now we move out of the realm of total objectivity, because chances are you will not asked to define the term “car” or “dog.” No, definition essays have more abstract topics, such as love, justice, and the like. Because we all have our own experiences, definitions of abstract terms will vary, and such an essay may include both a dictionary definition and then a more personalized one.
- Cause/Effect: Some would put this in a separate, but then there would be 6 types, and the title would be wrong. Remember, in a cause/effect essay, you are still explaining something. Suppose, for example, your instructor said, “Discuss the causes of the Vietnam War,” or “What were the causes and effects of the economic meltdown in 2008?” You will need to list and explain each cause and/or effect.
- Personal Response: now, we’re really in the realm of subjectivity, but we are also still explaining. Suppose you read a journal article or heard a speech. Now, your instructor wants you to write a response essay. Here you will take the author’s points, one by one, briefly describe them and then insert your reaction to those points. Do you agree? Why or why not?
- Analysis: These essays will require that you read and really understand what you have read. Now, you will have to dissect the piece and speak to its parts, analyzing them for validity, importance, etc. You might be asked to analyze a soliloquy in one of Shakespeare’s plays. You will go line by line, provide an explanation of the meaning, and then speak to its importance in terms of understanding the character’s personality, flaws, and so forth, or to the play as a whole.
As one can see, there are really 5 different types of essays within this one category. And we still have 4 more to go. Onward!
The Descriptive Essay
This type of essay is in a category of its own, because it is rather unique. Think of the last piece of literature you read – a short story or a novel. Within all of the action and dialogue, there are descriptions – descriptions of scenes, sunsets, physical appearances of characters, storms, and so on. If you take a look at those descriptions, you will see that they are written so as to appeal to the reader’s senses. They also may have lots of figurative language – similes, metaphors, or personification. These things give the reader a “picture” of what is being described. Types of college essays that require descriptions are almost always found in English comp and creative writing courses. So if you are not an English major, and your required coursework is finished, you are not likely to be writing another descriptive essay before you graduate.
The Narrative Essay
Certainly a favorite of English teachers, you will be telling a story. It might be fictional or it might be a tale about something in your own life. “Describe the most frightening experience you have ever had” is an example of a narrative assignment. The other time you encounter these types of essays is when you apply for college, graduate school, or for a scholarship. You will receive essay prompts from which to select your topic, and away you go. You will take a little slice of your life and prepare an essay that is compelling, engaging, and hopefully creatively written!
The Comparison/Contrast Essay
This essay type might be placed in the expository category, and many people do just that. You will be presenting the similarities and differences between people, places, things, situations, or perhaps views on an issue. Occasionally, more than two things will be compared or contrasted. Consider, for example, this essay topic. “What are the similarities and differences among the various groups that are found in a typical high school?” Here you would need to organize your groups into intersecting circles, so that the space where all circles share in common are those things that are similar. Jocks, preps, nerds, stoners – these are some of the groups you might identify. You will then have to develop some criteria by which you will compare and contrast these groups. What types of clubs would each group join? What would each group do on the weekends? How does each group dress? How about language? You probably get the point.
The Persuasive/Argumentative Essay
The terms say it all. You will need to take a position on an issue and support that position, using factual data (yes, that usually means research). Generally, the difference between these two essay types is this: In a persuasive essay, you state your position and then you defend it; in an argumentative essay, you must also include the opposing viewpoint and attempt to discredit as best you can. The other difference is that the argumentative essay is more difficult to organize.
All essays have the same basic structure – an introduction, body paragraphs, and a conclusion. Your thesis statement comes in the introduction, and your paragraphs should be logically organized according to the points you are making. Types of essay formats, then, do not vary much, except perhaps in the case of the narrative, if you have characters and dialogue. But once you understand the purpose of each essay type, it really does make it a bit easier to choose a topic, a thesis, and to write something that will meet instructor expectations.