Four types of essay explained
(Last updated: 1 April 2021)
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You may have heard of the four essay types before: discursive, persuasive, narrative, and descriptive. It’s important to know exactly what type of essay your assignment falls into – even before you start the planning and research. The essay type affects how you structure your essay, your writing style, the tone, the techniques you use, and how you use evidence. This is especially important at school or university: a narrative essay just won’t score many marks if it was meant to be persuasive (no, not even if your short story then wins the Nobel Prize for Literature😉).
As frustrating as it might be to keep remembering genres and styles, you can at least take comfort in the fact that this prepares you for the real world. Yes – that’s right – real life. So many careers involve some sort of writing, and it’s important that anything you do meets the expectations of the reader or audience. In the business world, a sales pitch is going to be persuasive. This style, however, would be inappropriate in a feasibility study, or cost analysis. Although there are some rules that underpin all types of writing, each of the four main essay types has its own special requirements to impress their audiences: a client, a casual reader, or even your examiner.
An expository essay is less intimidating than it sounds. Essentially, you are presenting a balanced argument. This could be the typical academic essay, testing your understanding of a particular topic on your course, or it could be on a broader issue.
The word ‘balanced’ is key here: even if you have strong beliefs on the topic, you should take care you don’t appear biased. In fact, it’s best to avoid personal opinion, or using personal pronouns altogether.
Define, and break it down
Your topic should be defined as precisely as possible. For example, if there is any terminology in your title or topic which could be interpreted in different ways, you should make it clear exactly what you mean. It can also help if you define the scope of your expository essay, if it is based on a subject area – for example, if you are limiting it to a particular historical period or geographical area. This should help to divide your topic up into more manageable areas. This can often help to produce a very clear and manageable plan, with one topic per paragraph or section.
Back up, and analyse
Evidence is essential. And no, we don’t mean “8 out of 10 writers make up their statistics”. This type of essay probably requires the most reading and research beforehand: the more you know, the more able you are to judge between different pieces of evidence in order to reach your conclusion. You should also take care to use appropriate referencing. Not only will this follow your institution’s rules about acknowledging sources, it also makes your writing look more professional, and more reliable.
Try to avoid simply summarising your sources. It’s true that giving a little context is often useful: for example, the writer’s background, or background information. However, summing it up in your own words doesn’t actually demonstrate any of your skills. The key words are analyse and evaluate, rather than simply describe.
Power it through
An expository essay lead to a strong, yet balanced conclusion. This is often the most challenging part, at least to begin with. Whilst you may have had your own views beforehand, ideally your conclusion should only become clear to you once you have completed the body of the essay. This is where you can articulate your personal opinion, based on the evidence you have considered. Try to make this a balanced, yet strong closing statement – and avoid just summing up what you have just written.
Persuasive writing attempts to convince a reader or audience to do something, or to believe something. In the real world, we see this all the time, with adverts trying to make us buy their products, or politicians asking us to vote for them.
In academia, you’re most likely to be persuading your reader to share your belief in something – for example, to take your side in a moral issue.
A clear message
In a persuasive essay, your message to the audience needs to be clear and consistent. While it’s important to consider counterarguments and alternative points of view, this is only in order to prove that they are incorrect – otherwise, this might undermine your own argument. Imagine that this is a debate, and your opponent is going to be responding straight afterwards. Is there anything they could pick out, and use against you?
Meeting the genre
In many ways, persuasive writing is one of the simplest styles. A quick internet search will reveal thousands of lists of persuasive techniques that you can use to make your persuasive essay more effective. These are definitely useful, and many of them are so natural to us that we all know them already: rhetorical questions, lists, emotive language, and so on. Varying sentence lengths? Highly effective. However, you need to ensure that your persuasive essay still demonstrates a good sense of academic depth. The main thing to avoid is what people tend to call “empty rhetoric”, which is essentially what it says on the tin. Deploying all sorts of rhetorical techniques is useless without evidence or details to support your points.
It’s also worth taking a moment to reflect on your tone:
Reader! Would you like to fail your next assignment? How would you feel if you were cast out from your course all because of that one lacklustre essay, your dreams of a successful career shattered forever?
If we’d started this blog like that, you would probably have closed the tab pretty quickly! Or maybe you would have read on because your curiosity was peaked. Technically, it’s a reasonably successful opening to a persuasive piece. We’ve got direct address, rhetorical questions, varied sentence structures, emotive language, and it certainly grabs attention. The tone, however, is completely wrong. It’s too strong – borderline aggressive, in fact. The exaggeration – “cast out”, “dreams shattered” – makes it completely unrealistic. It’s really important, therefore, to judge your tone carefully. Think about your audience beforehand, and consider the kind of style and tone that would engage them most effectively.
Narrative writing is, essentially, telling a story. This may be fiction, or a narrative of a real-life experience. College application essays, for example, might ask you to write about a memorable experience or a time that challenged you.
Plan, plan, plan!
A good plan is essential to give your narrative essay a sense of structure. There are many resources about narrative plot and structure, and it’s interesting to note how these can be applied to films and plays as well as novels and short stories. You may see lots of technical terms used – climax, tension, resolution, denouement – but these can be interpreted very loosely. A climax, for example, is not always a shocking revelation, or a dramatic escape. The best way to understand them would be to consider how those labels apply to a film you know well, or that latest box set episode.
Keep your plan fairly simple, and try not to aim for too many events. This is particularly important if you are writing to a strict word limit. It’s impossible to cram the content of a novel into a dozen pages, after all. The worst-case scenario is that your writing becomes essentially a list.
Write like a pro
When it comes to writing your narrative essay, try to engage the reader through vocabulary and imagery. Remember, there is always space for some description.
Even if this isn’t a lengthy paragraph, just a few descriptive sentences are enough to set the scene. Narrative voice is also important. Even in a straightforward third-person narrative, for example, you could adapt your voice to delve into the thoughts of your characters. Dialogue can also be really effective… if used sparingly. There’s nothing worse than a narrative essay with long passages of conversation, which rarely advance the plot and may not even be realistic.
Finally, originality is key. It’s all too easy to reproduce something you’ve already read or watched, even by accident. Just make sure that you’re not proofreading your 3000-word masterpiece and get the sinking feeling that you’ve accidentally rewritten the plot of what you watched on Netflix last weekend!
This also applies to the phrases you use. Avoid clichés – phrases that have become so overused that they have lost all meaning – at the end of the day; as white as snow; like a knife through butter. Similarly, if you are writing in a particular genre, try not to use those phrases which we’ve all heard before: it was a dark and stormy night… If it’s something that you think you’ve seen parodied on The Simpsons, it most likely is something best avoided.
A descriptive essay is often the hardest to plan. In a narrative, many people find that they can at least keep going, adding new events to the plan. In descriptive writing, it is all too common to run out of ideas, or produce something that starts well but just seems to tail off. There are several ways you can achieve a sense of structure. This will not only make your work more cohesive overall, but will help you to include more ideas.
Your description could be based on a journey. Even if your description is not first person, you can imagine you are moving around the scene, stopping to capture a particular place each time.
We all know how a place seems to transform at sunset, and some of us might even have dragged ourself out of bed early enough to watch the sunrise. The point is that even places we know very well can look – and feel – totally different depending on the time of day. This isn’t just limited to what we can see, but the atmosphere and feelings that are evoked. And, of course, you can use time in so many other ways, in order to create contrasts and give yourself the opportunity to use different types of vocabulary and imagery. Think about contrasting a place in two different seasons, or a tourist hotspot in peak and off-peak times – or even past and present.
An eye for detail
Have you ever looked through the website of a professional photographer? Perhaps one reason their pictures earn money is that, generally, they tend to be a bit different from those on my camera roll for example (fingers in front of the lens, everyone standing at an angle, unexpected motion blurs). What’s remarkable, however, is their eye for detail. A wedding photographer can capture the instant when the couple share a moment of laughter and preserve it forever; someone recording a street scene will instinctively be able to spot that interesting architectural detail, a child’s reflection in a shop window, an elderly man looking on at some construction work.
A great descriptive essay will, like these photographs, evoke realism through subtle detail. Think about exactly what details you can expand and extend – perhaps these might be insignificant at first glance.
A word of warning, however: don’t let it turn into a list, as the reader will quickly get bored.
In summary: Golden rules for any essay
There are some rules that apply no matter what type of essay you are writing.
Remember, spelling and grammar checks won’t pick up everything.
Even if your work is totally accurate, there are still things that you could notice – for example, phrasing that just sounds awkward when read aloud.
Overview vs detail – a reader will struggle to feel engaged without seeing the bigger picture; equally, if you don’t go into sufficient detail, your writing will seem vague and general.
Readability vs showing off – let’s be honest: you’re probably here to find out how to get top marks, and part of that is showing off your skills. However, there’s nothing worse than an essay that’s full of advanced vocabulary and complex sentences, but you simply can’t follow the argument.
Understanding the essay type is your first step towards getting those top grades. Once you know the requirements of each of the four types of essay, you can make sure that you meet them from the very start of the planning process.