What is an essay?
Most of us know an essay when we see one, but what exactly is an essay? American literary critic Frederick Crews succinctly defines an essay as “a fairly brief piece of nonfiction that tries to make a point in an interesting way.”
An essay, then, is longer than a written note or paragraph, but shorter than a dissertation or a book. It deals in facts rather than fiction, so literary texts such as short stories, poems and songs are excluded. Also excluded are texts providing summary information such as dictionary and encyclopedia articles, and technical texts such as computer and automotive manuals.
Further, an essay seeks to make a point; that is, it has a definite educational purpose and goal, usually set forth in the introduction and conclusion. And it does so in stylistic ways that attempt to attract and hold a reader’s attention. For a theological essay or research project, the primary way to attract a marker’s attention is by demonstrating mastery of relevant evidence, and providing the best arguments, analysis and evaluation one can muster.
All academic essays share the same basic structure:
- an introduction, where you engage the reader and set out your argument(s);
- a main body, in which you explain the argument(s) and provide supporting evidence; and
- a conclusion, summarising your main points and providing a clear answer to the essay question.
More complex essays expand the structure and content of the main body to accommodate more arguments, evidence and/or explanation. Short essays often display a rigid or repetitive structure, whereas longer essays may be (should be, in my opinion) more discursive and creative. A longer essay may also include a literature review summarising what has been published on a topic.
Reports generally share the structure of an essay, but the main body may vary widely depending on the content and terms of reference, and these are not discussed here.
The five main types
Just as novels may be classified according to genre, essays may take various forms. One way of classifying an essay is according to its purpose – how it seeks to help the reader discover new knowledge and understanding.
Taking this approach, five main types may be identified: descriptive, analytical, evaluative (or critical), persuasive, and reflective essay (see pages 2-3).
Other types include the exegetical essay, review/summary essay, comparative essay, interpretive essay, narrative essay, personal essay, exam essay, and more. Each essay type has distinctive features, style and tone, and some may draw on qualities of several types. See pages 4-6 below.
An academic essay usually addresses a single subject through description, analysis, comparison, evaluation or reflection – or a combination of these. Some essays merely express the author’s perspective on a subject, while others seek to persuade the reader to adopt that perspective. In a long essay, a dissertation or a thesis, more than one type may be required, such as sections or chapters devoted to description, analysis and/or evaluation.
A descriptive essay conveys information (usually sensory information) or facts as objectively as possible without attempting analysis, interpretation or evaluation.
A good descriptive essay identifies key themes and gives a detailed written account of the material in an accurate and precise manner. It may indicate the relevance and significance of the material, or outline how something works, but should not include background information designed to explain or analyse the material.
Examples include descriptions of:
- facts and figures about a problem or issue;
- key events as they occurred;
- key biographical data of a historic or living person;
- the main features of a movement or the role and functions of an institution;
- the main points of a book, article, report or theory;
- the sensuous or emotional impact of an experience.
Descriptive writing is an important contributing element in many kinds of writing. You may use it to establish the context of research, summarise research data, and/or provide background sensory data for a subsequent evaluative or persuasive argument. Descriptive writing should avoid clichés, and be well organised and structured to avoid confusing readers.
Key instructional words indicating that a descriptive essay is required include: define, describe, identify, list, record, report, and summarise.
Here the task is to break up facts and information into their constituent parts (analysis), and reorganise the data according to logical categories (synthesis).
The purpose of an analytical or expository essay is to demonstrate a clear understanding of the ideas expressed in a text. Ask questions such as:
- What makes the best sense of the data?
- What explanation seems most convincing?
- What relationships are there between ideas (links, patterns, groups, similarities and differences)?
- What doesn’t make sense?
Explain what you believe the reconstructed data shows or implies. Expect to spend considerable time in planning, researching and sifting information. Avoid emotive language, writing in the first person, or directly engaging in evaluation or persuasion.
Interpretive essays, problem-and-solution essays, and cause-and-effect essays are forms of analytical essays.
Key instructional words indicating that an analytical essay is required include: analyse, compare, contrast, discuss, examine, explain, explore, expound, investigate, relate, and review.
Evaluative or critical
This type of essay critically evaluates arguments and inferences to determine whether they should be accepted, rejected, or modified. To be critical in this context does not mean to criticise in a negative manner, but to question assertions and assumptions and present your own evaluation of the material under investigation.
It may include description and analysis as evidence, but should focus on logical and reasoned argument, evaluating method, methodology, interpretations, claims and assumptions. A well-structured essay employing critical argument will attract a higher grade than one in which the content is mainly descriptive.
The task may be to review an existing body of knowledge to determine its strengths and weaknesses; critique a book or journal article; demonstrate how well an author or authors have addressed a subject; identify which of several items, models or ideas is the best for a purpose; or compare two or more theories, theorists or schools of thought. This requires a thorough understanding of the topic and issues.
A good evaluative or critical essay makes effective use of:
- comparison – identifying points of similarity, and noting minor points of difference within areas of similarity;
- implications – identifying the significance of such similarities and differences, and probable outcomes;
- judgment – reasoned opinion based on analysis of the evidence;
- reasoning – identifying the criteria used to form your opinion.
You may express your own opinion about the material being evaluated, if you support it with evidence, but avoid stating simplistic conclusions.
Key instructional words indicating that an evaluative or critical essay is required include: assess, critique, critically assess, debate, and evaluate.
Persuasive writing takes a stance on a problem or issue about which there is more than one reasonable opinion. Persuasive writing employs sound logic, supported by the best available factual evidence and expert opinion, to show why one idea or point of view is more valid than another, and aims to convince the reader or listener to accept that point of view or to take action that is consistent with it.
We encounter persuasive writing every day in advertising, news editorials, opinion pieces, letters to the editor, blog posts, political speeches, polemical books, and sermons. In academic contexts, it takes the form of debates, position papers, and persuasive essays.
A persuasive essay employs many of the features of analytical and evaluative essays. The aim here, however, is to show why your opinion, theory or hypothesis is correct and others are not. You achieve this by presenting your point of view, and reinforcing it with supporting evidence.
Alternatively, you may wish to present an opposing view first, then counter it by undermining its logic and/or presenting stronger counter-evidence. Persuasive essays often engage with controversial and divisive issues.
Occasionally, for academic purposes, you may be required to take a stance opposite to your personal beliefs. This is similar to role-playing exercises, and you may learn something about yourself as well as the issue as you engage in the process.
Follow these tips to write a compelling persuasive essay:
- conduct sound research on all relevant points of view, looking for patterns and contradictions;
- list the reasons for your point of view, providing supporting evidence for every claim you make;
- show how your point of view is superior to those of others;
- ensure that your assumptions are valid, your reasoning is clear, and your evidence is relevant and convincing;
- anticipate possible objections and determine how you will respond to these with logical argument and firm evidence (rather than emotion) to support your position;
- show respect for your opponents and for readers who may oppose your point of view;
- ensure that all your claims work together to support your overall point of view, rearranging their order where necessary;
- write in the present tense unless there is a good reason to do otherwise.
Key instructional words or phrases indicating that a persuasive essay is required include: argue, discuss, evaluate, take a position.
A reflective essay invites you to write a personal response to experiences, situations, events or new learning.
A reflective essay allows you to think and learn, especially with respect to self-knowledge, by writing about your own thoughts. It often involves reflection on practice, such as a course you took, an event in which you participated, or a personal response to set readings.
Reflective writing may take various forms including descriptive (“who, what, when, where, how?”), expressive (“I think,” “I feel,” “I observe”), analytical (explaining and examining; responding to the “why” questions) and speculative (“what might be”) prose.
Write down perceptions, questions, ideas, challenges, possibilities, fears that come to mind. Use “I,” “me,” “my,” etc. Some students find it helpful to keep a reflective learning journal from which to draw for the essay.
Key instructional words indicating that a reflective essay is required include: describe, reflect, and speculate.
Other types of essay
You may encounter several other types of essay in addition to the five main types. Six of these are introduced below.
This type is an essential component of biblical and theological studies. To “exegete” is to interpret, to draw out the meaning of a text. The purpose of an exegetical essay is to analyse the words and grammar of the text in order to articulate the author’s or editor’s intended meaning.
According to Gordon D. Fee, good exegesis interrogates a text by asking questions about content (what is said) and context (why it is said):
The contextual questions are of two kinds: historical and literary. Historical context has to do both with the general historical-sociological-cultural setting of a document (e.g. the city of Corinth, its geography, people, religions, social environment, economy) and with the specific occasion of the document (i.e., why it was written). Literary context has to do with why a given thing was said at a given point in the argument or narrative.
The questions of content are basically of four kinds: textual criticism (the determination of the actual wording of the author), lexical data (the meaning of words), grammatical data (the relationship of words to one another), and historical-cultural background (the relationship of words and ideas to the background and culture of the author and his readers).
Good exegesis, therefore, is the happy combination – or careful integration – of all these data into a readable presentation.
In biblical studies, an exegetical essay analyses a single text, usually less than a chapter, with an identifiable beginning and ending. The essay should be clear, coherent, and concise, providing a reasoned basis for clear and compelling application. Original analysis and evaluation of the text may be accompanied by critical commentary on the insights and opinions of scholars in relation to the text. A good exegetical essay requires diligence, humility, strong analytical skills, and a cogent writing style.
A review essay asks you to summarise and evaluate a text or texts – usually a nonfiction book, book chapter or journal article, or a substantial primary source.
Show that you understand the arguments made by the author, and can analyse and summarise them in a logical and coherent way. Consider reading other texts by the same author, or other related texts for context and balance; and perusing reviews published in journals or newspapers.
Briefly describe the text and its topic, and some relevant information about the author. As you read the text, record a few significant or memorable quotes (with page numbers), and look for indications of purpose and methodology, structure, and conclusions. Then move on to evaluation: What are the strengths and weaknesses of the work? Are the conclusions sound? Did the author achieve their stated or implied purpose? What else does the work deliver? How significant is the work in its time and field? Support your opinions with references from the text.
If you are asked to review several works by a single author, look for themes and/or development in successive works, and write about the author as well as the texts. If the task is to review several works by different authors on a single topic, summarise each work, looking for common themes and differences, and comment on how the texts relate to each other.
On writing book reviews for academic journals see Writing Guide 17.
A comparative essay usually asks you to discuss and/or evaluate the similarities and/or differences between two or more items (e.g. texts, theories, models, historical figures). If the items appear very similar, look for crucial differences; if they appear dissimilar, look for possible underlying similarities or relationships.
It is not enough to summarise the relative similarities and dissimilarities between compared items. You must shape your analysis into a meaningful argument. The Harvard College Writing Center’s Kerry Walk provides an excellent outline of five elements required to write a comparative essay:
Frame of reference. This is the context within which you place the items you plan to compare. It may consist of an idea, theme, question, problem, or theory; a group of similar things from which you extract two for special attention; biographical or historical information. The best frames of reference are constructed from specific sources rather than your own thoughts or observations. Most assignments indicate a preferred frame of reference, with a list of sources. If you encounter an assignment that fails to do this, you must come up with your own.
Grounds for comparison. Briefly explain why your choice is deliberate and meaningful, not random. For instance, in a paper asking how the “discourse of domesticity” has been used in the abortion debate, the grounds for comparison are obvious; the issue has two conflicting sides, pro-choice and pro-life. In a paper comparing the effects of acid rain on two forest sites, your choice of sides is less obvious. You need to indicate the reasoning behind your choice.
Thesis. In a persuasive essay, your thesis statement conveys the gist of your argument, which necessarily follows from your frame of reference. But in a comparative essay, the thesis depends on how the items actually relate to one another. Do they extend, corroborate, complicate, contradict, correct, or debate one another? In the most common comparative essays, those focusing on differences, you can indicate the precise relationship between A and B by using the signpost word “whereas” in your thesis.
Organisational scheme. There are two basic ways to organise the body of your paper. In text-by-text, discuss all of A, then all of B; in point-by-point, alternate points about A with comparable points about B. If you think that B extends A, you’ll probably use a text-by-text scheme; if you see A and B engaged in debate, a point-by-point scheme will draw attention to the conflict. If the latter begins to resemble a ping-pong game, try grouping more than one point together, thereby cutting down on the number of times you alternate from A to B. But no matter which organisational scheme you choose, you need not give equal time to similarities and differences.
Linking A and B. All argumentative papers require you to link each point in the argument back to the thesis. In a comparative essay, you also need to make links between A and B in the body of your essay if you want your paper to hold together. To make these links, use transitional expressions of comparison and contrast (similarly, moreover, likewise, on the contrary, conversely, on the other hand) and contrastive vocabulary.
An interpretive essay is a form of analytical essay in which you discuss a primary text (e.g. a short passage from the Bible, often in the original language; or a historical text such as a passage from one of the Church Fathers). Take care to be objective, engaging with the text on its own terms, not primarily in terms of your own theology and culture. There are two main types:
- thematic, in which you structure your essay around a theme that is either assigned to you or derived by you from the passage. An example could be, “Discuss the use of the term nomos in the Pauline letters.”
- exegetical, following the natural progression of the primary text, presenting a detailed verse-by-verse, or section-by-section, explanation of the passage. At the end, you may wish to make a summary argument drawn from your exegetical research (see also the section on exegetical essays on page 4 above).
A personal essay (also known as a narrative essay) tells a story about an experience or a person from a subjective point of view.
Here are a few basic tips for writing a personal essay. To attract and hold the reader’s attention, a personal essay is usually written in the first person and past tense (“I went…”, “I felt…”), and in chronological order. In the introduction, use an opening that excites interest, makes the story memorable, and provides a good way to develop the narrative. In the main body of the essay, start each paragraph with a topic sentence to provide clear structure; and describe actions and sights (including clothing and interior décor) in detail. In the conclusion, bring the narrative that has been building to a sound and satisfying ending, summing up the outcome of actions and, if appropriate, making a personal statement.
Academic examinations sometimes require answers in the form of an essay. Their main purpose is to check that you have understood the work covered in your course; can apply course concepts to analyse, evaluate and synthesise data/information in support of a thesis; and can operate effectively under exam conditions (in a limited amount of time, without the help of others, and without cheating).
Exam essays are unlike other academic essays in several ways. Quality and relevance are more important than quantity. Background details and referencing can be discarded. Minor errors of grammar and usage, along with messy handwriting, are acceptable. What your examiner is looking for is an indication that you know the material well enough to give a credible response and, in most cases, that you can make concise and coherent critical judgments on it.
As you prepare for an exam with an essay component:
- Go to lectures, do the readings, participate in class discussions, and take careful notes that you will understand months later;
- Select the topics you need to revise;
- Organise and summarise your notes;
- Identify the most important theories, theorists, examples and other evidence for each topic;
- Apply effective revision and memorization strategies;
- Consult past exam papers to get used to the style and structure of exam questions;
- Practice writing mock exam questions, working within a set time limit, alone and in silence.
In the exam:
- Decide which questions you will answer, looking closely at what the question asks you to do (note the active verbs, such as “discuss,” and “assess”);
- Read the questions very carefully, ensuring that you have not misunderstood what is required;
- Focus on what you know about the questions, not on what you don’t know;
- For short-answer questions, skip over any that you can’t answer, and come back to them later;
- for questions requiring single paragraph answers, begin by jotting down key ideas or examples that help focus your thoughts;
- for longer answers, since you have time for only one draft, allow reasonable time for making notes, determining a thesis, and developing an outline;
- Take all the time you have been given, pacing yourself well and devoting enough time to each question;
- At any time during the exam, on scrap paper, write down ideas or information you have about any of the questions you have chosen;
- If your mind goes blank, leave some space to fill in later, or ask yourself the basic analytical/evaluative questions: who, what, when, where, why and how.