The Modes of Discourse—Exposition, Description, Narration, Argumentation (EDNA)—are common paper assignments you may encounter in your writing classes. Although these genres have been criticized by some composition scholars, the Purdue OWL recognizes the wide spread use of these approaches and students’ need to understand and produce them.
Contributors: Jack Baker, Allen Brizee, Elizabeth Angeli
Last Edited: 2018-02-09 12:42:48
This resource begins with a general description of essay writing and moves to a discussion of common essay genres students may encounter across the curriculum. The four genres of essays (description, narration, exposition, and argumentation) are common paper assignments you may encounter in your writing classes. Although these genres, also known as the modes of discourse, have been criticized by some composition scholars, the Purdue OWL recognizes the wide spread use of these genres and students’ need to understand and produce these types of essays. We hope these resources will help.
The essay is a commonly assigned form of writing that every student will encounter while in academia. Therefore, it is wise for the student to become capable and comfortable with this type of writing early on in her training.
Essays can be a rewarding and challenging type of writing and are often assigned either to be done in class, which requires previous planning and practice (and a bit of creativity) on the part of the student, or as homework, which likewise demands a certain amount of preparation. Many poorly crafted essays have been produced on account of a lack of preparation and confidence. However, students can avoid the discomfort often associated with essay writing by understanding some common genres.
Before delving into its various genres, let’s begin with a basic definition of the essay.
What is an essay?
Though the word essay has come to be understood as a type of writing in Modern English, its origins provide us with some useful insights. The word comes into the English language through the French influence on Middle English; tracing it back further, we find that the French form of the word comes from the Latin verb exigere, which means "to examine, test, or (literally) to drive out." Through the excavation of this ancient word, we are able to unearth the essence of the academic essay: to encourage students to test or examine their ideas concerning a particular topic.
Essays are shorter pieces of writing that often require the student to hone a number of skills such as close reading, analysis, comparison and contrast, persuasion, conciseness, clarity, and exposition. As is evidenced by this list of attributes, there is much to be gained by the student who strives to succeed at essay writing.
The purpose of an essay is to encourage students to develop ideas and concepts in their writing with the direction of little more than their own thoughts (it may be helpful to view the essay as the converse of a research paper). Therefore, essays are (by nature) concise and require clarity in purpose and direction. This means that there is no room for the student’s thoughts to wander or stray from his or her purpose; the writing must be deliberate and interesting.
This handout should help students become familiar and comfortable with the process of essay composition through the introduction of some common essay genres.
This handout includes a brief introduction to the following genres of essay writing:
5 Different Types of Essays – It’s All about PurposeJune 12, 2015 - Posted to Education
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.