To be successful in your studies it is important you understand the different genres of essays and how to write them. Sometimes your tutors will not explain exactly what type of essay they expect you to write. Therefore, you will have to work this out from the wording or question(s) in your assignment's instructions. Once you know the type of essay that is needed to address the question that is being asked of you, you are still not finished, but you will know what structure is needed and what the content roughly should be.

Opinion varies when it comes to knowing precisely how the different essay types should be categorized. However, one of the easiest ways is to divide essays into four main groups, as follows:

  1. Descriptive
  2. Expository
  3. Persuasive
  4. Narrative
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A lot of people might say this over-simplifies the matter. The same people (or other people) might also say that some essay classifications are too complicated. Therefore, for the sake of simplicity, we will confine the types to ten for the purpose of this guide. If you want to disagree, you are welcome to do so!

The Argumentative Essay

It is good news if you are an opinionated person! An argumentative essay allows you to give your own opinions along with the reasons you think these are correct. In this type of essay, you can also consider opposing arguments and say why you think they are invalid or incorrect. What you are ultimately attempting to do is persuade readers to accept or agree with your opinions. Therefore, the more evidence and factual information you can provide to support your views, the more effective your essay will be.

The Cause and Effect Essay

While the name of this essay may appear self-explanatory, it is important to remember that multiple causes can have just one effect, and likewise, a single cause can have multiple effects. For instance, there were a number of factors that led to the USA getting involved in WW1 (several causes with one effect). Involvement in this war, however, resulted in multiple effects on America (hence, one cause with several effects).

The Compare and Contrast Essay

In this type of essay, you will be asked to compare and/or contrast two things that seem similar but are in fact different. You will need to do some careful preparation for an essay like this. What aspects are similar and what are the differences? When you are confident about what detail to include in your essay, you are ready to begin.

The Critical Essay

Writing a critical essay does not necessarily mean criticizing the subject of your writing unless there is a valid reason for doing so. However, your task is to evaluate the subject in a critical manner. You should give reasons for thinking that something is good or bad. In the event you feel something is good, why do you think this? If you see any flaws, what are they and why do you find them bothersome? Can you provide any evidence to substantiate you particular opinions?

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The Definition Essay

The process of defining something tells the reader what that thing is. While definitions are often short, an essay of this type usually discusses a fairly complicated concept in much more detail than a few short lines would provide. These essays are generally used to describe abstract or philosophical subject matter.

The Descriptive Essay

When writing an essay of this particular type, the writer paints a picture using words. Certainly, it is permissible to include some factual information, but primarily you should focus on a specific event or experience, what it looks and smells like, how it feels, how it sounds, and so on. The primary aim of the writer is to draw their readers in so that they too can feel part of - or experience - what is being described to them and share the same experience as the writer.

The Expository Essay

An essay of this type could be summed up as follows: "gather all facts and provide an interpretation of them." It is essential you arrive at a conclusion, which you should support with research or your own knowledge/experience. For essays at higher levels of education, it is necessary to demonstrate you are able to research a topic and it is likely you will cite experts in your writing. You should offer your personal opinion at the end while acknowledging that a number of other sources contributed to it. Provided your answer is logical it cannot be incorrect. Essays of this type are exciting to write because you are likely to develop a fresh perspective on the topic or arrive at a new conclusion, even if you have drawn on existing information and/or knowledge.

The Narrative Essay

If it is the case you are someone who enjoys creative writing (or are good at it), the narrative essay is likely to be one of your favorites. In an essay of this type, the writer tells a story. This means there should be a beginning, a middle (a sequence of events that leads to closure), and an end. Therefore, you need to do some careful planning!

The Persuasive Essay

Persuasive essays are similar to the argumentative variety in certain ways, but they are not identical. While argumentative essays will present facts, persuasive essays are softer in nature and tend to appeal more to people's emotions or morals. You could think of a persuasive essay as winning an argument and persuading people to support a particular cause. While both types have some differences, they also share some similarities.

The Process Essay

An essay of this type is about explaining - one step at a time - how some particular thing is done or happens. It is very important to describe the steps in the right order if you want to avoid messing up the process you are describing. Chronology is the best way of establishing order in a process essay.

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So, What Essay Type Should You Write?

When you are reading exam questions or an assignment's instructions, take particular note of the verbs that have been used. Underline or circle these and consider their implications. In the event, you have simply been asked to list or name certain things, focus on providing facts only.

The following "instruction" words also indicate that only facts should be used:

  • Analyze
  • Compare
  • Contrast
  • Discuss
  • Explain
  • Illustrate
  • Prove
  • Show

You should additionally watch out for words that require you to offer an opinion. For example:

  • Do you think that...
  • Give your opinion of...
  • What is your feeling about...

If it is the case you are unsure about what essay type you need to write, ask an instructor or tutor for advice. Although they might not mention the type when handing out an assignment, a tutor will usually explain what essay type is required for a particular assignment and how to work it out. You should find their tips beneficial in the future when you have to choose an essay type to suit various situations.

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