What is an essay?

Different varieties of essay, different kinds of writing

There’s more to it than quoting experts

Different essays are designed to do different things. Some essays are designed to find out what you’ve learned about a particular aspect of your course. Some are designed to find out what you’ve learned at a particular stage of your course. Others are designed to see how well you understand and can apply key concepts in your subject. Different varieties of essay will require different types of writing and sometimes a single essay will require more than one type of writing. Here’s a guide to some of the most common sorts of writing and ways of organizing essay material.

Analytical writing, or, what make something what it is

This type of writing makes a detailed examination of something in order to understand its nature and its essential features. In an English Literature essay about Thomas Hardy’s poetry, it isn’t good enough to say ‘The Darkling Thrush’ is a powerful poem. You need to say how and why the poem is powerful by looking at its component parts – e.g. adjectives, images, rhymes – and saying how they work individually and how they work together to achieve particular effects. In a management essay asking you to analyse the relevance of a particular theory to modern organizations, you would need to outline the essential features of the theory and relate them to organizational examples.

Chronological writing, or, what happened and when

This type of writing relates a sequence of events. An obvious place this is used is in history essays but you would also use it in an English Literature essay if you need to say briefly what happens in Oliver Twist or King Lear. To cite to an example discussed elsewhere in this resource, you would also use it in a psychology essay that asked you to describe the development of scientific paradigms.

Compare and contrast writing, or, how two things are similar and dissimilar

This type of writing examines two things and the similarities and differences between them. It is a very common type of writing e.g. ‘Compare the treatment of love and power in two of the Shakespeare plays studied this semester’. Or to use an example closer to home: ‘Compare how essay writing skills are taught to new students arriving at universities in the UK and the USA’. This type of writing can involve several of the other types of writing discussed in this section: chronological, descriptive, analytical etc.

Descriptive writing, or, what something is like

This type of writing gives a picture of the main characteristics of something. For example, ‘How are essay writing skills taught to new students arriving at universities?’ This seems like a very straightforward type of writing. However, you should remember that there may be more than one view or description of a subject; and that saying what something is leads inevitably to saying how and why it is i.e. to analytical writing.

Evaluative writing, or, how and why something is important

This type of writing makes a judgement about something. For example: ‘Evaluate the effectiveness of how essay writing skills are taught to new students arriving at universities.’ However, in contrast to other sorts of judgement – ‘That meal was fantastic’ or ‘Terminator 3 was rubbish’ – you have to say why and back up your judgement with evidence. Evaluative writing can involve several of the other types of writing in this section. For example, you would probably want to compare different ways of teaching essay writing skills and say which worked best.

Summary writing, or, the key features or something

This type of writing gives a brief account of the important features of something. For example, ‘Describe the important features of how essay writing skills are taught to new students arriving at universities.’ You will probably do this sort of writing at least once in every essay you write because university essays are usually designed to assess and test your understanding of a particular topic, writer or concept. Some subjects, such as psychology, will ask students to produce short seminar reports about a particular area of study. Introductions and conclusions to essays are types of summary.

To sum up:

There are distinct varieties of essay that require different types of writing. You can often spot which type of writing you are being asked to do from the way the essay title is phrased. However, remember that a well-written, effective essay will probably use several of these different types of writing. For example, you have to say what something is like – descriptive writing – before you can say whether or not it’s important or valuable – evaluative writing.