Essay structure: types


L’ Espion camera by jovike

The frames on my walls hold paintings, photographs, mixed-media collages, and drawings, while the frames on my desk hold pinned beetles, foreign currency, and wine corks. Framing things allows me to isolate and view objects in a limited context. So, too, with essays.

The body of an essay is the art inside a frame. Introductions and conclusions do vary in content,  but it is the body of an essay that has been formalized into types. Whatever it is a writer wants readers to “see,” there is a way to write it.

Most composition textbooks sort essays into six types:

ARGUMENT.  All essays are persuasive to some degree. However, argument essays do more than challenge readers to rethink a topic, they disarm any hostile readers by including an acknowledgment of their very best point. To do that, the writer must be clear, honest, and reasonable sounding. Which is not to say you cannot be a bit sly. Argument essays need more than facts to be convincing. Well chosen vocabulary can provide pathos to help make points subtly emotional. Ethos can be maximized by choosing experts for their positive name recognition or their close association to organizations readers will trust. (See my post on Pathos, Logos, and Ethos.)

(Entire books have been written about the best way to present an argument, but for practical help and not just explanation, my favorite is They Say, I Say: The Moves That Matter in Academic Writing, by Gerald Graff and Cathy Birkenstein.)

CAUSE & EFFECT, CLASSIFICATION, and COMPARE & CONTRAST (aka EVALUATION essays).  These essays organize data to analyze a topic. They differ from argument essays because logos reigns supreme:  either no argument is considered or its two sides are given relatively equal measure of analysis.

DEFINITION.  When a one-sentence or one paragraph summing up is not enough to do justice to a term or concept, a definition essay is employed. Extensive detail, appropriate examples, and full description create the expanded length.

DESCRIPTION.  While definition essays include descriptions, Description essay are written to give readers a single impression. To do that, description essays use concrete imagery and details evoking the five senses. Usually these essays move from least to most powerful evocation.

NARRATIVE.  Although “narrative” might seem like fiction, narrative essays are storytelling with facts. Straight chronological recounting is common, but writers may rearrange the order of events to increase the drama of the telling.

PROCESS.  A how-to essay that explains why or how something works, process essays are organized as first step, next step, and so on — no rearrangement, no drama.

With the exception of description and process, essay types benefit from arranging the points being made in an order readers will find logical. For clarity, points are arranged from most familiar to least. If the subject is controversial, then points might be better placed as least objectionable to most surprising.

Composition textbooks often describe these various types independent of one another. However, most of the writing assignments you will have after your freshman year (with non-composition teachers and later, employers) are unlikely to fit a single type. Most writing requires blends of these types in order to fully accomplish the task set to you.