"It is our choices...that show what we truly are, far more than our abilities."
-J. K. RowlingHarry Potter and The Chamber of Secrets

Essay Guide

The Four Types of Essays

Whether they are formal or informal, essays can be divided into four basic types depending on the writer’s purpose. These purposes are: to explain, to recount a story, to argue for a position, or to persuade. The line between these purposes can sometimes be blurred (for example, a writer may choose to tell a story in order to explain something).

  1. The expository essay (explanation) describes or explains a topic. For example, an essay entitled “The Care and Maintenance of a Bicycle” would be an expository essay.
  2. The narrative essay (recounting) uses a Single well-told story as the basis for drawing a conclusion or making a statement of opinion. For example, “My Most Exciting Bicycling Adventure” would be a narrative essay.
  3. The argumentative essay presents a reasoned series of arguments in support of a position. For example, an essay entitled “Cars or Scooters: Which Is the More Efficient and Safe Method of Urban Transport?” would be an argumentative essay.
  4. The persuasive essay combines reasoned arguments with the emotion required to persuade the reader to take action. For example, an essay entitled “Save the Ozone and Stimulate Your Heart: Leave Your Cars at Home and Bicycle” would be a persuasive essay.

The purpose of an essay will often determine its form, or structure. In argumentative writing, for example, the author may present both sides of an issue in a measured way before making a judgment, or may be concerned only with building up the evidence on one side.

The information that follows in this chapter specifically applies to the argumentative and persuasive essays, because these are the forms most commonly required in senior English. (Narrative essays-a Single, well-told story whose purpose is to support a particular view or insight-are discussed in the Personal Writing chapter.)

Structural Components of the Essay

Beginning and Ending

Beginnings and endings are the most important parts of an essay.

Significance of Beginnings and Endings

  1. The reader remembers these best.
  2. They contain the ideas you most want to emphasize.
  3. The beginning is what draws the reader in.
  4. The ending leaves the reader with a strong final images, thought, or insight.
Beginning / Ending Strategy Example
illustrative anecdote: a brief recounting of an incident that illustrates or introduces the point you made or are about to make In his essay “How to Live to Be 200″ Stephen Leacock uses the anecdote of Jiggins, the health nut, to introduce his criticism of the overly health conscious.
shocking statistic “… powerful industries-the $33-billion-dollara- year diet industry, the $20-billion cosmetics industry, the $300-million cosmetic surgery industry, and the $7-billion pornography industry-have arisen from the capital made out of unconscious anxieties, and are in turn able, through their influence on mass culture, to use, stimulate, and reinforce the hallucination in a rising, economic spiral.” (Naomi Wolf, The Beauty Myth)
bold, direct statement: a simple statement of belief or opinion that frequently challenges a commonly held assumption “A student often leaves high school today without any sense of language as a structure.” (Northrop Frye, “Don’t You Think It’s Time to Start Thinking?”)

Developing an Argument

The development of arguments is the main structural component of the essay. Employing different methods can indicate a sophisticated and lively thinking process.

Development Method Definition Example
Analogy compares something less familiar with something more familiar in order to help the reader understand the former Comparing a computer circuit board to a superhighway helps those less familiar with computers to understand that the circuit board is a busy communication highway, containing set routes with junctions for going in different directions.
Cause-Effect explains why something happened by showing the direct causal relationship between two or more things Edward Roussel in “Letter from Prison” argues that “to think that punishment causes redemption is a trap.”
Definition explores in greater depth the significance associated with the term or concept under consideration in order to give as full a picture as possible of its characteristics Susan Sontag defines “beauty” (in her essay of the same name) by examining the ancient Greek and Christian views of beauty, the language used to describe men’s versus women’s beauty, internal and external beauty, and the significance of the absence of beauty in the world.
Example illustrates a point with reference to a personal or shared experience, an allusion, statistics, analogy, or quote from an authority In his essay “Were Dinosaurs Dumb?” Stephen Jay Gould cites Jack chopping down the beanstalk and David smiting Goliath with a slingshot as examples of metaphors and fairy tales that show how “slow wit is the tragic flaw of a giant.”
Comparison points out similarities and differences between two or more ideas, things, people, etc.; point-by-point comparison is a more effective organization in that similarities and differences are clearly pointed out Comparing King Lear and Hamlet as tragic heroes reinforces the characteristics of the Shakespearean tragic hero while pointing out specific differences in their tragic flaws.
Contrast points out differences between two characters or ideas; because this method can sharpen and clarify an argument it is frequently more powerful than comparison By contrasting the openly discriminatory laws and practices against women with what couldn’t be (and isn’t) said to any minority, Doris Anderson in “The 51% Solution” argues that women are routinely discriminated against.
Categorize / Classify places together under a single heading concepts or things that share sufficient key characteristics as to be considered similar Kildare Dobbs in his essay “Canada’s Regions” classifies the people of each region of Canada by their character.

Source: Barclay, S., Coghill, J., Weeks, P. (2001). Analyzing and Responding to Essays. Canadian Students’ Guide to Language, Literature, and Media (pp. 125-127) Don Mills, ON: Oxford University Press.