3.2 Types of Essays

Academic writing can be just as varied as other forms of prose. The following briefly describes the most common types of essays undergraduate students are asked to write, as well as the purpose that each serves.

Note that introductory courses in the social sciences frequently require students to write an argumentative essay or two over the course of a term, while upper-level courses may require students to complete more substantial research essays, often detailing their own original research. Much of this, however, depends on the program and how an instructor has developed the course.

Explanatory or Expository Essays

These are intended to inform the reader about a specific topic or issue. They should usually provide as unbiased an account as possible, without taking a position. Think of this as being almost like a detailed encyclopedia entry. Though some university students may be required to write expository essays, most university-level essays will require students to formulate and argue a thesis, or position.

Book Reports or Precis

The function of a book report or precis is to summarize a book’s main purpose and ideas and perhaps comment on who the book might be of interest to or how it will relate to a specific research topic. In some cases, students may need to critically examine the work as well, commenting on how well it achieved its aims. Again, this type of writing is less common in university-level courses with the exception of perhaps some introductory courses, or if a precis or book report is assigned, it is often intended to be one component of a larger research project that will eventually call for a more scholarly research paper to be written.

Critical Reviews

These include some summary of a source, but they go a step further and critique or evaluate the source using certain criteria, such as the author’s methodology, use of evidence, or potential for bias.

Literature Reviews

Literature reviews summarize many sources at once, providing an overview of some of the key sources related to a topic, including which scholars’ works appear to be most influential within the field, how our understanding of the topic has changed over time or what themes are prevalent in the literature, what conclusions can be drawn from the body of literature, and what questions remain unanswered by it. Literature reviews may be written on their own, or they may be one component of a research paper, used to establish context for the research by helping to explain what gaps the researcher intends to address or why they chose a particular methodology over another.

Research Reports

As discussed in more detail in Chapter 7, research reports report the findings and significance of an author’s own primary research. They typically include a literature review to help establish what is already known about the topic and how this research will help fill a knowledge gap in the field, and then they provide the reader with information about the methodology used, the variables accounted for and the limitations of the study. They then report findings from the study and discusses the significance of these findings and directions for future research. The function is to detail as clearly as possible the research process and findings so that a reader can determine whether the results are reliable, how the findings help to answer the research question and add to our knowledge of the subject, and what questions might remain that further research can help to answer.

Argumentative Essays

These are essays where the researcher a stance on an issue (i.e., presents a thesis) and provides supporting evidence to argue that thesis. In this case, the function of the essay is to present a compelling argument or viewpoint that is clearly articulated, easy for the reader to follow, and uses sound reasoning and fair representation of research sources. That said, argumentative essays can be dangerously misleading in their apparent simplicity, with many undergraduate students underestimating the complexity of some of these features that make up a good academic argument.

Here are a few things to keep in mind about argumentative essays:

  • “Compelling” does not mean “right” or “above criticism.” All academic work is subject to critique. That is the point of academia—to engage in healthy debate and critical discussion. You can write a well-executed essay about why a government’s policies on immigration are in need of revision, but a reader may still disagree with you if they believe the evidence you have used points to a different conclusion, if they are viewing the issue through a different theoretical lens than you, or if they are aware of other information that disrupts your argument. Academics are continually engaging in a sort of scholarly conversation with each other through the essays and articles that they write, and this is why you must always think critically about the sources you read and be open to changing your position if new information comes to light. 
  • “Easy to follow” does not always mean “simple.” It is fair to assume that your reader is a capable reader who can comprehend complex writing. It is not fair to assume, however, that your reader is going to automatically draw connections between your ideas for you or to give you the benefit of the doubt when you have not fully explained something. Your job as a writer is to present your ideas in a logical sequence, to use paragraphs or section headings to clearly signal when you have moved from one idea to another, to use appropriate topic sentences that make each point clear to your reader, to use appropriate transitions to indicate the relationship between your sentences and ideas (e.g., to add emphasis to a previous point, provide contrast, or illustrate an idea), and to observe the rules of grammar and punctuation so that what you intended to say is the same message the reader receives.

Sound reasoning and fair presentation of ideas are a big part of academic writing. At the university level, constructing an argument is not as simple as making a claim, thinking of three supporting points, and cherry-picking a few good quotes to support each point. As you start to make decisions about what your supporting points are going to be and what evidence you are going to use to back them up, pay attention to whether any of them might contradict each other, whether they complement each other enough to feel cohesive instead of like a list of disparate points, whether they have not just some evidence to support them but whether they have good evidence to support them, and whether you have adequately considered and accounted for other possible conclusions. It is often the case, too, that we begin the research process with one argument in mind but come to change our position when the research reveals another answer, and it is our ability to base our arguments on the evidence that is available rather than on the evidence we want to see that is a mark of good scholarship.

Along those same lines, you need to make sure when using research sources that you are taking your sources into account in their entirety, even if you are using only part of a source as evidence. Research is an exercise in understanding and purposefully using sources, not in scanning a few articles for a few good quotations to throw into a paper. Pulling one sentence or idea out of an article to support your claim when the full context of the article suggests something different or when that one idea reflects only a very minor part of the article does not make for a fair representation of your research sources.


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Navigating an Undergraduate Degree in the Social Sciences by Diane Symbaluk, Robyn Hall, and Geneve Champoux is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.