Welcome to the Purdue OWL
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The Modes of Discourse—Exposition, Description, Narration, Argumentation (EDNA)—are common paper assignments you may encounter in your writing classes. Although these genres have been criticized by some composition scholars, the Purdue OWL recognizes the wide spread use of these approaches and students’ need to understand and produce them.
Contributors: Jack Baker, Allen Brizee, Elizabeth Angeli
Last Edited: 2013-03-01 08:12:47
This resource begins with a general description of essay writing and moves to a discussion of common essay genres students may encounter across the curriculum. The four genres of essays (description, narration, exposition, and argumentation) are common paper assignments you may encounter in your writing classes. Although these genres, also known as the modes of discourse, have been criticized by some composition scholars, the Purdue OWL recognizes the wide spread use of these genres and students’ need to understand and produce these types of essays. We hope these resources will help.
The essay is a commonly assigned form of writing that every student will encounter while in academia. Therefore, it is wise for the student to become capable and comfortable with this type of writing early on in her training.
Essays can be a rewarding and challenging type of writing and are often assigned either to be done in class, which requires previous planning and practice (and a bit of creativity) on the part of the student, or as homework, which likewise demands a certain amount of preparation. Many poorly crafted essays have been produced on account of a lack of preparation and confidence. However, students can avoid the discomfort often associated with essay writing by understanding some common genres within essay writing.
Before delving into its various genres, let’s begin with a basic definition of the essay.
What is an essay?
Though the word essay has come to be understood as a type of writing in Modern English, its origins provide us with some useful insights. The word comes into the English language through the French influence on Middle English; tracing it back further, we find that the French form of the word comes from the Latin verb exigere. which means “to examine, test, or (literally) to drive out.” Through the excavation of this ancient word, we are able to unearth the essence of the academic essay: to encourage students to test or examine their ideas concerning a particular topic.
Essays are shorter pieces of writing that often require the student to hone a number of skills such as close reading, analysis, comparison and contrast, persuasion, conciseness, clarity, and exposition. As is evidenced by this list of attributes, there is much to be gained by the student who strives to succeed at essay writing.
The purpose of an essay is to encourage students to develop ideas and concepts in their writing with the direction of little more than their own thoughts (it may be helpful to view the essay as the converse of a research paper). Therefore, essays are (by nature) concise and require clarity in purpose and direction. This means that there is no room for the student’s thoughts to wander or stray from his or her purpose; the writing must be deliberate and interesting.
This handout should help students become familiar and comfortable with the process of essay composition through the introduction of some common essay genres.
This handout includes a brief introduction to the following genres of essay writing:
Essay Tips: 7 Tips on Writing an Effective Essay
By Making it Count
Writing an essay often seems to be a dreaded task among students. Whether the essay is for a scholarship, a class, or maybe even a contest, many students often find the task overwhelming. While an essay is a large project, there are many steps a student can take that will help break down the task into manageable parts. Following this process is the easiest way to draft a successful essay, whatever its purpose might be.
According to Kathy Livingston’s Guide to Writing a Basic Essay. there are seven steps to writing a successful essay:
You may have your topic assigned, or you may be given free reign to write on the subject of your choice. If you are given the topic, you should think about the type of paper that you want to produce. Should it be a general overview of the subject or a specific analysis? Narrow your focus if necessary.
If you have not been assigned a topic, you have a little more work to do. However, this opportunity also gives you the advantage to choose a subject that is interesting or relevant to you. First, define your purpose. Is your essay to inform or persuade?
Once you have determined the purpose, you will need to do some research on topics that you find intriguing. Think about your life. What is it that interests you? Jot these subjects down.
Finally, evaluate your options. If your goal is to educate, choose a subject that you have already studied. If your goal is to persuade, choose a subject that you are passionate about. Whatever the mission of the essay, make sure that you are interested in your topic.
2. Prepare an outline or diagram of your ideas.
In order to write a successful essay, you must organize your thoughts. By taking what’s already in your head and putting it to paper, you are able to see connections and links between ideas more clearly. This structure serves as a foundation for your paper. Use either an outline or a diagram to jot down your ideas and organize them.
To create a diagram, write your topic in the middle of your page. Draw three to five lines branching off from this topic and write down your main ideas at the ends of these lines. Draw more lines off these main ideas and include any thoughts you may have on these ideas.
If you prefer to create an outline, write your topic at the top of the page. From there, begin to list your main ideas, leaving space under each one. In this space, make sure to list other smaller ideas that relate to each main idea. Doing this will allow you to see connections and will help you to write a more organized essay.
3. Write your thesis statement.
Now that you have chosen a topic and sorted your ideas into relevant categories, you must create a thesis statement. Your thesis statement tells the reader the point of your essay. Look at your outline or diagram. What are the main ideas?
Your thesis statement will have two parts. The first part states the topic, and the second part states the point of the essay. For instance, if you were writing about Bill Clinton and his impact on the United States, an appropriate thesis statement would be, “Bill Clinton has impacted the future of our country through his two consecutive terms as United States President.”
Another example of a thesis statement is this one for the “Winning Characteristics” Scholarship essay: “During my high school career, I have exhibited several of the “Winning Characteristics,” including Communication Skills, Leadership Skills and Organization Skills, through my involvement in Student Government, National Honor Society, and a part-time job at Macy’s Department Store.”
4. Write the body.
The body of your essay argues, explains or describes your topic. Each main idea that you wrote in your diagram or outline will become a separate section within the body of your essay.
Each body paragraph will have the same basic structure. Begin by writing one of your main ideas as the introductory sentence. Next, write each of your supporting ideas in sentence format, but leave three or four lines in between each point to come back and give detailed examples to back up your position. Fill in these spaces with relative information that will help link smaller ideas together.
5. Write the introduction.
Now that you have developed your thesis and the overall body of your essay, you must write an introduction. The introduction should attract the reader’s attention and show the focus of your essay.
Begin with an attention grabber. You can use shocking information, dialogue, a story, a quote, or a simple summary of your topic. Whichever angle you choose, make sure that it ties in with your thesis statement, which will be included as the last sentence of your introduction.
6. Write the conclusion.
The conclusion brings closure of the topic and sums up your overall ideas while providing a final perspective on your topic. Your conclusion should consist of three to five strong sentences. Simply review your main points and provide reinforcement of your thesis.
7. Add the finishing touches.
After writing your conclusion, you might think that you have completed your essay. Wrong. Before you consider this a finished work, you must pay attention to all the small details.
Check the order of your paragraphs. Your strongest points should be the first and last paragraphs within the body, with the others falling in the middle. Also, make sure that your paragraph order makes sense. If your essay is describing a process, such as how to make a great chocolate cake, make sure that your paragraphs fall in the correct order.
Review the instructions for your essay, if applicable. Many teachers and scholarship forms follow different formats, and you must double check instructions to ensure that your essay is in the desired format.
Finally, review what you have written. Reread your paper and check to see if it makes sense. Make sure that sentence flow is smooth and add phrases to help connect thoughts or ideas. Check your essay for grammar and spelling mistakes.
Congratulations! You have just written a great essay.
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How to Write an Essay
Throughout your academic career, you will usually be asked to write an essay. You may work on an assigned essay for class, enter an essay contest or write essays for college admissions. This article will show you the writing and revision processes for all types of essays. Then, it will explore how to write narrative, persuasive and expository essays.
Part One of Five:
Writing Your Essay Edit
Research the topic. Go online, head to the library, or search an academic database or read newspapers. You may ask a reference librarian.
- Know which sources are acceptable to your teacher.
- Does your teacher want a certain number of primary sources and secondary sources?
- Can you use Wikipedia? Wikipedia is often a good starting point for learning about a topic, but many teachers won’t let you cite it because they want you to find more authoritative sources.
- Take detailed notes, keeping track of which facts come from which sources. Write down your sources in the correct citation format so that you don’t have to go back and look them up again later.
- Never ignore facts and claims that seem to disprove your original idea or claim. A good essay writer either includes the contrary evidence and shows why such evidence is not valid or alters his or her point of view in light of the evidence.
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Analyze well-written essays. In your research you’ll probably come across really well-written (and not so well-written) arguments about your topic. Do some analysis to see what makes them work.
- What claims does the author make?
- Why do they sound good? Is it the logic, the sources, the writing, the structure? Is it something else?
- What evidence does the author present?
- Why does the evidence sound credible? How does the author present facts, and what is his/her approach to telling a story with facts?
- Is the logic sound or faulty, and why?
- Why is the logic sound? Does the author back up his/her claims with examples that are easy to follow?
Brainstorm your own ideas. Sure, you can use the arguments of others to back up what you want to say. However, you need to come up with your original spin on the topic to make it uniquely yours.
- Make lists of ideas. You can also try mind mapping .
- Take your time. Walk in your neighborhood or local park and think about your topic. Be prepared for ideas to come to you when you least expect them.
Pick your thesis statement.
- Look at the ideas that you generated. Choose one to three of your strongest ideas that support your topic. You should be able to support these ideas with evidence from your research.
- Write a thesis statement that summarizes the ideas that you plan to present. Essentially, let the reader know where you’re going and why.
- A thesis statement should have a narrow focus include both your topic and what you plan to present. For example, “Although Eli Whitney’s cotton gin ushered in a new era of American prosperity, it also widened the gap in suffering for African-American slaves, who would soon be more in demand, and more exploited, than ever.”
- A thesis statement should not ask a question, be written in first person (“I”), roam off-topic or be combative.
Plan your essay . Take the thoughts that you brainstormed and assemble them into an outline. Write a topic sentence for your main ideas. Then, underneath, make bullet points and list your supporting evidence. Generally, you want three arguments or pieces of evidence to support each main idea.
- Topic sentence: “Eli Whitney’s cotton gin made life harder on African American slaves.”
- Ex: “The success of cotton made it harder for slaves to purchase their own freedom.”
- Ex: “Many northern slaves were in danger of being kidnapped and brought down south to work in the cotton fields.”
- Ex: “In 1790, before the cotton gin, slaves in America totaled about 700,000. In 1810, after the cotton gin had been adopted, slaves totaled about 1.2 million, a 70% increase.”
Write the body of your essay. You do want to think about length here; don’t write pages and pages if your teacher wants 5 paragraphs. However, you should freewrite to let your thoughts reveal themselves. You can always make them more concise later.
- Avoid sweeping generalizations. Statements such as “______ is the most important problem facing the world today,” can cause your reader to dismiss your position out of hand if he/she disagrees with you. On the other hand, “______ is a significant global problem” is more accurate.
- Don’t use “I” statements such as “I think.” Likewise, avoid the personal pronouns “you,” “we,” “my,” “your” or “our”. Simply stating your argument with supporting facts makes you sound much more authoritative. Instead of writing, “I found Frum to have a conservative bias,” tell the reader why your statement is true: “Frum displays a conservative bias when he writes. “
Come up with a compelling title and introduction . Your title and introduction make people want to read your essay. If your teacher is the audience, then of course your teacher will read the whole piece. However, if you’re submitting to an essay contest or writing an essay for college admissions, your title and introduction have to hook the reader if you want to meet your objectives.
- Skip obvious expressions such as, “This essay is about, “The topic of this essay is” or “I will now show that”.
- Try the inverted pyramid formula. Start off with a very broad description of your topic and gradually narrow it down to your specific thesis statement. Try to use no more than 3 to 5 sentences for short essays, and no more than 1 page for longer essays.
- Short essay example: Every year, thousands of unwanted and abused animals end up in municipal shelters. Being caged in shelters not only causes animals to suffer but also drains local government budgets. Towns and cities could prevent both animal abuse and government waste by requiring prospective pet owners to go through mandatory education before allowing them to obtain a pet. Although residents may initially resist the requirement, they will soon see that the benefits of mandatory pet owner education far outweigh the costs.”
Conclude your essay . Summarize your points and suggest ways in which your conclusion can be thought of in a larger sense.
- Answer questions like, “What are the implications of your thesis statement being true?” “What’s the next step?” “What questions remain unanswered?”
- Your arguments should draw your reader to a natural, logical conclusion. In a sense, you are repackaging your thesis statement in your concluding paragraph by helping the reader to remember the journey through your essay.
- Nail the last sentence. If your title and first paragraph make the reader want to read your essay, then your last sentence makes the reader remember you. If a gymnast does a great balance beam routine but falls on the landing, then people forget the routine. Gymnasts need to “stick the landing,” and so do essay writers.
Choose a subject for your essay. You’ll be investigating a topic and presenting an argument about the topic based on evidence.
- For example, you could write an expository essay arguing that embryonic stem cell research can lead to cures for spinal cord injuries and illnesses like Parkinson’s or diabetes.
- Expository essays differ from persuasive essays because you aren’t stating an opinion. You’re stating facts that you can back up with research.
Select your strategy and structure . Some common strategies and structures for expository writing include:
- Definitions. Definition essays explain the meaning of terms or concepts.
- Classification. Classification essays organize a topic into groups starting with the most general group and narrowing down to more specific groups.
- Compare and contrast. In this type of essay, you’ll describe either the similarities and differences (or both) between ideas or concepts.
- Cause and effect. These essays explain how topics affect each other and how they are interdependent.
- How-to. How-to essays explain the steps required for completing a task or a procedure with the goal of instructing the reader.
Keep your views unbiased. Expository essays aren’t about opinions. They are about drawing a conclusion based on verifiable evidence.  This means keeping your perspective balanced and focusing on what the facts tell you.
- You might even find that, with new information, you’ll have to revise your essay. If you started out writing about the scarcity of information regarding global warming, but came across a bunch of scientific evidence supporting global warming, you at least have to consider revising what your essay is about.
Use the facts to tell the story. The facts will tell the story itself if you let them. Think like a journalist when writing an expository essay. If you put down all the facts like a reporter, the story should tell itself.
- Don’t mess with structure in expository essays. In narrative essays, you can twist and turn the structure to make the essay more interesting. Be sure that your structure in expository essays is very linear, making it easier to connect the dots.
Tell your story vividly and accurately. A narrative essay recounts an incident that either you or others have experienced. In a narrative essay, you could describe a personal experience in which embryonic stem cell research could have helped you or someone you love conquer a debilitating condition.
Include all of the elements of good storytelling. You’ll need an introduction, setting, plot, characters, climax and conclusion.
- Introduction. The beginning. How are you going to set the story up? Is there something useful or important here that gets mentioned later on?
- Setting. Where the action takes place. What does it look like? Which words can you use to make the reader feel like they are there when they read it?
- Plot. What happens. The meat of the story, the essential action. Why is the story worth telling?
- Characters. Who’s in the story. What does the story tell us about the characters? What do the characters tell us about the story?
- Climax. The suspenseful bit before anything is resolved. Are we left hanging on the edges of our seat? Do we need to know what happens next?
- Conclusion. How everything resolves. What does the story mean in the end? How have things, people, ideas changed now that the end is revealed?
Have a clear point of view. Most narrative essays are written from the author’s point of view, but you can also consider other perspectives as long as your point of view is consistent.
- Utilize the pronoun “I” if you are the narrator. In a narrative essay, you can use first person. However, make sure that you don’t overdo it. In all essays, you sound more authoritative if you state facts or opinions in third person.
Make a point. You’re telling a story, but the purpose of the story is to make a specific point. Introduce your main idea in your thesis statement, and make sure that all of your story elements tie back to your thesis statement.
- What did you learn? How is your essay an exploration of the things that you learned?
- How have you changed? How is the “you” that started the essay different from the “you” now? Related to, but different from, the “what did you learn?” question.
Choose your language carefully. You will use words to evoke emotions in your reader, so choose your words deliberately.