Barring the obvious answer (to get a degree), in answering this question we need first to ask, what distinguishes an essay from any other form of writing? Most people will have strong intuitions that newspaper articles, scientific reports, and short stories, for example, are not forms of essay, but it might be hard to distinguish exactly why these don’t count as essays.
The difference lies in the stance a writer takes in composing an essay and the kind of thing that an essayist tries to do. We find a clue to the distinction in the general definition of the word “essay”: as a verb, it means “to try,” and my dictionary of literary terms calls its noun form “a composition having no pretensions to completeness or thoroughness of treatment” and says that the “chief implication of the term is ‘a tentative study.’”
Essays try to provide an understanding of things that are essentially matters of interpretation, where the prospect of the final word on a subject is remote. In contrast, scientific reports try to describe something that happened (an experiment), and they are supposed to be minimally interpretive and nearly indisputable. Newspaper articles are similar in this way, presenting the facts and just the facts (at least in theory).
Creative Writing (Ex: Stories) vs. Essays
Creative writing is used to entertain and appeal to the imagination of the author’s readers. It is more artistic as opposed to essay writing. The use of vivid language is essential to paint a mental picture in your audience’s mind.
In creative writing, you can:
- Build worlds
- Create characters
- Develop out-of-this-world stories
You don’t need a parenthetical citation or a reference page, just let your imagination run wild!
Generally speaking, essays are more technical. They cater to the intellect of the reader, instead of his/her artistic side. Logic plays a significant role in producing a powerful essay. Moreover, “conducting” internal debates are a norm in school essays. For example, it is a requirement to provide a counterargument to your main argument in persuasive essays.
Also, it’s common to see the following signal phrases in an essay:
- “According to…”
- “In my opinion…”
- “As stated by…”
Parenthetical citations are also a common sight in essay writing. Of course, another signature trait of this particular form of writing is the reference page. Failure to document your sources in your essay is considered as plagiarism.
Essays vs. News reports
News reports are more focused on delivering facts to its readers. Its target audience is the general public.
The objective of a news report is to update your readers about current events neutrally. It means that a reporter must extract information from various sources who hold different perspectives on the issue at hand.
Let’s look at the structure of a news report:
- Attention-grabbing headline
- Lead (The “what”)
- Details of the report (Context, recent developments, expert’s opinion, and etc.)
Try to search for news articles online. News are structured in a way to make it readable and engaging to the audience. As a matter of fact, it is okay to write a one-sentence paragraph for news articles. Style-wise, news writers don’t use first-person pronouns or even “the reporter”.
You don’t need to add your opinion. Actually, you stay out of it.
In essays, the target audience is often the instructor. The rationale is to teach you how to organize your thoughts and put them on paper logically. Essays are grounded on facts, but it also allows you to form your own opinion (situational). For example, a teacher might ask you, “What is your favorite scene in the movie Les Miserables? Why?”
On the other hand, let’s examine the structure of an essay:
- Introduction (includes the thesis statement)
You will not see a thesis statement in news reports. In the body, there are:
- Topic sentences
- Concluding sentences
It would definitely bore the reader if a news report is formatted like a school essay. In essays, one paragraph has to contain at least three to five sentences. It can be written in first person or third person point of view. Like creative writing and news articles, essays have to be engaging to the reader as well.
Theses vs. Essays
It is part of the college or high school endgame — a typical requirement for senior students. When you write your own thesis, you are required to do the following:
- Contribute new perspectives to your field of study
- Conduct interviews or surveys
- Do a data analysis
- Form conclusions based on your data
- Offer recommendations
Hence, it is not surprising to draft more than 20 pages of text in a thesis. You are own boss in thesis writing, as you have the privilege to choose your own topic, scope and limitations, framework, and etc. Although it is acknowledged that a thesis coordinator may occasionally help you in drafting your thesis.
Fortunately, you don’t need to interview someone or survey a group of people for your essay. Instead, here are the tasks you need to do in essay-writing:
- Write an opinion (Depending on the requirements)
- Persuade your reader
- Demonstrate your ability to write clearly
Supporting your claims with evidence and researching relevant materials are the common denominator of essays, research papers, and theses. Bear in mind that the last two writing forms are written in the first person.
On the other hand, the length of your essay may depend on your teacher’s requirements. It can be one-page or a two-page essay. Truth be told, the ball is in your instructor’s court.
Research Papers vs. Essays
Research papers are more comprehensive than essays. Interestingly, the Suny Empire State College defines it as,
| “… an expanded essay that presents your own interpretation or evaluation or argument.”
- There’s more room for you to explore the topic. Hence, intensive research is required to fully understand your subject matter.
- It means that you have to read numerous sources and be an expert on your own topic.
- Sometimes, the main topic can branch into multiple sub-topics.
Not only does a research paper improves your analytical and writing skills, but it also builds up your current knowledge about the topic.
According to the Suny Empire State College, essays enable you to use everything you know about the subject. There’s also research involved, but you are not obligated to comprehensively understand the topic.
But something else must distinguish the essay form since fictional narratives such as short stories also in some ways present a tentative study of things,. These two forms usually differ in content and aim. Narratives tell stories about how events unfold for characters and usually try to make us feel a certain way. Essays are closer to scientific reports in that their purpose is to tell us, most often explicitly, about the way we ought to understand something.
In sum, whereas a scientific report aspires to be indisputable, an essay strives to give a convincing interpretation of something (and interpretation is by definition disputable). Whereas a short story aims to make us feel, an essay intends to make us think.
Finally, a scientist is supposed to be inessential to her experiment and report; anyone should be able to perform the experiments, get the results, and record them in much the same way. A fiction writer relates to her writing in the opposite way; the story is fundamentally changed when told by anyone else. The essayist, again, falls somewhere between these two extremes. An essay’s argument should be convincing no matter who authors it—the logic of the argument should stand independent of the author—but an essay is also always an expression of the essayist’s opinion, which is by definition not objective fact.
In short, the essayist writes to communicate her opinion on a subject in order to convince her audience to take up this opinion. This is what makes an essay.
Academic essays, in particular, are characterized by a certain standard and approach. Some other types of essays you might write in an academic context include personal statements and statements of purpose, in which you use an essay format to convince an admissions committee that you are the right candidate for a program.