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A Quick And Dirty Guide To Essays (With Essay Examples!)

Anna Gooding-Call

Staff Writer

Anna Gooding-Call is a librarian and writer originally from rural central New York. She got her BA in the city that inspired "The Twilight Zone" and confirms that the hitchhikers really are weird there. Today, she lives in Massachusetts with her wife and two cats.

Ah, the essay! The art of reality! Oh, to trap the effervescent moment in a drop of amber, to polish it until it glows, to receive a more-then-passing grade on your English final. Regardless of your reasons, this guide to the different types of essays (with essay examples to edify and inspire you) will discuss what you’re writing, how to write it, and who has written it before.

Argumentative and Persuasive Essays

Argumentative essays use objective, provable facts to make the case for or against a point. You should declare this point in your thesis statement, a sentence that appears in the first paragraph of your essay. However, before you do that, you’d better conduct some thorough research. Argumentative essays are based in facts, and if they’re not, they’re crappy essays.

Persuasive essays are very much the same, except that they base their arguments on personal opinion, feelings, and beliefs.

One of the easiest and best ways to write a strong argumentative or persuasive essay is to use the following structure:

  • State your thesis
    • “The government is not run by Venusian squid.”
  • Present the basis of your argument
    • Argumentative: “According to NASA, Venus is incapable of supporting life.”
    • Persuasive: “I don’t feel like squid would enjoy Venus.”
  • Present counterarguments
    • Argumentative: “Cousin Hal claims that squid could live in the higher levels of Venus’s dense atmosphere.”
    • Persuasive: “Cousin Hal really gets heated when discussing what he sees as the squid problem, and I validate his feelings.”
  • Shoot down the counterarguments
    • Argumentative: “However, according to Georgia State University, Venus’s atmosphere is poisonous.”
    • Persuasive: “Hal’s attitude is not conducive to dialogue and makes me question whether his head is clear when it comes to this topic.”
  • Conclude triumphantly
    • Argumentative: “If the government is, in fact, run by squid, then they definitely don’t come from Venus.”
    • Persuasive: “I’d be very surprised if the government is actually run by Venusian squid.”

Both argumentative and persuasive essays should stick closely to their point. If, when you reread your essay, you find that not everything you say is directly relevant to your thesis, then that part needs to go. Want some essay examples? We’ve got some winners right here:

Christopher Hitchens, “The New Commandments

In this argumentative essay, the author sticks closely to the point that the Ten Commandments don’t make judicial sense.

Margaret Atwood, “Attitude

Some of the best persuasive essays are speeches! This essay tries to convince graduates that it’s worthwhile to pursue a life of writing.

Descriptive Essays

It’s all about the details! A descriptive essay endeavors to leave the reader with an impression rather than a narrative, which is to say that they’re not plot-focused at all. Nothing “happens” per se, but your audience comes away with something important anyway. Lyric essays tend to be descriptive in nature. Sometimes they’re downright poetic, even venturing into experimental territory.

A descriptive essay can just be several pages about your favorite vacation spot, the way gulls guffaw from the peaked roofs and the sea insinuates into the air until your lungs are gills. We’re all swimming here, all the time, out of the flow of time, etc. In a descriptive essay, you’re not declaiming, you’re exclaiming. Get artsy!

Susan Sontag, “Notes on Camp

Notice how Sontag evokes visual details as she attempts to decode camp.

Amaris Feland Ketcham, “How We Echo

This piece doesn’t make a point so much as a statement, and a large part of that is couched in the metaphor of the red canyon rock.

Narrative Essays

If descriptive essays unmoor you and leave you wanting a plot, then you might feel more comfortable here. Narrative essays have a point of view, a narrative arc, a climax, the works. Essay examples of this type tend to feel comfortable to readers who like a traditional story. For the most part, they’re chronological in nature and tend to encompass one particular event, start to finish.

Start like this:

  • Beginning
    • “The day I learned to ride a bike was also the day I learned to crash one.”
  • Story
    • “My dad rode behind me, cheering encouragement as I took my first stuttering quarter mile with increasing confidence.”
  • Climax
    • “The gravel skidded and my front tire dove into the darkness of the roadside ditch.”
  • Falling Action
    • “Mom dabbed iodine on my cuts, assuring me that I’d have better luck on my second ride.”

Annie Dillard, “Total Eclipse

While there are a lot of descriptive elements in this essay, it works up to a grand conclusion (the eclipse) and then back down in a classic denouement.

Jennifer Kim, “Nothing Extraordinary

This essay is quick, but a perfect textbook example of a good narrative essay. Check out the other award-winners at the link, too!

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Reflective Essays

When an author “reflects,” they’re really talking about their memories. These aren’t contiguous in a reflective essay—not like in a narrative structure, where the author sets out to recount one particular event. Reflective essays often tie together several different personal events with what’s going on in the rest of the world. There are few particularly famous essay examples in this category that have really made a splash on the literary world.

James Baldwin, “Notes of a Native Son

While Baldwin focuses mainly on his memories here, he hops around in a nonlinear fashion and examines them with the eye of experience.

Joan Didion, “The White Album

The way that Didion skips around her personal history and ties it to its wider context is what makes this a reflective essay.

Want to read some essays? Try these ones from 2019! If you’re interested specifically in essays be women, try this Book Riot-approved selection.