We’ve been focusing on broad categories of reading materials so far: literature, journalism, textbooks, and academic writing. Since most of the reading (and writing!) you’ll do throughout your college career falls into the “academic writing” category, this is a good point to slow down and examine the building blocks of academic writing more closely.
Rhetoric is the study of writing, so the basic types of academic writing are referred to as rhetorical modes. Let’s look at 10 of the most common types.
The purpose of narration is to tell a story or relate an event. Narration is an especially useful tool for sequencing or putting details and information into some kind of logical order, usually chronological.
Literature uses narration heavily, but it also can be useful in academic writing for strong impact.
An academic essay about the impact of lead in the drinking water in Flint, Michigan, for instance, might include a narrative section that tells the story of one particular family that’s been impacted. This will help illustrate the broader impacts on the community.
The purpose of description is to re-create, invent, or visually present a person, place, event, or action so that the reader can picture that which is being described. It is heavily based on sensory details: what we experience through our five senses.
Description is very useful in writing of all types.
We’ve been looking at examples so far, with the lead in the water of Flint, Michigan. An exemplification essay extends this idea even further: it carries one or more examples into great detail, in order to show the details of a complex problem in a way that’s easy for readers to understand.
In the vocabulary section we talked about word definitions in great detail. A definition essay takes the concept of “definition” more broadly, moving beyond a dictionary definition to examine a word or concept as we actually use and understand it.
5. Process Analysis
Analyzing a process can also be thought of as a “how-to” essay. Technical writing includes a lot of process analysis, for instance. Academic writing can incorporate process analysis to show how an existing problem came to be, or how it might be solved, by following a clear series of steps.
A classification essay takes one large concept, and divides it into individual pieces. A nice result from this type of writing is that it helps the reader to understand a complex topic by focusing on its smaller parts. This is particularly useful when an author has a unique way of dividing up the concepts, to provide new insight into the ways it might be viewed.
Comparison focuses on similarities between things, and contrast focuses on their differences. We innately make comparisons all the time, and they appear in many kinds of writings. The goal of comparison and contrast in academic essays is generally to show that one item is superior to another, based on a set of evaluations included as part of the writing.
If narration offers a sequence of events, cause/effect essays offer an explanation about why that sequence matters. Cause/effect writing is particularly powerful when the author can provide a cause/effect relationship that the reader wasn’t expecting, and as a result see the situation in a new light.
This type of academic writing has two equally important tasks: clearly identifying a problem, and then providing a logical, practical solution for that problem. Establishing that a particular situation IS a problem can sometimes be a challenge–many readers might assume that a given situation is “just the way it is,” for instance.
10. Argument & Persuasion
The purpose of argumentation (also called persuasive writing) is to prove the validity of a point of view, by presenting sound reasoning to thoroughly convince the reader. These assume that the reader is initially uninformed about the topic, or holds a viewpoint that differs from the author’s. The author’s goal is to bring the reader around to his or her way of thinking on the matter.
As the examples of the Flint, Michigan drinking water situation show, there is a lot of overlap between the different rhetorical modes. Many academic essays combine two or more different rhetorical modes in one finished product. This leads to a rich reading experience.