Kinds of argumentative academic essays and their purposes

Most of the time, when your supervisors and others talk about academic essays what they mean is essays that present well-reasoned points of view on various topics. This article explains some essential kinds of these essays—exegetical, discursive, expository, and argumentative—and outlines their key differences and similarities. We’ll call the group of them “persuasive essays,” since they all require you to persuade your reader in some way.

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Kinds of persuasive academic essays

Exegetical essays persuade your reader to interpret a theory in a certain way and show your ability to understand and accurately explain difficult ideas.

Discursive essays persuade your reader to see the different sides of a debate in a certain way and present your ability to compare different approaches to a topic.

Expository essays persuade your reader that your opinion is the right one and that you are a competent critical thinker.

Argumentative essays persuade your reader to see something new in a field of research and to see that you have some authority in that field.

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Difference between persuasive academic essays and standard scientific articles

One thing that separates a persuasive academic essay from a standard scientific article or an article in a newspaper is that the author’s point of view plays a more obvious role. Whereas a scientist is taught not to present the facts as she sees them but as anyone can see them, an essayist always presents information from a certain point of view (usually her own), even if she usually avoids referring to herself in the text.

Differences between kinds of persuasive academic essays

The different kinds of persuasive academic essays are distinguished by the different things they do, but also by the prominence of the author’s point of view. The following tables presents the differences.

Exegetical essay
Purpose Role of author
  • to present an accurate interpretation (also called an exegesis) of another person’s theory or view
  • evaluation of the merits of the theory or view is not included in this type of essay
  • focuses on showing how the theory or view works: shows its logic
Minimal: but it is understood that the presentation is your own reading of what someone else means by a theory or view.
Discursive essay
Purpose Role of author
  • to present competing views on a given topic
    • views may be original or may be taken from already-established sides of an argument
    • like an exegetical essay, should focus on accurate interpretation and logic
    • gives the fairest treatment possible to each view
  • may end presenting the balance of the views and suggesting the stronger of the two (if possible)
  • does not forcefully argue for one or the other
Moderate: although normally you should suggest which argument is the stronger, your primary role is as a guide to competing views on the topic.
Expository essay
Purpose Role of author
  • to present an original view on a topic
  • supports this view with good reasons
  • shows ability to invent and support an argumentative view
  • shows ability to think critically about this view
  • must show how the reasons provided establish your view as a convincing one
Strong: you present your own view as the best view to take, and the paper establishes your ability to think independently and critically.
Argumentative essay
Purpose Role of author
  • to present meaningful contribution to a field of research
  • does what an expository essay does, but…
    • more research and engagement with others’ opinions
    • argument is fortified with more evidence
    • often longer than expository essays
  • the argument should…
    • be original
    • be clearly situated in current discussions of the topic
    • have some implications for the way that people should understand the topic in future
Substantial: you present your own view as the best view to take, but the focus is on how this new view contributes meaningfully to the current literature.

What all persuasive academic essays do

The first thing to notice is that, while essay assignments do sometimes ask for one or the other of these types of essay, often persuasive academic essays will need to mix these styles. For example, in order to properly situate her view in the current literature on a topic, the author of an argumentative essay will sometimes need to present a brief exegesis of someone else’s view. Many other combinations are possible, and the argumentative essay, especially, may draw on each of the other three styles.

Second, each of these academic essay forms is argumentative, even though we call only one of them “the argumentative essay.” In fact, you should keep in mind that, speaking loosely, people sometimes do refer to all of these as “argumentative essays.” This term is not entirely inaccurate, since they all require skillful treatment of argumentation, and they all require you to persuade your reader of something.

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Shane Bryson

Shane finished his master's degree in English literature in 2013 and has been working as a writing tutor and editor since 2009. He began proofreading and editing essays with Scribbr in early summer, 2014.