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: 2018-02-09 12:42:48
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.
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:
The GRE Argument Essay does not need to be difficult. It certainly does not need to inordinately tax you before you even begin the test itself (remember both the Argument and the Issue come before the verbal and math sections).
To make sure you finish the essays with confidence—and not a racing pulse and heavy breathing—you want to learn what to do, and what not to do, for the GRE Argument Essay.
1. Do not agree with the argument
The Argument essay gets its name not only from the fact that you must analyze an argument, but also because you must provide your own argument. Specifically, you are arguing how the argument is terrible (in a scholastic manner, of course!) and filled with logical fallacies. You must in no way agree with the argument. It is there for you to skewer with your logical and rhetorical abilities.
2. Don’t belabor the introduction
The intro should be short and sweet. Many forget this and instead try to craft an eloquent and attention-grabbing first sentence. Do not be seduced by such a temptation! Instead, be as dry and formulaic as possible (the Issue statement, it should be noted, allows for a little more flair).
3. Follow a rigid organizational scheme
Organization is key to scoring well on the GRE AWA. The good news is that the Argument has an even more cookie-cutter template than the Issue. Essentially, you want to open with a quick intro stating how the paragraph is weak for a variety of reasons. You can mention those issues, before elaborating on them in the body paragraphs.
Begin each body paragraph with a topic sentence that states the specific fallacy you are attacking. The second sentence should provide your reasoning. The third sentence can elaborate on the second sentence by providing specific examples. Your fourth sentence can be something like, “Had the argument taken into account…”, “Had the argument not assumed X…then….”
The final sentence can recap the paragraph (think of it as a mini-conclusion that is paragraph-specific).
4. Find the right balance
The GRE argument paragraph is a bar of Swiss cheese, the holes gaping logical fallacies. It is easy to get carried away and try to enumerate all of the logical inconsistencies in the paragraph. Doing so, however, detracts from your ability to develop your criticism of any one logical inconsistency or questionable assumption.
At the same time, you could just as easily pick out one of these glaring assumptions and write a really long paragraph, describing why an assumption is unwarranted and ways to make the argument stronger.
The key is finding the right balance between highlighting specific fallacies and developing a thoughtful and sustained (but not too sustained) dismantling of one of the holes in the bar of Swiss cheese.
The magical number is three. Make sure you find three separate logical fallacies in the paragraph. These fallacies of course should be the ones that you feel detract most from the legitimacy of the argument.
5. Brainstorm/outline before you write
Simply rushing through the paragraph and writing whatever comes to mind is probably not going to end well. Take a few minutes to digest what the argument is saying. Often, one of the most glaring assumptions, the one that the argument really hinges on, might escape you on first reading.
Once you’ve written down a few of the logical fallacies think to yourself how you might develop a sustained attack. One great way is to consider how the argument would have been made stronger had it not assumed X, Y, and Z.
Finally, thinking about what you write before you write will help you score big points for organization—a critical part of your AWA score.
Check out this breakdown of a sample argument essay.