6. Types of College Writing

Open Handbook

Types of College Writing

Most students are trained in high school to write what is known as a five-paragraph essay—a form of writing containing an introduction, three paragraphs of support, and a summary conclusion. In that it encourages students to think about introductions, structure, organization, paragraphing, evidence, and reasoning, the five-paragraph essay is good training for novice writers. However, this particular rhetorical form is extremely limiting: only certain, rather paltry, thoughts and ideas may be placed within a five paragraph structure.

Your college coursework will require that you reach for rhetorical forms of an entirely different nature. Little of the thinking you will be challenged to do in college will fit within the constraints of the five-paragraph essay. Big ideas, complex reasoning, and deep inquiry will require more sophisticated structures. Rather than force all of your reasoning and inquiry into a preformulated and supposedly universal structure, you will be asked to embrace the idea that the formal properties of a piece of writing are determined by the particular needs of the argument. Thus, the shape of your reasoning will determine the essay’s form. Furthermore, every discipline has its own particular way(s) of writing; as you progress through your coursework you will become more familiar with how your chosen field of study presents its own kind of academic discourse.

While academic writing takes on many forms, the following are the most common modes of writing you will encounter. However, it is perhaps misleading to present these various modes of academic writing as discrete things. Please understand that there are no definite lines between these various kinds of academic writing, and it is uncommon to write in one mode exclusively. The rhetorical tasks you face in college will often require you to combine these modes in various ways within a single piece of writing. For example, an argument paper will often involve synthesis and analysis, a research essay may use one or more theories, and a theory paper might use close reading and analysis.


An argument paper requires you to make a claim about a debatable issue and then defend that claim using evidence and reasoning. Virtually all academic writing is argumentative in nature. Argumentative essays generally begin with an introduction that explains the context for the argument and the specific issue, problem, or question that the paper will address. Typically, the author of an argument will use the end of the introduction to present a thesis—the main idea or claim of the essay. However, this is not always the case. For example, one argumentative form known as the exploratory essay replaces the thesis with a question that is used to initiate an inquiry into an issue or problem. Typically, the thesis appears near the end of this kind of essay, as the culmination of a process of reasoning and inquiry.


A response paper gives you free license to respond to a text without guidance. Rather than a prompt or prescribed approach given to you by a professor, a response paper allows you to engage a text on your own terms and write from your own perspective.

While a response paper allows you to write about something you choose, your effort should not be an impressionistic one where you only talk about your personal feelings—what you like or dislike about the subject of your response. Rather, you should seek to evaluate and engage the claims and ideas you find in the text or the meanings you discover in the film, artwork, cultural practice or other artifact. Thus, a response is always argumentative in nature in that you will make claims and use reasoning and evidence as support.

Your response may seek to take issue with some of the thinking or reasoning put forth in the reading. However, a good response doesn’t just say “I agree with X” or “I disagree with Y.” Instead, explicit reasons are stated and explanations are made that challenge or support the writer’s ideas. A good response essay might alternatively attempt to forge a connection between two or more texts by demonstrating a relationship between the ideas or arguments involved—contrasting, comparing, and evaluating the claims or ideas in the texts. For example, how might Author A respond to Author B? How do their views compare? Can their views be reconciled? Is one view superior?


An expository essay is one in which you report on, define, summarize, clarify and/or explain a concept, process, idea, or text. Expository essays involve several key patterns such as compare and contrast, cause and effect, problem and solution, or definition. The purpose of this kind of writing is to provide information to an audience unfamiliar with the subject or to demonstrate for a professor that you have understood course material.


As the name suggests, synthesis essays emphasize combining and connecting. Your focus in a synthesis essay is to explain to your audience the ways in which two or more arguments or ideas relate to one another.

Rather than try to summarize two or more things separately, a synthesis will attempt to discover the various things that the authors or texts discuss—the questions, ideas, and arguments they have in common—then present those things in an organized and meaningful way. Thus, your objective in a synthesis is to bring two or more distinct sources into a relationship by explaining to your reader the various ways in which the sources are in dialogue.

Students attempting synthesis for the first time often make the mistake of organizing their essays by source. For example, this student might introduce two authors in her introduction, summarize Author A, summarize Author B, then conclude by noting the broad similarities and differences in the two authors' thinking. This is not synthesis. In a synthesis essay it is generally best to organize your essay by topic or questions at issue rather than by sources.

To begin a synthesis, ask yourself the following questions about the readings you plan to synthesize:

  • What are the positions, arguments, and ideas that the source materials have in common?
  • Are the authors all concerned about the same problem(s)?
  • Are their arguments similar or do they differ in some respects?
  • What reasoning supports their arguments?
  • Do they offer similar conclusions or are there differences?

Answering these questions exhaustively will help you write an essay that examines the relationship(s) between the various authors' arguments, comparing and contrasting their views.

Analysis/Close Reading

Analytical writing involves paying close attention to particular elements of a thing and how those discrete elements work together to produce a whole. While analysis always involves breaking things down and meticulously examining the particulars, the ultimate goal of any analysis is to explain what something means or how it works. In the case of literary criticism, for example, you might perform an analysis of a poem and then attempt to explain its meaning to your audience. Rather than quote an outside authority, you will instead provide your interpretation of the text using only the words of the poem itself as evidence. This process is often referred to as “close reading.” While this process may be performed on a poem or a scene in a novel, a close reading may also be made of a film sequence, a piece of artwork, a photograph, a built structure, a tribal practice, or even a music video or new fashion trend.

In more scientific disciplines you might examine a collection of data, then describe in detail how this information leads to a broader explanation, theory, or conclusion. In all cases, the analysis you perform should be used to support a strong thesis—an idea or that you want your audience to accept as true.

Theoretical Writing

The theoretical essay is one of the most common forms of academic writing. Using a theory is like using a tool: you take it with you to your job of reading and interpreting a text and use it to uncover ideas and shape thoughts. Sometimes people refer to theoretical arguments as “lens” essays since you view the text(s) you are analyzing through the theory you have chosen. Like a lens, the theory will color the text, bring certain things into focus, and make others fade out of view.

We might, for example, use a feminist theory to examine a novel. In this case, the theory would sensitize us to certain aspects of the text such as the power relationships between the female and male characters or how social authorities or institutions treat men and women differently. Alternatively, we might perform a Marxist analysis which would cause us to study how social class and disparities in wealth shape the narrative and the various characters' outcomes in the fictional world they inhabit. But theory is not just for the analysis of fiction. We might, for example, appropriate some economic, sociological, or anthropological theory to analyze how people behave at the mall or use some psychological model to explain the decision to join a fraternity.

There is an extraordinary variety of extant theoretical models that may be used for the interpretation of texts, cultural forms, and various kinds of data. In fact, every field of study uses theory in some way—from literary criticism to the hard sciences. As you begin to specialize within a chosen discipline of study, you will encounter the theoretical models that are important for that discipline.


A research paper requires you to draw on outside sources in addition to your own thinking in the service of an argument. Research writing often includes many of the kinds of writing described above. Indeed, research writing involves a coordination of all of the previously mentioned skills and rhetorical modes. For example, your research paper may involve one or more theories, perform various kinds of analysis, synthesize the thinking of many other writers or thinkers, and make one or more arguments.

When you make an academic argument, you are often entering a conversation that existed long before you appeared. When you write, you must remain mindful of the conversations that came before and nestle your views within those that already exist. In short, you must demonstrate that your ideas have a context. This is where research comes into play. Before you can responsibly offer your views, you must know what the critical conversation is, what arguments are being made, and what questions are important (or irrelevant) to the debate.

Properly done, research ensures that what you write is a true contribution to the ongoing discussion, and not a pointless exercise in repetition. The whole point, after all, is to move the scholarly conversation further down the road, not endlessly spin our wheels.