Rock Valley College

Types of Writing

Understanding what’s expected of you depending on the rhetorical situation 

When presented with a new writing assignment, understanding what is expected of you can be a challenge. Let’s say your new assignment prompt asks you to write a “persuasive research paper that analyzes the miniseries Chernobyl, summarizes the ideas of at least 3 of the film’s critics, and discusses the effects the film has had on support for nuclear energy production.” Taking a closer look at the key terms in this directive (persuasive, analyze, effects) can help students better understand what type of writing is required of them. (For more on this, see the handout called Understanding the Assignment/Reading the Prompt using the link at bottom). Luckily, each different type of writing has distinct characteristics to guide you. 

 There are four main types of writing: narrative, descriptive, expository, and persuasive. Additionally, there are a few other types of writing that tend to fall under these four main categories, but are worth defining on their own, as they are often mentioned in writing assignments. By taking a look at different types of writing, or rhetorical styles, you will better understand how to proceed with your writing assignment. 



In narrative writing, a particular day, event, or incident is recalled for the reader. Rather than using outside sources, narrative writing relies on sensory details and personal experience to make the reader feel like they are there. For this reason, narrative essays are often written in the first-person point of view, using personal pronouns (I, we, us, our, me, my) and are usually organized chronologically (but not always). Though the structural requirements of narration are looser than in most other writing styles, one idea or event should still flow logically to the next. The elements of narration are the same as those of effective storytelling: setting, characters, plot, conflict, resolution of conflict, theme, tone, and sometimes dialogue. The language should be as descriptive as possible; as such, understanding the elements of descriptive writing are helpful when writing a narrative piece. 

Where you might find Narrative Writing:
•Fiction novels, biographies, and memoirs
•Plays, films, and documentaries
•Epic poems and songs that tell a story
•Historical accounts
•Newspaper articles that tell human interest stories

The purpose of writing a descriptive essay is to help readers visualize an event, person, place, concept, process, piece of literature, article, documentary, or even a TV show. Good descriptive writing often makes use of figurative language (like similes, metaphor, or personification) that help the reader feel what it was like to experience what the writer is conveying. Descriptive writing can be organized chronologically or sequentially (time), spatially (location), thematically (by theme or concept), emphatically (order of importance), or in whatever way best serves the writing’s purpose. Structurally, description begins with an introduction to the topic, contains body paragraphs that provide detail, and ends with a conclusion that wraps up the topic. Depending on the topic (and your instructor’s directions), a descriptive piece may be written in the first- or third-person form. 

Where you might find Descriptive Writing:
•Novels and short stories
•Newspaper articles that describe a new place in town (like a restaurant or park)
•Travel diaries
•Songs and poems

The idea of an expository piece is to explain, describe, and inform using only factual information. The writer’s opinion on the topic has no place in exposition. In this type of writing, you may explain a process (i.e., how to build or bake something), a concept (i.e., what is a charter school), or an event (i.e., what happened at the scene of a bus crash last week). Expository writing needs to follow a logical sequence that depends on the topic. For instance, if you are explaining how to build or bake something, your writing should follow the steps of the process (sequential). If you are reporting the reasons a charter school was founded in your neighborhood, you could list the reasons in the order of importance (emphatic) or follow a sequential order. If you are writing about a bus crash, you should tell what happened in chronological order—the order in which events occurred. However, unlike narrative or descriptive writing, exposition does NOT tell a story. In other words, sensory details and figurative language should be left out. Whichever method of organization you choose, an expository essay should follow the formal essay structure, with an introduction (including a thesis), body paragraphs, and a conclusion. Outside sources can be used in an expository piece (they may even be required), but they are not necessary if you are writing about a topic on which you are the expert (i.e., it’s your recipe for baking cake or building birdhouses; you led the committee that founded the charter school; or you personally witnessed the events surrounding the bus crash). 

Where you might find Expository Writing:
•Non-fiction, cookbooks, and how-to books
•Newspaper articles that report only facts (non-editorial)
•Instructional guides and manuals
•Scientific research or medical journals

Persuasive writing is arguably the most common type of writing you will use during your college career. The purpose of persuasive writing is to move the reader to support a specific point of view or act on an idea or cause. Often called argumentative writing, persuasion requires you to take a firm stance on your topic or issue, state this claim clearly in your thesis, and spend the rest of the essay supporting this claim, essentially arguing with the readers as to why they should believe you. You will likely use a few different types of writing to accomplish this goal of the persuasive paper. In persuasive writing, you might need to analyze and critique an article before using it as support. You may need to write descriptively to get an emotional response from the reader. You might need to use expository writing to report facts and events that led to your point of view on the issue. You may need to show cause and effect to make your points or compare and contrast both sides of the issue to strengthen your stance. And finally, you may need to summarize your argument in the conclusion. It could be argued that an effective persuasive essay MUST use several types of writing to achieve its purpose. Persuasive writing uses outside sources to provide support and examples. Writing persuasively requires you to synthesize the sources you use, meaning that you will weave ideas or quotes from outside sources into your own writing where necessary to support your points (see the handout called Synthesizing Sources using the link at bottom). A persuasive piece takes a formal essay structure, with an introduction that grabs the reader’s attention, introduces the topic, and contains a persuasive thesis statement; body paragraphs that contain the major points you will present as related to your thesis, supporting points, and examples where necessary; and a conclusion that wraps up your ideas, moves the reader to act, presents the broader context of your topic, and demonstrates its importance. The order in which you present your supporting points depends on the topic and what makes sense for your unique situation (unless, of course, your instructor has already specified which type of organization to use). You may feel like the most important points should come first, or you may wish to begin with the least important points and build up to the point that is most poignant and likely to stir the emotions of your reader. There are certainly topics that would benefit from chronological or spatial ordering, but, in most persuasive writing, the emphatic (from most to least important, or the reverse) or thematic (by concept or theme) orders work best. Whichever method you choose, ideas should flow naturally, be accompanied by good transitions, and, ultimately, serve the purpose of your essay. 

Where you might find Persuasive Writing:
•Editorial or opinion pieces in newspapers or magazines
•Letters written to request an item, action, or to fila a complaint
•Journal articles or essays on "hot button" topics
•Advertisements that try to convince you to try something, buy something, or donate to a cause
•Company brochures and business proposals


When writing a summary, you will highlight the main points or events of the work you are summarizing for your reader. A summary should be only around 20% the length of the original work, so stick with the most important information presented. A type of expository writing, the purpose of a summary is to report the facts; there is no place for opinion in a summary. Chronological or sequential, ordering (following the order of the original work) should be used to write a summary.  

YOU MAY SEE IT: in Entertainment Weekly magazine (or on their website) in the section that recaps current episodes of HBO’s Game of Thrones TV show. 

Unlike summary, a critique is full of opinions. Essentially a type of persuasive writing, a critique asks you to take a stance. Your job as the writer of a critique is to act as a critic of the material you’ve read (an article, novel, report) or viewed (a film, show, painting, or process). In other words, you must break down the work you are critiquing to evaluate its success or failures. Ask yourself: What was the writer’s or director’s purpose? Did they achieve it? What were the author’s strongest points? What did they fail to include or recognize? Were there any flaws in their logic? Which points or scenes were particularly poignant or impactful? Were there any ideas that seemed underdeveloped? A critical analysis follows a formal essay structure and typically begins with an introduction that introduces the work to be discussed, uses body paragraphs to evaluate the piece, and then concludes with your overall opinion on the work and any ideas you have about what the creator might have done differently. A critique can be ordered in any way that works best for its purpose. 

YOU MAY SEE IT: in a critical review of this week’s best-selling novel for the New York Times or in a Rockford Register Star feature that rates the latest restaurant or art show opening. 

As the name suggests, writing a definition essay asks you to define a term that is more complicated than those that can be defined by a line or two in your dictionary. Topics like “racial justice” or “school bullying” require more thought and explanation than what Webster’s can supply. Providing the reader with a better understanding of these more complex terms is the purpose of your definition essay. Its structure and ordering will depend largely on the topic. The length of the essay helps dictate the structure as well; since this type of writing often only requires a paragraph or two (or it may be that the definition you are writing is only part of a larger essay), formal essay structures are often inapplicable. As a type of expository writing, definition writing asks you to keep your opinions to yourself. 

YOU MAY SEE IT: on the introductory page of a website about industrial waste to define the term before exploring the causes or solutions. 

In a cause and effect essay, you are asked to draw parallels between events and their consequences. Typically, this type of writing should follow the rules of expository writing by adhering to a formal essay structure (usually either chronological or emphatic), by being based on factual evidence rather than opinions, and by using outside sources for support. However, like with many types of writing, there are exceptions. If you are tasked with writing a personal essay about an event in your own life that had specific consequences, you may take a less formal tone and have no need to consult any outside experts. For example, when writing about a hurricane (cause) that, consequently, caused you to lose everything, move to another state, change your career course, meet your partner, and start a family (effects), you are the expert and your opinions matter. 

YOU MAY SEE IT: in a business’s financial report to explain a dip in profit margins or in a medical report on the rise of obesity in America. 

In this mode of writing, your purpose is to show the similarities and differences between two or more related ideas, items, places, processes, or sources. Comparing and contrasting may occur as only one section within the larger framework of a different form of rhetoric (i.e., a paragraph comparing and contrasting two theories on visual learning in a persuasive paper about effective online teaching). Or you may be asked to write an entire essay that compares and contrasts two or more ideas. Either way, the structure for this type of writing usually follows one of two methods. You may find the alternating method (or side-by-side method) useful, where you discuss one aspect of an item (or idea, or theory, or film) and immediately discuss the same aspect as it pertains to the next item (how they are similar or different in this aspect), then moving on to a different aspect. Or you may decide the block method works best for your purpose, which is when you discuss all aspects of one thing and then move on to discuss all the aspects of another. Whether or not you need sources depends on your topic, so defer to your instructor’s directions on this. 

YOU MAY SEE IT: on a webpage that helps dog lovers decide on which breed best suits them and their lifestyles or on the RVC Writing Center’s handout that discusses the unique characteristics of different types of writing

For more information on understanding your assignment, formal essay structure, organization, thesis statements, introductions and conclusions, synthesizing and citing sources, and many other topics introduced in this guide, visit The Writing Center’s Resource Library at: 

Download the Different Types of Writing Handout here!