Differences between Descriptive and Analytical Essays
rodrigo | March 15, 2013
This guide looks at the difference between descriptive and analytical essays. Other guides we’ve written help you write essays in general, and also different sorts of essay. This guide doesn’t attempt to help you write either descriptive or analytical essays, but rather helps you see how the two types differ.
- The most straightforward type of academic writing is descriptive. The aim is to give facts to the reader. An example of a descriptive essay is one which summarises a number of articles, or gives an overview of current research
- Descriptive essays do not develop an argument, rather they give a comprehensive snapshot of a topic.
- Descriptive essays can have one or more purposes: to describe what happened, to pick out the most important points, to summarise a field of knowledge. The type of descriptive essay required is liable to differ from subject to subject.
- Key words to identify where descriptive writing is required, or to signify that you are writing in a descriptive way are describe, summarise, how
- Descriptive essays should be clear, precise and accurate; ordered logically; to-the-point; and able to indicate the significance of what is described. While easier than analytic writing, descriptive writing can still display differences in quality.
- However, experts may disagree about the facts. A descriptive essay needs to either acknowledge where controversy exists or stick to facts which are generally agreed.
- The key to an analytic approach in essays is taking things apart. Analysis is the process of breaking something down into its constituent parts and seeing how those parts relate to each other.
- Analytical writing includes descriptive writing, but it gives a new perspective on what is described. It doesn’t simply present information but re-organises it, for example comparing and contrasting categories, making new groupings, dividing data into groups or types, or creating new relationships.
- Analytical writing might apply already existing categories to data, or create new organisational categories.
- Analytical essays are more challenging than descriptive ones, and usually attract higher marks.
- Many essays require a balance between description and analysis. It can be tempting to use most of the word count in description, but this can lead to lower marks.
- Analytical writing involves understanding relationships between things. It therefore involves a greater ability to think abstractly.
- Writing an analytical essay can involve developing an analytical framework (taxonomy) to describe the way information elements are grouped and how they relate to each other
- Key words to identify where analytic writing is required, or to signify that you are writing in an analytic way are compare, contrast, analyse
- Good analytic writing offers evidence to support the writer’s position; critically evaluates evidence; considers the merits of alternative positions bringing out their strengths and weaknesses.
- Analytic writing is often associated with critical writing (see our guide on this for more details). Critical analytic essays use analytic tools to argue for a particular position or point of view.
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Angela Ruskin University (2013) ‘A Helpful Guide to Essay Writing’ [online] (cited 13th February 2013) available from
Edge Hill University (2013) ‘Academic Writing Guide: Critical Analysis Explained’, [online] (cited 13th February 2013) available from
London Metropolitan University (2013) ‘Essay writing’, [online] (cited 13th February 2013) available from
University of Surrey (2013) ‘The difference between descriptive writing and critical writing’,
[online] (cited 13th February 2013) available from
University of Sydney (2013) ‘What is the difference between descriptive, analytical, persuasive and critical writing? [online] (cited 13th February 2013) available fromhttp://sydney.edu.au/stuserv/learning_centre/help/analysing/an_distinguishTypes.shtml
University of Sydney (2013) ‘Module 5: Analytic Writing? [online] (cited 13th February 2013) available from
Also review our Free Essay on Journalism: Technology and Journalism
Tags: analytical essays, descriptive essays, featured
Category: Essay Writing Guide
Date published January 15, 2015 by Shane Bryson. Date updated: September 17, 2015
Barring the obvious answer (to get a degree), in answering this question we need first to ask, what distinguishes an essay from any other form of writing? Most people will have strong intuitions that newspaper articles, scientific reports, and short stories, for example, are not forms of essay, but it might be hard to distinguish exactly why these don’t count as essays.
The difference lies in the stance a writer takes in composing an essay and the kind of thing that an essayist tries to do. We find a clue to the distinction in the general definition of the word “essay”: as a verb it means “to try,” and my dictionary of literary terms calls its noun form “a composition having no pretensions to completeness or thoroughness of treatment” and says that the “chief implication of the term is ‘a tentative study.’”
Essays try to provide an understanding of things that are essentially matters of interpretation, where the prospect of the final word on a subject is remote. In contrast, scientific reports try to describe something that happened (an experiment), and they are supposed to be minimally interpretive and nearly indisputable. Newspaper articles are similar in this way, presenting the facts and just the facts (at least in theory).
But something else must distinguish the essay form, since fictional narratives such as short stories also in some ways present a tentative study of things,. These two forms usually differ in content and aim. Narratives tell stories about how events unfold for characters and usually try to make us feel a certain way. Essays are closer to scientific reports in that their purpose is to tell us, most often explicitly, about the way we ought to understand something.
In sum, whereas a scientific report aspires to be indisputable, an essay strives to give a convincing interpretation of something (and interpretation is by definition disputable). Whereas a short story aims to make us feel, an essay intends to make us think.
Finally, a scientist is supposed to be inessential to her experiment and report; anyone should be able to perform the experiments, get the results, and record them in much the same way. A fiction writer relates to her writing in the opposite way; the story is fundamentally changed when told by anyone else. The essayist, again, falls somewhere between these two extremes. An essay’s argument should be convincing no matter who authors it—the logic of the argument should stand independent of the author—but an essay is also always an expression of the essayist’s opinion, which is by definition not objective fact.
In short, the essayist writes to communicate her opinion on a subject in order to convince her audience to take up this opinion. This is what makes an essay.
Academic essays, in particular, are characterised by a certain standard and approach.
essay. 1960. In S. Barnet, M. Berman, & W. Burto (Eds.), A dictionary of literary terms (pp. 39-40). Toronto, ON: Little, Brown.
Overview of academic essays