The differences between the personal essay and the research paper are pretty clear and apparent. Though both require that a writer adheres to some basic rules of writing, and possibly a styling guide (such as MLA and APA), the later calls for a much greater amount of research, formal structure, and an approach that is systematic or methodical. Personal essays in contrast, may require very little research depending on the topic presented, and have no real set approach or structure. *For instance, instead of relying on distinct sections such as methodology, results, and analysis, the personal essay can do quite well with the basic introduction, body, and conclusion sections found in most papers.
Along with the above mentioned points, other issues to consider when examining differences between the two, are purpose, topic and writing style.
Differences in purpose
The first step in conducting a research project is to formulate a research question (the body of the research paper should be the complete answer to that question). The research question should set out to prove something whether through first-hand experimentation or theoretical analyses. A personal essay on the other hand, may be written simply to entertain, inform or re-create. And though a research paper is also written to inform or explain it cannot match the personal essay with regards to the other purposes. So in essence, it can be said that the personal essay is more flexible and adaptable in purpose than the research paper-which is most clearly seen when topic hunting.
Differences in topic selection & referencing
Titles such as The First Time I Rode the Bus Alone, or My Journey to Adulthood all plainly indicate a very personal experience. For research papers, since the purpose is not to share personal experiences but rather to conduct scholarly work, the topics selected in most cases will reflect just that. For instance, a more suitable topic would be; The Challenges of Public Transportation in Cincinnati or The Attainment of Life Milestones for Autistic Children as Compared to Children Diagnosed with Down Syndrome.
The notable differences in these four different topics is that the research paper topics are much more detailed and predictable. For My Journey to Adulthood there is no indication as to what the journey entails or the many events that may be included. Also, its not really clear what a reader will gain from it (outside of entertainment, for instance). But with the second research paper topic, its clear that you will learn something about the milestones achieved with autism as well as down syndrome-both topics deal with life events, but from two very different angles.
Also you will find that the research paper needs a topic that will not only allow it to be proven but also indicate something that can be thoroughly and properly investigated by way of reputable sources. The sources often referenced for a personal essay are feelings, opinions and personal life experiences (though in some cases statistics as well as definitions are commonly found). These types of sources are obviously not suitable or acceptable for a research paper. Research papers are often required by educational institutions to demonstrate, among other things, a student's research capability. And a great part of that entails obtaining credible and reliable sources of information such as scholarly journal articles, government documents, books, and reports.
A writer's style usually involves his or her voice as well as word usage and overall tone. This can be seen by studying the particular vocabulary that at writer uses as well as the overall 'attitude' that is given in the writing. A personal essay varies with its writing style and will ultimately be up to the individual writer. Its possible to run across a personal essay that delivers a sophisticated tone, advanced vocabulary, and a clear respectable voice. While at the same time, run across an essay that uses a very relaxed tone, slang words, and a unique but somewhat objectionable voice. All of this is possible with the personal essay.
The research paper in contrast is meant to be more restricted by presenting an academic and professional style of writing. The tone should be formal, the word usage suitable for the topic discussed as well as the level of the writer (even if writing a research paper the writer should try to stay away from vocabulary that they do not understand-no matter how intelligent it sounds!), and the voice clear and appropriate.
Due to the formal nature of the research paper there simply isn't enough room for the many things that can take place in a personal essay. Therefore wording in it should be clear, concise, and straightforward. Rather than building a scene, or suspense, research writing has the main objective of accurately and efficiently answering the research question (without wordiness or exaggerated descriptions).
*Though a research paper shouldn't be completely boring either, the writer should strive for a good balance between delivering a paper that is informative and professional as well as engaging and stimulating.
So to recap, the major differences in writing style are:
- the personal essay gives options for relaxed, sophisticated and entertaining tones as opposed to formal and academic ones
- research papers should contain appropriate, average-advanced vocabulary, that is void of any slang or offensive terms
- The wording for research papers should not be filled with a lot colorful adjectives that don't really say much or are simply used to create an image. The selected wording should be clear and direct and show plain connections to presented evidences.
Structure and form
Lastly, the most visible of the differences between a personal essay and a research paper is the structure and form of each paper. That is, the research paper has well known and clearly defined sections that are almost universal (though they may differ with regards to discipline or subject matter). Generally a research paper is comprised of 6 key components; Introduction/Literature Review, Methods/Methodology, Results/Findings, Discussion, Conclusion. For a literary or theoretical research paper these sections may differ considerably to give more concentration to secondary as opposed to primary research.
The personal essay, as stated previously, resembles any ordinary essay in that it has a clear Introduction, Body, and Conclusion. There really is no set form for the personal essay which can definitely make it more enjoyable to write. Also there are some different approaches to writing the personal essay which may be mentioned, such as those seen in a popular women's magazine for instance, versus those found in writer's forums or literary publications. *Essays for the later are usually more gentle in nature whereas the first category may host a variety of themes and personalities.
Even though both papers are very different and generally not confused with one another, there are still some subtle similarities that can be noted. One of them being the clear presentation of ideas. Despite the fact that a personal essay allows for a lot of flexibility, a distinguishing factor of a well-crafted personal essay is that it resembles a research paper in its ability to leave a reader feeling satisfied and complete-that is, knowing what was intended by the author and gaining a significant benefit from reading.
Genre and the Research Paper
This handout provides detailed information about how to write research papers including discussing research papers as a genre, choosing topics, and finding sources.
Contributors: Jack Raymond Baker, Allen Brizee, Ashley Velázquez
Last Edited: 2011-03-30 09:06:38
Research: What it is.
A research paper is the culmination and final product of an involved process of research, critical thinking, source evaluation, organization, and composition. It is, perhaps, helpful to think of the research paper as a living thing, which grows and changes as the student explores, interprets, and evaluates sources related to a specific topic. Primary and secondary sources are the heart of a research paper, and provide its nourishment; without the support of and interaction with these sources, the research paper would morph into a different genre of writing (e.g., an encyclopedic article). The research paper serves not only to further the field in which it is written, but also to provide the student with an exceptional opportunity to increase her knowledge in that field. It is also possible to identify a research paper by what it is not.
Research: What it is not.
A research paper is not simply an informed summary of a topic by means of primary and secondary sources. It is neither a book report nor an opinion piece nor an expository essay consisting solely of one's interpretation of a text nor an overview of a particular topic. Instead, it is a genre that requires one to spend time investigating and evaluating sources with the intent to offer interpretations of the texts, and not unconscious regurgitations of those sources. The goal of a research paper is not to inform the reader what others have to say about a topic, but to draw on what others have to say about a topic and engage the sources in order to thoughtfully offer a unique perspective on the issue at hand. This is accomplished through two major types of research papers.
Two major types of research papers.
Argumentative research paper:
The argumentative research paper consists of an introduction in which the writer clearly introduces the topic and informs his audience exactly which stance he intends to take; this stance is often identified as the thesis statement. An important goal of the argumentative research paper is persuasion, which means the topic chosen should be debatable or controversial. For example, it would be difficult for a student to successfully argue in favor of the following stance.
Cigarette smoking poses medical dangers and may lead to cancer for both the smoker and those who experience secondhand smoke.
Perhaps 25 years ago this topic would have been debatable; however, today, it is assumed that smoking cigarettes is, indeed, harmful to one's health. A better thesis would be the following.
Although it has been proven that cigarette smoking may lead to sundry health problems in the smoker, the social acceptance of smoking in public places demonstrates that many still do not consider secondhand smoke as dangerous to one's health as firsthand smoke.
In this sentence, the writer is not challenging the current accepted stance that both firsthand and secondhand cigarette smoke is dangerous; rather, she is positing that the social acceptance of the latter over the former is indicative of a cultural double-standard of sorts. The student would support this thesis throughout her paper by means of both primary and secondary sources, with the intent to persuade her audience that her particular interpretation of the situation is viable.
Analytical research paper:
The analytical research paper often begins with the student asking a question (a.k.a. a research question) on which he has taken no stance. Such a paper is often an exercise in exploration and evaluation. For example, perhaps one is interested in the Old English poem Beowulf. He has read the poem intently and desires to offer a fresh reading of the poem to the academic community. His question may be as follows.
How should one interpret the poem Beowulf?
His research may lead him to the following conclusion.
Beowulf is a poem whose purpose it was to serve as an exemplum of heterodoxy for tenth- and eleventh-century monastic communities.
Though his topic may be debatable and controversial, it is not the student's intent to persuade the audience that his ideas are right while those of others are wrong. Instead, his goal is to offer a critical interpretation of primary and secondary sources throughout the paper--sources that should, ultimately, buttress his particular analysis of the topic. The following is an example of what his thesis statement may look like once he has completed his research.
Though Beowulf is often read as a poem that recounts the heroism and supernatural exploits of the protagonist Beowulf, it may also be read as a poem that served as an exemplum of heterodoxy for tenth- and eleventh-century monastic communities found in the Danelaw.
This statement does not negate the traditional readings of Beowulf; instead, it offers a fresh and detailed reading of the poem that will be supported by the student's research.
It is typically not until the student has begun the writing process that his thesis statement begins to take solid form. In fact, the thesis statement in an analytical paper is often more fluid than the thesis in an argumentative paper. Such is one of the benefits of approaching the topic without a predetermined stance.