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.
What Are the Differences Between the Kinds of Papers I Am Assigned?
Do you occasionally suspect that your professors think you're clairvoyant? Do you wonder if you were sick the day they passed out the cheat sheet entitled "Vocabulary of Academia and You"? They assign various papers and assume that you understand exactly what a 'critique' entails, and why it is different from the 'essay' you wrote last week. Well, read on, before you get another assignment you don't understand and try to stab your professor with his dry-erase marker.
Why, you ask, do professors have so many words just to assign you a paper? All these words exist so that your assignment can subtly tell you what the focus of your work should be. As a direct result of the Smarter Than You Act of 1932, colleges and universities are forbidden from giving their assignments in plain English. And so based on what the professor wants to read, he or she chooses from a list of words that are intended to tell you what to produce. All of these words, amazingly, mean 'paper.' But since not all papers are alike, each of these identifying words and phrases have subtle differences.
What exactly is an 'essay,' first of all? Technically, an essay is a short paper written on a specific topic. So basically, anything can be an essay that's not a dissertation or thesis or something else really, really long. So as a student, the meaning to you of this definition is that when you are assigned an essay, the professor expects you to give your views on a certain topic, supported by the appropriate number of sources. Many professors will specify this appropriate number. If not, and you know that you are expected to support your argument with outside sources, one per paragraph is usually a good number. 63% of scholars think so (Anonymous). The total number of sources depends on the length of your paper, but three is a good starting point. From there, find what you need to support your point.
But what about the more specific paper types? The research paper, for example. Most students would be able to deduce that this particular assignment asks for a paper based on research. But what does this mean? We learned earlier that these assignment-phrases were invented to suggest the intended focus of a paper. The connection here, then, is that a research paper differs from an essay in that the research takes the spotlight here. So while the essay focuses on your analysis of the topic and supports that analysis with research, the research paper focuses on the sources and the conclusions that can be drawn from them. In this case, you are the vehicle for the research rather than the research being the vehicle for your ideas.
Other paper types, such as the critique and the analysis, have more in common. These are typically found in the context of an assignment that requests your opinion on a specific source. When you see these words, you can expect to be given the resource by your professor, or at least to be directed to it. So what do you do with it, though, when you get it? If the assignment is a 'critique,' expect to be criticizing something. Remember, however, that in academia, you cannot criticize without providing a good reason. If you disagree with the source, you must explain why. However, you are expected to give your educated opinion in one way or another. In the case of the analysis, however, the professor seeks a more objective approach. The analysis requires you to - guess what? - analyze. Take the source piece by piece and explain the meaning and ramifications to the subject matter.
Your professors are speaking English. They just happen to be referring to a specific sub-set of vocabulary that no one outside of the academic world will ever need. But you need it, and now you know it, so you can go ahead and write that analytic research paper, with full confidence in what the professor wants. You can put the marker down now.