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Difference Between Research Paper And Personal Essays

Constance Hale, author of the must-have guide to language Sin and Syntax and the forthcoming Vex, Hex, Smash, Smooch, sent this description of the difference between personal essay and memoir to everyone at the San Francisco Writers’ Grotto. I found it so insightful, I asked her if I could share with you:

“Personal essay is written in the first person about a contemporary situation and may include reporting. It may also include some memory or reflection on a personal experience, but that’s not the focus. I might write about my recent trip to Rome and send it to a travel magazine. I might write about my experience of racism in elementary school and how that influences my views on affirmative action–in light of, say, an upcoming Supreme Court case. I might write about coming home and seeing a pack of boys on the street and a few moments later hearing three gunshots and looking out the window and seeing them running in skew lines down the street and why neither Obama or Romney had the guts to take on the NRA after Aurora. The point is the contemporary context, and my experiences ideally serves to provide insight, or information that might shape the reader’s view. The essay includes subjectivity, opinion, and bias, but it lives in the realm of fact.

“A memoir is based on memory. It’s me, writing from the perspective of today, about things that happened long ago—the past refracted through the sensibility of the present. It might include some background research I’ve done, or even some reporting, as backfill so that I get whatever facts are in the piece right. I might write about my father taking us horseback riding in the desert outside of El Paso, and do some research about the ghost town out there, and the plants in that desert. I might write about an experience in Tuscany 30 years ago, and I might do some checking to get the names of towns right, or to get some details about that art museum in Livorno. But in either I’m mostly trying to get at an emotional truth. Memoir lives in the netherworld of memory, somewhere between fact and fiction.

“Some pieces could be considered either or both, like a Modern Love essay about a relationship that is over.”

Constance and other literary journalists will be be digging further into such distinctions at the East Meets West conference at UC Berkeley November 10, 2012.

In an opinion paper, you will focus on a topic about which you have personal thoughts, beliefs, or feelings.  Your goal is to persuadeyour reader that your position on this topic is the best one. You won’t accomplish that goal with a rant or diatribe. Instead, you will need to support your claim with facts, statistics, real-life examples or published research studies. So, despite its name, an opinion paper will require some research.

The most common research paper assignment (particularly in undergraduate courses) is a lot like a literature review. You will conduct a thorough search for scholarly sources about your chosen topic, then carefully read and summarize them. But beyond simply describing the books and articles that you read, your goal is to participate in the scholarly “conversation” surrounding your topic. You can do that by:

  • Organizing your paper by themes or trends that you discovered in the literature
  • Identifying and explaining controversies surrounding your topic
  • Pointing out strengths and weaknesses in the studies that you read
  • Identifying aspects of the topic that need further research

Sometimes (more commonly in graduate courses), you will design your own study and write about it. While this kind of research paper includes a literature review section, it will also require you to describe your study’s methodology, data analysis and results. The graduate section of Writing@APUS offers advice for students working on original research papers.


Are you new to library research?Click here to find some helpful tutorials.

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