It is easy to get confused about the difference between literature reviews and essays because these two writing structures can be based on the same research. However, the main difference is on where the emphasis is placed.
The purpose of an essay is to use what is known about a subject to prove an argument or point of view. Not all of the knowledge of a topic may be used in an essay, but only what is relevant to the argument. In an essay, mentioning the people who discovered or developed the knowledge is generally only for referencing purposes.
On the other hand, a literature review is designed to be a critical analysis of all the knowledge that has been discovered about a subject. Its purpose is to examine all that others have already discovered about the subject and the researchers working on the subject are considered to be key.
At a sentence level, one way to emphasise a particular aspect of a subject is to place that aspect at the beginning of sentences and paragraphs.
In an essay, where the focus is on the knowledge itself, it is put to the front of sentences. For example:
Playing computer and video games have risen dramatically in popularity. It is estimated that three billion hours of gaming are played globally each week. The major reason for this is because players are able to tap into a high level of emotional satisfaction that is difficult to experience in everyday life (McGonigal, 2011).
However, in literature reviews what is considered to be more important are the authors and researchers who found or developed the information. Therefore they appear at the beginning of sentences.
Jane McGonigal (2011) estimates that three billion hours of gaming are played globally every week. Her research suggests that the major reason for this is because players are able to tap into a high level of emotional satisfaction that is difficult to experience in everyday life.
This is not to say that both kinds of sentences can be used in both types of writing. However, the overall trend for essays is to emphasise the information, whereas for literature reviews the trend is to emphasise the authors.
For more on the differences between the structure of essays and the structure of literature reviews, check out QUT Cite|Write
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.