The Difference Between an Article and an Essay

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In composition studies, an article is a short work of nonfiction that typically appears in a magazine or newspaper or on a website. Unlike essays, which often highlight the subjective impressions of the author (or narrator), articles are commonly written from an objective point of view. Articles include news items, feature stories, reports, profiles, instructions, product descriptions, and other informative pieces of writing.

What Sets Articles Apart From Essays

Though both articles and essays are types of nonfiction writing, they differ in many ways. Here are some features and qualities of articles that differentiate them from essays.

Subject and Theme in Articles

"A useful exercise is to look at some good articles and name the broader subject and the particular aspect each treats. You will find that the subject always deals with a partial aspect examined from some viewpoint; it is never a crammed condensation of the whole.

"...Observe that there are two essential elements of an article: subject and theme. The subject is what the article is about: the issue, event, or person it deals with. (Again, an article must cover only an aspect of a whole.) The theme is what the author wants to say about the subject—what he brings to the subject."
(Ayn Rand, The Art of Nonfiction: A Guide for Writers and Readers, ed. by Robert Mayhew. Plume, 2001)

"An article is not everything that's true. It's every important thing that's true."
(Gary Provost, Beyond Style: Mastering the Finer Points of Writing. Writer's Digest Books, 1988)

Article Structure

"There are five ways to structure your article. They are:

- The inverted pyramid
- The double helix
- The chronological double-helix
- The chronological report
- The storytelling model

Think about how you read a newspaper: you scan the captions and then read the first paragraph or two to get the gist of the article and then read further if you want to know more of the details. That's the inverted pyramid style of writing used by journalists, in which what's important comes first. The double-helix also presents facts in order of importance but it alternates between two separate sets of information. For example, suppose you are writing an article about the two national political conventions. You'll first present Fact 1 about the Democratic convention, then Fact 2 about the Republicans, then Fact 2 about the Democrats, Fact 2 about the Republicans, and so on. The chronological double-helix begins like the double helix but once the important facts from each set of information have been presented, it then goes off to relay the events in chronological order...

"The chronological report is the most straightforward structure to follow since it is written in the order in which the events occurred. The final structure is the storytelling model, which utilizes some of the techniques of fiction writing, so you would want to bring the reader into the story right away even if it means beginning in the middle or even near the end and then filling in the facts as the story unfolds."
(Richard D. Bank, The Everything Guide to Writing Nonfiction. Adams Media, 2010)

Opening Sentence of an Article

"The most important sentence in any article is the first one. If it doesn't induce the reader to proceed to the second sentence, your article is dead. And if the second sentence doesn't induce him to continue to the third sentence, it's equally dead. Of such a progression of sentences, each tugging the reader forward until he is hooked, a writer constructs that fateful unit, the 'lead.'"
(William Zinsser, On Writing Well: The Classic Guide to Writing Nonfiction, 7th ed. HarperCollins, 2006)

Articles and Media

"More and more, article content written for printed media is also appearing on digital devices (often as an edited version of a longer article) for readers who have short attention spans due to time constraints or their device's small screen. As a result, digital publishers are seeking audio versions of content that is significantly condensed and written in conversational style. Often, content writers must now submit their articles with the understanding they will appear in several media formats."
(Roger W. Nielsen, Writing Content: Mastering Magazine and Online Writing. R.W. Nielsen, 2009)

Writer's Voice in Articles and Essays

"Given the confusion of genre minglings and overlaps, what finally distinguishes an essay from an article may just be the author's gumption, the extent to which personal voice, vision, and style are the prime movers and shapers, even though the authorial 'I' may be only a remote energy, nowhere visible but everywhere present. ('We commonly do not remember,' Thoreau wrote in the opening paragraphs of Walden, 'that it is, after all, always the first person that is speaking.')"
(Justin Kaplan, quoted by Robert Atwan in The Best American Essays, College Edition, 2nd ed. Houghton Mifflin, 1998)

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Nordquist, Richard. "The Difference Between an Article and an Essay." ThoughtCo, Apr. 5, 2023, Nordquist, Richard. (2023, April 5). The Difference Between an Article and an Essay. Retrieved from Nordquist, Richard. "The Difference Between an Article and an Essay." ThoughtCo. (accessed June 2, 2023).