Every once in a while a person will say to me, “I read your article,” and I’ll think to myself, what article are they talking about? Then I realize they meant an essay I had published.
Have you ever wondered if there is a difference between an article and an essay? I decided to write this, because I don’t know if a lot of people know the difference. Granted, part of the reason is because the difference is not as solid as one might think. Nonetheless, there are conventions that are much agreed upon.
You might say, “Oh, an essay is what they made us write in school, and an article is what’s in a newspaper.” Well, you’re not wrong there.
The simplest difference people often spot is that an article is short, while an essay is long. That’s actually a really good guess, and it’s functionally a distinction. But scores of essays exist that are shorter than scores of articles. I’ve read essays from literary journals that are shorter than articles in newspapers. So there is some flexibility with length, structure, and style. I like to put it in terms of purpose. My short explanation goes like this:
An article says, “here’s what’s up.”
An essay says “let’s go for a ride with this.”
Articles inform mostly to inform, though sometimes to persuade. Essays ask questions and set about to either answer them or provide guidance for arriving at answers (or even asking more questions).
But of course, even that line can be fuzzy. Both forms can be provoked, provide info, ask and answer questions.
Another general consensus among writers is that articles tend to be objective and essays tend to be subjective.
Articles usually gear toward giving us an update on a topic or event. They’re more about summary. That’s why newspaper stories are called articles. Bulletins and small mags will also call their pieces articles. Even if it’s an expression of an opinion or statement of fact, it is done in a brief form, meant to cover the main points or remind people of why the subject is important. When persuasive, they tend to cover the basics of an argument. Articles can be skimmed easily, and if you want a specific bit of information, rather than read the whole thing, you usually can with ease.
Essays are meant to explore an idea and cover it in a thorough way that is meant to sink deeper. When persuasive, essays tend to put forth a developed argument. Hence why we usually expect them to be longer. While the kind you probably wrote in high school were five short paragraphs, they probably resembled an article/essay hybrid, meant to train you to prepare for deeper writing should the need arise. College writing beyond five pages is more to the essay form. An essay can still be organized by supporting points like articles sometimes are, but they can also move in any number of fashions. Crafted essays are usually found in books and literary journals, though they can also appear in popular magazines and even newspapers.
While the difference between the two is not the most important in the world, knowing the conventional definitions does help us prepare for the kinds of things we try to read. And write.