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Essays and Reports

What is the difference between an essay and a report?

Three kinds of knowledge:

a priori knowledge – obtained without needing to observe the world

empirical knowledge – obtained after experience, observing the world or interacting with it in some way.

inferential knowledge – reasoning from empirical or from other inferential knowledge. Such knowledge may or may not be verifiable by observation or testing.


A lot of the writing that you do professionally will be reports. On the one end, the information for the report is so standard and is generated to frequently that you will use a form. Fill in the blanks with words and numbers, verifiable facts, things that you, the writer, observed or counted.

Moving along that dimension, a report would still contain only verifiable facts, but instead of just filling in the blanks of a form, you will write complete sentences. For these kind of reports, the organization that employs you will often provide a strict format or template for the report to follow.

Continuing along that dimension, a report can have the facts (research) assembled by the writer in service of a main idea, what we call a thesis if it’s in an essay. For example, you might explain why your plan for next year is a use of the company’s resources that fits a corporate objective. Or you might explain to the granting agency why your proposal should be funded. The writer is more in the role of a scientist, looking dispassionately and objectively at the data and thinking clearly about it. It tends to be written in a flat, impersonal voice and attempts only to inform. If there’s any persuasion or argumentation, it’s all logical.

Here’s a news article — a report — about the preservation conference in Buffalo in October 2011. It tells what happened. It makes declarative statements about things that the reporter saw and heard. The emphasis is helping the reader see and hear it, too. He doesn’t tell you anything you couldn’t have seen and heard had you been there. The Wikipedia article doesn’t have anything that is not referenced. It purposefully excludes inferential thinking.

Preservationism gets eerie
by Mark Sommer, News Staff Reporter
Buffalo News, October 20, 2011

‘Moonlight’ tours give landmarks a magical allure for hundreds.

Here’s another report: Wikipedia’s Refugees:

The conflict and political instability during World War II led to massive amounts of enforced migration (see World War II evacuation and expulsion). By the end of World War II, Europe had more than 40 million refugees.[20] In 1943, the Allies created the United Nations Relief and Rehabilitation Administration (UNRRA) to provide aid to areas liberated from Axis powers, including parts of Europe and China. This included returning over seven million refugees, then commonly referred to as displaced persons or DPs, to their country of origin and setting up displaced persons camps for one million refugees who refused to be repatriated.


An essay does all that, and in addition it has a personality and a voice and assumes that the reader is willing to listen to a line of thought, a sequence of connected ideas. It does more than just organize the facts. The essay helps the reader think about the facts and it does it in an engaging manner. In organizations, this kind of writing is often the domain of the marketing or resources development department. However, this kind of thinking is behind a huge amount of oral communication in organizations, one-on-one and in meetings. It may not ever get formalized in writing. Given the politics of organizations, it may be better for everyone that such communication is not in writing.

But the communication is based on clear thinking, the persuading based on facts about reality (as opposed to wishful thinking or jumping to conclusions and other common rhetorical deceptions). That is the kind of communicating that is exhibited by leaders and leads to promotions and raises.

In this course, we are encouraging that kind of rational thinking and persuasive communication in formal essays.

Here’s a news commentary — an essay— about the preservation conference in Buffalo in October 2011. It makes a case for what the conference means to Buffalo. In the example below, Donn Esmonde uses cause-and-effect reasoning. He makes an inference. The emphasis is helping the reader think about what was heard and seen. He may give you a way to think about it that you wouldn’t have thought otherwise. Nick Kristof’s essay for the NY Times takes a strong position: repulsive and wrong.

Conference is start of something big
by Donn Esmonde
Buffalo News, October 23, 2011

As this week confirmed, we have a cultural and architectural legacy to widen the eyes of folks for whom heritage is a habit.

Years from now, when visiting culture junkies are part of the landscape, I think we will look back on this conference as a turning point. The brick-and-mortar legacy of Buffalo’s days as a boom town will help to lift it to its feet.

On Top of Famine, Unspeakable Violence
by Nicholas D. Kristof
NY Times, September 24, 2011

Americans also suffer from compassion fatigue, and that brings me to a final point. In a previous column from Dadaab, I told of a father of eight who had lost two of his children to starvation and feared that he would lose three more. Many readers responded bluntly that when men have eight children, it is pointless to help. Saving Somalis, they say, reflects a soggy sentimentality and runs against a Malthusian constraint of mouths multiplying more rapidly than food.

This view is both repulsive and wrong.