Difference Between Essay and Research Paper

Academic writing is a very relevant and commonly explored niche. Many people, students inclusive, confuse the two and use the words interchangeably. However, that shouldn’t be the case. Most students confuse the two and resort to online services to get their essays and research papers taken care of.

There are different forms of academic writing, and as you read, you’ll understand the difference between essay and research paper. Before we delve into comparison, let’s understand what they mean individually.

What’s an Essay?

You most likely won’t hear of research papers till you get to a quite high degree of education. However, you’ll be introduced to essays quite early – during middle school, for instance. It is a body of text that discusses an idea, sparks an argument, narrates an event, or expresses an emotion.

Essays involve creative writing, and for it to be good and readable, its writer needs to have a way with words. Professionals at CustomWriting ensure that yours is informative and engaging because no one wants to read boring text. An essay is also defined as a body of 1000 words or fewer. It usually has a simple structure compared to a research paper and pertains to a particular subject.

When preparing an essay, it’s imperative to adopt a subjective tone. The writer is also required to reference or quote sources for information that are outside their thoughts.

An essay should contain the following;

  • An introduction;
  • A main body;
  • A conclusion.

What’s a Research Paper?

A research paper is an essay but with a different structure and objective. That’s probably the reason why many people tend to use it interchangeably. It includes synthesis derived from specific data and textual information from various external sources related to the topic. They can include surveys on the study or a related study, scientific publications, journals from experts in the relevant field, internet sources, and interviews.

Unlike an essay that seeks to inform its reader, a research paper intends to explore the thoughts of others on a topic as well as different sources to come up with a fresh point of view. In other words, it gives its readers a new lens through which they can perceive interest or contribute further knowledge.

According to sjsu.edu, a research paper must contain the following:

  • Study methodology (survey, interviews, content analysis, etc.);
  • Conceptual framework (model-based or theoretical);
  • Statement of the problem;
  • Study limitations;
  • Questions;
  • Objectives;
  • Literature review;
  • Analysis and summary of findings;
  • Feasible suggestions or recommendations;
  • References relevant to the study;
  • Endnotes, footnotes, and appendix. The first two are optional.

Essay vs Research Paper

Knowing the areas where both forms of writing differ helps you understand them better. Let’s look at the areas where they differ:


Being able to identify the purpose of a piece of writing is the easiest way to pinpoint if it’s an essay or research paper. If you’re reading a body and you’re clueless about the format, just check if it intends to inform its readers or explore the thoughts of others on a topic and provide a different perspective on it. You can’t be at a loss with this because the purpose of any piece of writing is always evident.


An essay is usually shorter than a research paper. While the former is a maximum of 1000 words, about three pages, the latter may be eight or more.


A research paper has more depth on topic coverage than an essay. This is because writing the latter involves your creativity and personal thoughts or views on the topic. It doesn’t necessarily give its reader an in-depth insight into the topic. An essay is more or less an outlet for the writer to express their feelings or thoughts. It doesn’t have to be fully accurate.

On the other hand, a research paper digs deep into a topic to help understand it comprehensively and even see or explore angles that were not thought of or considered before. More often than not, it tends to add more knowledge to a specific subject. This form of writing seeks solutions to problems and utilizes quantitative or qualitative methodologies as well as data analysis to make inferences from a study.

Skill Required

For essay writing, you’ll need a good command of English vocabulary as well as creativity to express your ideas or thoughts in a readable and interesting manner. On the flip side, a research paper requires information analysis, the ability to make deductions and findings from numerical data, and the problem-solving skill to come up with solutions for the problem of the study. It doesn’t require creativity, and it doesn’t have to be exciting to read.

Writing Rules

An essay writer doesn’t have many rules to adhere to because this will restrict or interrupt their thought flow. Such pieces need to contain an introduction, body, and conclusion, have a structure and a subjective tone, and it’s good to go. You only need to cite sources if you’re writing a quote or other information that’s not from your thoughts.

On the other hand, a research writer has numerous rules to achieve a well-written study. This includes the references, questions, findings, and other relevant elements mentioned above. Also, the paper needs clear formatting, including the heading (H1, H2, H3, etc.), numbered or bullet lists, and even tables. The references or sources must be written in a specific format, and the literature review must cite relatively recent or very recent studies.


Essays and research papers are two different pieces of writing. They both have their characteristics, and you need to understand these distinctions to ensure you compose the right one. Essays are shorter and more creative, while research papers are longer and require data analysis to form a conclusion. The purpose and writing rules vary depending on what you’re preparing. However, both have their importance and are integral components of academia.

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