What is the Difference between an “Article” and an “Essay”?

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What is the difference between an “article” and an “essay”?  For many law reviews, including Penn, an essay is a piece less than 10,000 words (see here).  That’s an empirical standard that makes sense to me.

Apart from length, are there more subjective differences between an “article” from an “essay”?  Stabbing at an answer, I’d say that an article has more background (that not-so-useful-but-unfortunately-de-rigeur-and-too-long “Part I: Overview”/background/literature review) or more complex theoretical ambitions than an essay does.  An article locates its subject and object in an intellectual context, whereas an essay need not.

What does it matter whether a piece is an “essay” or an “article”?  It may not matter apart from internal references (“This Article explores X, argues Y and proposes Z”), but at some schools, bragging rights (or maybe research grants?) may attach to one but not the other.

So what’s the difference between an article and an essay?  Agree?  Disagree?  Further thoughts?

-Bridget Crawford

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3 Responses to What is the Difference between an “Article” and an “Essay”?

  1. annajcook says:

    I like your definition, but wanted to add that this might be a very American/North American construction of the difference? When I was in undergrad I spent a year studying at the University of Aberdeen in Scotland and they called all student papers “essays” even when what they were looking for is what you define as an “article” and what we in U.S. institutions would call a “term paper.”

  2. mary dudziak says:

    Hi, Bridget. For what it’s worth, here’s an “essay,” though it would be an article in a non-law journal: http://papers.ssrn.com/sol3/papers.cfm?abstract_id=1374454 Law reviews sometimes have different submission tracks, and I sent this to essay editors. I think it’s a little long for some “essay” tracks, but it’s short for an article. The reason I framed this piece as an essay is that I wanted to get the ideas out there, but I didn’t want to run down all the possible threads in this particular piece. I can develop this further in related publications (e.g. a book). Getting a shorter piece out more quickly is helping me get reactions & feedback that will help with the broader project. And you don’t always need the length of a law rev. article to make a point.

    Some folks might think that an essay is not as important as an article, but I would disagree. I think what matters is the ideas rather than the length. But still — for an untenured person, the article route is probably safer.

  3. Tony Infanti says:

    Consistent, I think, with your definition is the feeling that an essay is less formal. I once had a disagreement with the student editors at a law journal over the editing of one of my pieces. It had a long narrative in it in which I used a lot of contractions (e.g., don’t, won’t, etc.). They insisted that I remove the contractions so that no one would think that they had missed them and hadn’t done their job right! After threatening to pull the article, their compromise solution was that they would agree to publish the piece with the contractions, but only if I allowed them to classify it as an “essay” rather than an “article.” I didn’t really care, so long as they left my writing alone. But obviously, to them, the essay classification carried with it the connotation of a much less formal piece of writing.

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