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What Is Discourse? 4 Types of Written Discourse Explained

Updated on January 23, 2024Writing Tips

When you write, your goal is to communicate. Whether it’s a routine note to a parent, a private thought in a journal, or a thesis paper, your words bring ideas from your mind to the page (or screen). There’s a word for this transfer of ideas: discourse.

Read on to learn how to write discourse.

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What is discourse?

Discourse is the use of language to share ideas, insights, and information. Discourse can include fictional and poetic works as well as nonfictional prose. To be considered discourse, a piece of writing must be longer than a sentence and have a coherent purpose and meaning.

Discourse can be shared through written or spoken language. In fact, it’s organized into three categories:

  • Written discourse: Composed of written works like essays, blog posts, and books.
  • Spoken discourse: Shared through speech, like presentations, vlogs, and oral reports.
  • Civil discourse: Spoken or written words characterized by its inclusion of multiple participants, all of whom engage on a level playing field.

Here, we’re mostly going to be focusing on written discourse, but keep in mind that the same principles guide all types of discourse, and tips for writing effective discourse are also applicable to spoken discourse.

What is the purpose of written discourse?

The purpose of discourse is to share ideas. Sometimes, discourse writers have additional goals, like informing, persuading, or evoking empathy in their readers.

Often, the word discourse has the connotation of serious and/or scholarly discussion. While discourse can, and does, include this type of discussion, it is not limited to academic or otherwise “serious” topics. Discourse can be about anything—the purpose of discourse is to start or add to a body of knowledge by sharing ideas and findings.

What are the four types of written discourse?

There are a few different types of discourse. They are listed below. You might notice similarities between them and the four types of writing—there is a lot of crossover between the two, so it can be helpful to familiarize yourself with both.

1 Description

Descriptive discourse aims to appeal to the senses. It may use imagery to help the reader visualize a scene or object, or it might rely on descriptions of sounds or feelings to immerse the reader in a piece’s setting.

2 Narration

Narration is discourse presented through storytelling. It can be fiction or nonfiction and often includes stories told as biographies, histories, and news reports. This type of discourse might not state its meaning, also known as its theme, as explicitly as another type of discourse.

3 Exposition

Exposition is a type of discourse that aims to inform the reader. Scientific reports, compare-and-contrast essays, how-to guides, and explanations of academic concepts are examples of this type of discourse. With exposition, the goal is not to persuade the reader or influence them in any way; it is simply to educate them.

4 Argumentation

In contrast to exposition, argumentation is a type of discourse that aims to persuade its reader to agree with a certain position, specifically through logos. Argumentation is not aggressive or defensive writing; it’s writing that uses logic to demonstrate why the author’s position is correct. Through that logic, the author guides the reader to draw their own conclusions.

What are the three categories of written discourse?

In addition to the four types of written discourse listed above, discourse fits into three categories: poetic, expressive, and transactional. A piece of writing can fit into both a category and a type, such as a piece of poetic discourse that can also be deemed narrative.

1 Poetic discourse

Poetic discourse relies on poetic elements, such as figurative language, meter, and rhyme, to emphasize its message. Contrary to its name, it is not limited to poetry. Novels, plays, and poetry are examples of poetic discourse.

2 Expressive discourse

Expressive discourse is “creative, but not fictional.” Blog posts, diary entries, personal letters, and personal essays all fit into the category of expressive discourse.

3 Transactional discourse

Transactional discourse aims to instruct its readers or drive them to take action. Instruction manuals and guidebooks are two examples of transactional discourse.

Discourse examples

I knew I could not separate myself from the world’s death, even though I was not one of those who brought it about. I had to make clear the relation of our individual dramas to the larger one, and our responsibility. I was never one with the world, yet I was to be destroyed with it. I always lived seeing beyond it. I was not in harmony with its explosions and collapse. I had, as an artist, another rhythm, another death, another renewal. That was it. —Anaïs Nin, The Diary of Anaïs Nin, Vol. 2: 1934–1939

To-morrow, and to-morrow, and to-morrow, Creeps in this petty pace from day to day, To the last syllable of recorded time; And all our yesterdays have lighted fools The way to dusty death. Out, out, brief candle! Life’s but a walking shadow, a poor player That struts and frets his hour upon the stage And then is heard no more. It is a tale Told by an idiot, full of sound and fury Signifying nothing. —William Shakespeare, Macbeth

Adults keep saying: “We owe it to the young people to give them hope.” But I don’t want your hope. I don’t want you to be hopeful. I want you to panic. I want you to feel the fear I feel every day. And then I want you to act. I want you to act as you would in a crisis. I want you to act as if the house is on fire. Because it is. —Greta Thunberg, a speech at the World Economic Forum: “Our House Is On Fire”

Discourse FAQs

What is discourse?

Discourse is the exchange of ideas through written or spoken language.

How does discourse differ from poetry?

The difference between discourse and poetry is that while discourse is writing that imparts a message, poetry is a type of writing characterized by its use of figurative language and a stylized format. Discourse and poetry are not mutually exclusive; poetry can be a form of discourse.

What are the different kinds of discourse?

  • Description
  • Narration
  • Exposition
  • Argumentation
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