Expository writing sounds formal and exacting (it is), but never fear, you already use it every day. Instruction manuals, textbooks, voter guides, research papers, news articles, posters, game directions, recipe books, movie reviews, furniture assembly instructions, city guides, white pages, certain blogs, and the academic essay are all examples of expository writing. It's the documentary film of the writing world.
Expository writing informs readers by explaining, describing or exposing truth with a supporting set of facts. The goal is to enlighten your audience by presenting information in a clear and organized way. Think creatively, but expository writing is not creative writing. Support your argument, but expository writing is not persuasive writing.
Straightforward expository writing builds your credibility. It's essential for writing winning proposals and grant applications, and informed decision-making.
Here is how to master the basic essay.
First, select a topic wisely
- Consider several angles on your topic before you start writing – For a quick essay, choose a topic you already know a lot about. But unless you are writing from the authority of personal experience, you must…
- Research – Actively read, highlighter in hand. Collect evidence, facts and figures from reliable and accurate sources, including experts, books, newspapers and the internet. Now, knowledgeable as you are…
- Define and refine the topic – You needn't find out absolutely everything that relates to the essay topic. Be sure it's narrow enough so you can tell about it in depth, and give many interesting details within about five to seven paragraphs. Tailor the topic to what your audience already knows and needs to know, so you go beyond "common knowledge," but don't over- or under-explain. Relevant information presented in a strong author voice is never dry or boring.
Second, distill your topic idea into a thesis statement
The thesis is your central message. In one or two sentences, summarize the essay's main point or claim.
- The thesis should tell what the paper is about and reveal your position on the topic.
- Use the thesis statement to guide your writing and keep your discussion focused.
Third, choose the expository model, or combination of models, that best develops your claim.
Here are some of the classics.
- The Definition Essay – Interprets what a term means, especially an abstract notion such as courage, time or patriotism, which depends on a person's point of view. You may define by function (what something does), structure (how something is formed), and distinction (clarifies what something is by illustrating what it is not). Example definition essay titles could be "Attributes of a Superhero," "The Official Meaning of Family," and "Define Laziness: A Portrait of My Younger Brother."
- The Descriptive Essay – Describes an event, person, place, thing or idea with supporting details. This could be writing about a travel destination, an admirable or villainous character, your first cooking experience, or how you imagine the world without borders. Generously use vivid language, adjectives and adverbs, and imagery that involves all the senses to paint a picture for readers.
- The Explanatory Essay – Explains how something works or how to do something. Use this model to clarify unfamiliar terms or special vocabulary. Form comparisons or analogies if appropriate, connecting new information to knowledge the reader already has, or give a new perspective or insight. Possible explanatory essay titles might include: "What Exactly is Bit Coin?", "Latin Declensions: A Primer," and "Understanding the Allegory of Animal Farm." A sub-genre of the explanatory essay is the analysis, which examines why and how an issue or event is significant.
- The Classification Essay – Sorts phenomenon into categories according to an organizing principle. An example would be classifying folk dancers according to the number of countries they have visited, from the most to the least.
- The Compare and Contrast Construct – Examines two or more topics by comparison to identify similarities, and by contrast to focus on differences. Conclude by illuminating subtle differences or unexpected similarities. Sample topics might include: horses vs. motorcycles, Austin vs. Paris, or acrylics vs. watercolors.
- The Cause and Effect Structure – Describes an influencing agent or cause, and its relationship with associated effects or consequences. An example could be discussing the effect of divorce on young children. Topics often include a life-changing experience, the impact of an historic event, a personal decision, or the election of a public official, and can also explore the potential outcomes of a hypothetical future situation, such as the likely effects of global warming.
- The Problem and Solution Pattern – Identifies and explains a problem, and presents possible solutions to remedy the problem, often recommending the most favorable. An example problem might present facts about the dilemma of undocumented immigrants. A range of alternative solutions may include: Solution #1: Strengthen immigration enforcement; Solution #2: Address underlying South American economic problems; and Solution #3: Create paths to citizenship. After examining the strengths and weaknesses of each solution, the essay may conclude with a recommendation.
- The Process Analysis – Explains the entire process of how to perform a particular task in a chronological, step-by-step manner, so that a reader can easily accomplish the task. Examples include how to make a soufflé, or how to clear a scuba mask underwater. Use directional verbs like "rotate," "mix," or "blow" when describing each step. Present a materials list, if applicable. Avoid lengthy phrasing, but be sure to include all information needed to get the job done.
Fourth, outline to create an organized structure that flows logically.
An outline deconstructs a complex subject into small, understandable components. The conventional outline form helps organize your points in a logical order. Sequence is especially important when explaining steps in a process. You needn't be a slave to the form. Make the outline work for you.
Now, structure the essay into paragraphs: the introductory paragraph, the body, and the concluding paragraph. The introductory paragraph must hook the readers and hold their attention. A hook could be a scintillating fact, an astounding statistic, a fitting simile, a stirring quote or a joke. A narrative opening introduces the topic with a riveting anecdote or story. The reader feels she must know what happens next. Rhetorical questions as opening hooks might engage some readers, but may be considered inappropriate for academic essays. Place the thesis statement around the middle or end of the introductory paragraph.
The body is usually formed by two to five paragraphs. Each paragraph in the body has a topic sentence that directly relates to the thesis. Support each topic sentence with evidence. Use facts, examples or anecdotes that your readers will understand. Put your most important messages in the first paragraphs, and in the first sentences of those paragraphs. Fill in the paragraphs by providing readers with all the necessary information. Check that the transition from one body paragraph to the next seems logical and natural.
The concluding paragraph closes the essay by restating the main idea and salient points in a new way. Beyond summarizing, give the audience a final thought or call to action. Avoid digressing into new issues. Explain why your reader should care about your idea. You may end with a quote that sums up the essence of the essay.
Check again for a logical connection between the introduction, body paragraphs and the conclusion.
Finally, transform the outline into prose
- Select a point-of-view (i.e. a first-, second-, or third-person narrator). Journalists write effective exposition using all perspectives.
- Write the paragraphs, smoothly incorporating your supporting evidence, and integrating quotations or paraphrasing.
- Expository prose is objective. Present the facts, even if you do not like them.
- Cite your sources according to conventions appropriate to your audience, be it MLA or APA, newspaper-style attribution, or the Web protocol of linking to source information.
- Accuracy and objectivity build your credibility. Don't call something a fact unless it is verifiable. Refrain from superlatives, such as "best" or "most" unless they can be quantified. Provide a date instead of writing "recently." State "73%" instead of writing "many" or "more."
- Delete any word that does not add anything crucial to the meaning of a sentence. Discard information that seems interesting, but is not germane to the immediate topic. Less is more.
- Fact-check, proofread and review. Check spelling and grammar. Ask someone who understands your topic to check for accuracy. Ask someone unfamiliar with your topic to check for clarity. Consider any suggested edits, ultimately relying on your own judgment. Polish the final draft.
You, the expository writer, are the most important figure in your essay. The reader will gain understanding of a topic important to you, through the clarity, integrity and knowledge of your author-voice. At the same time, you gain credibility and a reputation for fair, accurate analysis. When trust is paramount, issues are complex, and the stakes of decision-making are high, do employ industry experts and professional writers to help you inform your audience.