Exposition is explanatory communication, whether in speech or writing. So an expository essay is an organized piece of prose which explains a specific topic or set of ideas to a defined audience. Expository essays include those written for exams or for standardized tests like the SAT. They may also be assignments composed outside of class.
Expository essays provide information and analysis. An expository essay may or may not have an overt central argument, though it does set forth points of view on the topic. It differs from the persuasive research paper in the level of research and argument it employs. While an expository essay should be focused on a particular topic and illustrate its points with specific examples, it doesn’t usually have the depth of research or argument that you need in a major research assignment. With an exam or a standardized test, for instance, the examples you use to support your points will be based on the knowledge already inside your head.
What Are the Elements of an Expository Essay?
An expository essay does have certain baseline requirements that are standard in nearly every essay type:
- A clear thesis or controlling idea that establishes and sustains your focus.
- An opening paragraph that introduces the thesis.
- Body paragraphs that use specific evidence to illustrate your informative or analytic points.
- Smooth transitions that connect the ideas of adjoining paragraphs in specific, interesting ways.
- A conclusion that emphasizes your central idea without being repetitive.
How Do You Write an Expository Essay?
One common formula for the expository essay is the 5-Paragraph Essay. If you don’t have much experience with essay writing, this is a good method to start with, since it’s basic and straightforward. The 5-Paragraph Essay incorporates the elements listed above in the following basic structure:
- Introductory paragraph with a clear, concise thesis.
- Three body paragraphs that offer evidence and analysis connecting that evidence to the thesis.
- A concluding paragraph that sums up the paper by reevaluating the thesis in light of the evidence discussed in the essay’s body.
While the 5-paragraph structure gives you a helpful formula to work with, it’s only one among many valid options, and its suitability will depend on other factors like the length and complexity of your essay. If you’re writing a paper that’s more than 3 or 4 pages long, it should be more than 5 paragraphs. In most cases, the structure of a longer essay will be similar to that of the 5-paragraph essay, with an introduction, a conclusion and body paragraphs performing the same basic functions—only the number of body paragraphs will increase. The length of the paragraphs may also increase slightly in proportion to the length of the essay.
Composing an Expository Essay: A Process Guide
- Begin by reading the assignment carefully to make sure you understand it. Then find a topic that fits the assignment. It’s important that you narrow your topic so that it’s directly relevant to the assignment. But make sure your topic is not so narrow that it lacks significance.
- Start a brief outline by writing a tentative thesis statement that addresses the assignment prompt. Try to come up with an interesting, original perspective on your topic, and word the thesis so that it reflects that originality.
- Think of specific examples you can use to illustrate your major points about your topic. These examples may come from your learning or from personal experience. Each example should have some clear connection to your central idea.
- Your essay should devote one body paragraph to each of your major examples. So continue your outline by writing a topic sentence about each major example for each of your body paragraphs. Since the topic sentence will be part of each paragraph transition, it should make a clear, logical connection between your thesis and the evidence that paragraph will discuss.
- Complete your outline by thinking of an interesting, meaningful way to end the essay. Remember that the conclusion should sum up your central points without merely repeating what you’ve said earlier. You might suggest the larger implications of what the essay has discussed and analyzed. One way to do this is to offer a concise review of what you’ve covered combined with a forecast or recommendations for the future.
- If this is an assignment that you’re completing at home rather than in a timed exam, you might want to experiment with writing the body paragraphs before you write your introduction. The details of analysis in the body of the paper often help you to determine more precisely how to word your thesis and the way you introduce it in your opening paragraph.
- Your essay should perform several of the following tasks that overlap and merge smoothly with each other:
- Define your key terms or ideas.
- Describe specific evidential examples.
- Investigate the common thread among your examples.
- Compare and contrast your examples and their relation to your thesis.
- Analyze cause-and-effect relationships among your examples.
- Connect your examples explicitly to your central idea and to each other.
- Polish your essay through revision to make it artful, original, and interesting. Avoid clichéd language or the most obvious examples. You want your reader to learn something new and compelling, whether it’s an unusual fact or a novel perspective on your topic.
Business communications and writing have much in common with the expository essays of academia and magazines. While expository essays may cover business or non-business topics, writers of both expository essays and business communication pieces use many of the same effective rhetorical strategies. Also, though it may not always be readily apparent, the goal of both genres is the same. The writer always wants the reader to understand a concept or point of view.
The purpose of both expository essays and many business communications is usually twofold. They discuss an issue and suggest or argue a course of action. The course of action may concern a solution to a problem or it may outline steps for further study, especially if the writer wants to encourage a new point of view.
Like expository essay writers, business workplace writers must keep their reading audience in mind, according to Purdue University's Online Writing Lab's Allen Brizee. With audience in mind, writers in both genres must establish the appropriate tone and offer an appropriate amount of background information. For example, an internal business memo aimed at a small segment of management may only briefly recap an ongoing problem the managers want to solve before delving into a longer discussion of a new action plan. On the other hand, in a report aimed at the board of directors, the writer will thoroughly explain the problem before proposing a solution. Likewise, in the internal memo, jargon is acceptable, but for the board of directors, the writer will have to explain the concepts in plain English. This is the same difference in approach an expository writer uses when writing for colleagues on the one hand and laypeople on the other.
The organization and structure of both expository essays and business communications is standard. The writer will always introduce the topic in the opening paragraph; set forth an idea or pose a thesis or solution; give further background as appropriate; explain why other solutions have not worked, if necessary; and propose a solution and discuss how to implement it. Paragraphs must flow logically from one to another, advises Allen Brizee of Purdue. The style of both genres is concise, but ideas are well developed.
When writers of either expository essays or business communications propose solutions or argue a point of view, they also invite action. In both cases, to be effective, writers must anticipate obstacles and suggest ways to overcome them or argue that perceived roadblocks aren't really roadblocks at all. The action the writer suggests must also be realistic and include specific steps.
To lend credibility to expository essays and business communications, effective writers include data and concrete facts. They may also study then synthesize scholarly works and case studies to build their arguments and support their ideas. To do so, they present the supporting information fairly, but in a manner that makes it easy for the reader to see the connection and digest the information. The writer must make the information understandable, Allen Brizee says.
About the Author
Cat Reynolds has written professionally since 1990. She has worked in academe (teaching and administration), real estate and has owned a private tutoring business. She is also a poet and recipient of the Discover/The Nation Award. Her work can be found in literary publications and on various blogs. Reynolds holds a Master of Arts in writing and literature from Purdue University.
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