How do I write an expository essay?

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Edward P. Bailey and Philip A. Powell's The Practical Writer provides an excellent source of writing instruction and tips that the student may wish to consult, for this book will provide a blueprint for the composition of a five-paragraph essay. First of all, here is a definition of an expository essay taken from a Writing Lab of Purdue University:

The expository essay is a genre of essay that requires the student to investigate an idea, evaluate evidence, expound on the idea, and set forth an argument concerning that idea in a clear and concise manner. This can be accomplished through comparison and contrast, definition, example, the analysis of cause and effect, etc.

Therefore, the expository essay is very objective and should be written in third person, of course. If, for instance, the student wishes to write expository essays on a poem, he/she can point to how certain poetic devices serve to develop the theme of the poem, or how the tone, diction, and rhyme of a poem contribute to the theme and meaning of a poem. Thus, the essay becomes a literary analysis. This analysis, then, follows a distinct pattern:

  • Paragraph 1

1. Motivator - This is the first sentence which strives to gain the reader's attention. It can be a quotation, a personal inflection--sometimes, even a question. This sentence relates to the thesis.
2. Thesis Statement - This is a general statement that the author can support, and it carries the main idea of an essay. For example, if discussion of a poem is the topic, the writer can state that the use of figurative language and a certain style of diction direct the reader to the theme of the poem. 

  • Body Paragraphs (3)

In the body of the essay, the student develops the thesis which has 3 opinions. Each opinion about the general statement becomes the topic sentence of the paragraph. This topic sentence is, then, developed through the use of supporting details such as examples from the poem that the student is analyzing. It is very important to support any points that are made since doing so lends credibility to the essay. (State a point and then provide an example from the poem--"evidential support"). Using transitions between ideas and sentences creates coherence since transitional words act as links to the chain of thought in an essay. Lead into the first line of the next topic with the last sentence of a previous paragraph that is reworded.

  • Conclusion

A sense of finality is created by the last paragraph if it contains a reworded thesis statement and what is called "a clincher." The conclusion summarizes the "evidence" provided in the analysis. A clincher is the finishing touch; it is the final sentence that erases all doubt in the reader's mind that the essay has ended. 

With the example of the essay as an analysis of a poem, the writer will, then, summarize the main points made and tie them together with the "clincher," a sentence that leaves no doubt that the essay is at an end and reminds the reader of the motivator. Often this sentence begins with such words as "clearly,"  "certainly," "finally," "indeed," etc.

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The purpose of an expository essay is hinted at in its name; compare "expository" to "expose." You're going to expose a certain subject in a way that makes some facts and information about it clear to the reader.

Be careful not to confuse an expository essay with an argumentative or persuasive essay; they have substantial differences in purpose. An expository essay should emphasize clarity. You should focus on making smooth transitions, clear points, and displaying a strong understanding of your subject. Typically an expository essay will not ask for your own opinions on the subject, but you can discuss expert opinions as they factor into the topic itself, though you will be expected to critically evaluate the facts for strengths and weaknesses.

Expository essays require a thesis statement. The thesis is the distilled essence of your central point. If you don't have a thesis in mind right now, I would recommend reading more about your subject and reviewing the aspects that interest you the most, as well as considering what aspects of it are controversial and to whom.

Once you have your thesis, establish a framework for it. Give it an introduction, a discussion and evaluation, and conclusion. Conclude by demonstrating how your thesis has been proven through the data presented and through your evaluation of the data.

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"Expository" means to "state in detail"; it may be thought of as "explanatory." An expository essay is written to give a very detailed and thorough explanation about the subject of the essay. The author of an expository essay should assume that the reader of the essay has no background knowledge of the subject and should provide all the explanation needed for that person to acquire a basic understanding of the subject.

Begin your essay with a statement identifying what you are going to explain through the essay. If you are describing a procedure or process, it will be very important that you present each step in order so that the reader can understand how to proceed through the process.

The purpose of an expository essay is to present information. The exact format of your essay will vary, depending on whether you are reporting on research you have done, presenting directions to reproduce an experiment, recording a conversation and reactions during a meeting, or for some other reason.

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