Some days, life can feel like an endless series of explanations. You explain to your family why your job has been such a bummer lately. You explain to your landlord that you’re not actually a millionaire and thus deserve a rent decrease. While you might be tired of all that explaining, it does give you the foundation of a good expository essay. With a little refining and helpful tips, you’ll learn how to write an expository essay that will amaze and astound.
Okay, there’s admittedly a little more to an expository essay than just explaining. The operative word in expository essay is exposition, which, yes, does refer to explanation, but it’s a more comprehensive and critical explanation about a specific idea, theory, or topic.
Exposition is about exposing information or ideas that may lie deeper within a subject through research and critical analysis.
At first glance, an expository essay seems synonymous with a narrative essay and a descriptive essay. And it’s true that your expository essay will probably have some elements of narrative (explaining through storytelling) and description (providing details about a subject).
In practical terms: A description will give you details about a cheeseburger. A narrative will tell you a story about that cheeseburger. An exposition might tell you about the history of the cheeseburger and how it has affected American culture.
The really tricky part is differentiating between exposition and argument. There’s certainly some overlap between expository essays and argumentative essays, and some people suggest it comes down to being objective or subjective. That’s a little tricky considering expository essay theses can make claims that seem opinionated but aren’t — it’s more about presenting facts and findings than picking a side.
Exposition can involve agreeing or disagreeing with something, but it’s typically based more on emotion and textual evidence, like “This poem effectively considers a theme, and here’s how and why.” An argument is about taking a real stance on a debatable topic and uses hard stats, empirical data, and quantitative research, which might look more like “Spoons are the superior utensil, and here are some stats and a survey to support that.”
Expository essay is more of an umbrella term for other essay types. The general structure and purpose of the essay may not change, but knowing the type of expository essay you’re writing is always a good idea.
The main types include:
Dissertations and theses are also technically expository essays, though in a much longer and more in-depth form.
As with any essay, the hardest part is getting started. Essays in general have a reputation for being heady, buttoned-up, and overly academic pieces of writing, which can be intimidating for anyone. Expository essays can be particularly difficult because they have to contain a thesis that is opinionated, critical, and otherwise well-thought out.
Instead of getting bogged down under all that, start from a place of curiosity. What interests you about the topic? Is it a single line from the text? Is it a specific bit of historical context? Is it some random interview with a filmmaker? Figuring out what interests you helps to bring all the headiness of an essay to your own level.
Answering those questions can help you get started on your expository essay and build a thesis, which you can then modify and adjust as you get deeper into your essay writing.
Expository essays tend to be the most standard when it comes to their structure. The best news: If you’ve written a typical five-paragraph essay for class, you already know what an expository essay outline will look like (an intro, some body paragraphs, and a conclusion).
Sounds a little basic, but that reliability and consistency is part of the draw with these types of essays. The uniqueness is in the subject itself and what you bring to the essay.
If you’re writing an expository essay about a poem, for example, your outline might look like:
- An introductory hook that brings the reader in
- Some background context that you think the reader might want to know
- Your thesis: “This poem effectively represents certain themes through its line structures and word choice.”
- Body paragraph #1
- A deep dive into a significant line in the poem
- A look at the word choice, rhyming, and rhythm structure of that line
- An explanation of how that effectively addresses themes
- Body paragraph #2
- A look at another line or section that somehow connects to the line discussed in the previous paragraph
- A look at word choice and rhythm within that line or section
- Body paragraph #3
- Discussion of the poem as a whole
- A deeper look at the themes you’re discussing
- A callback to the first line you mentioned
- Restating the thesis statement
- A broader discussion of the themes or the poem within a larger historical context
Yes, you should be analytical and use clear, concise language so that your reader understands what you’re trying to explain or claim in your thesis statement. You also don’t want to be too academic or dry. Otherwise, your readers won’t get past the first sentence.
Essays are an art form unto themselves. Even if you’re not telling an outright narrative, figurative language can play a really important role in your expository essay by building flow, supporting your thesis, and just making your writing feel a bit more human. Metaphors, similes, and all of those good literary devices can be great tools in your expository essay, so don’t ignore them.
Personal narrative essays are very much about your personal experiences and thus rely on a first-person perspective or creative use of second- or third-person.
By contrast, expository essays more often get grouped into “academic writing,” which generally requires a third-person point of view. That doesn’t mean avoiding your own thoughts and opinions. In fact, your essay should always feel like you’re speaking your mind. You just have to get creative with how to state that opinion without saying I or me.