Key Features Of Expository Essay

10 Ways to...
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Have you been knocking your head against the proverbial wall trying to teach - or learn - expository writing skills? Take a fresh approach with these 10 tips! We encourage you to send us your thoughts about these suggestions by visiting our feedback page.
1. Ditch the five-paragraph essay and embrace "authentic" essay structure. Times news and feature articles are excellent models for structure, including transitions and organization. Look at the guide to forms of Times news coverage to get started, and then deconstruct some articles to get a feel for how they are organized.

Classic news stories like this one about conflicts over rebuilding ground zero are written in the "inverted pyramid" format, starting with the most important information - the first paragraph or two answers the questions "Who?" "What?" "Where?" "When?" Why?" and "How?" - and proceeding with the most important details, filling in the less important information as the article proceeds. This can be a useful structure for, say, newspaper articles based on the events in a play or novel, or relatively short research reports.

Feature stories pull the reader in with an engaging introduction and develop from there to explain a topic, issue or trend. Examples of this structure: this article on gauging the national mood by tracking popular songs, blog posts and the like, and this column on the blankets-with-sleeves trend.

A sub-genre of the feature, the personality profile, is also a useful expository writing model, as in this lesson on Dickens, which suggests using a profile of Bernie Madoff as a model for writing a character profile, and this lesson on the literature Nobelist Naguib Mahfouz.

To take the idea of using newspaper story structures further, try this lesson on comparing classic storylines with news reports.

2. Two traditional essay writing bugaboos are introductions and conclusions. The Times is full of creative ways to open and end a narrative, and these can help developing writers learn to avoid clichéd openings and repetitive endings. Here are some of the approaches Times writers take to begin and end their stories, together with examples of each one:

  • Narrative opening: Telling a story that illustrates or encapsulates the issue at hand, like this story about the dangers associated with riding in a taxi when the cabby is using a phone and this one about fans paying homage to Michael Jackson
  • Descriptive opening: Describing an element that is key to the story, like this description of a high-end coffee machine in a feature on the topic of fancy coffee makers
  • Question opening: posing a rhetorical question that leads directly into the rest of the essay, like this article about popular baby names
  • Frame: Bringing the essay full circle by starting and ending with elements of the same story, like this article on Cuban doctors unable to practice in the U.S.
  • Quote kicker: Ending with a quote that sums up the essence of the essay, like this one on raising chickens
  • Future action kicker: Ending with a look toward what may or will happen in the future, as in this article on fake art in Vietnam

    Looking for more inspiration? Read John Noble Wilford's retrospective article about covering the 1969 moon landing, focusing on the section "Moonfall Eve," in which he recounts trying to figure out how to start his article. The upshot: Simple is often best.

    3.Informing and explaining - how things work or how to do something - is part of journalism's bread and butter. Good Times models for information/explanation essays include articles on how dark energy works, why and how Twitter can be useful, how to make a soufflé and how to avoid heatstroke. To find more examples, good starting places are the recipes in the Dining section and the Science and Health sections.

    One specific type of explanation essay is analysis - an examination of why and how an issue is significant. If you're looking for good models, The Times runs many pieces under the rubric "news analysis," such as this article on the significance of steroid use in baseball and this one on President Obama's remarks on the arrest of Henry Louis Gates. Read these, or other articles marked "news analysis," and then try writing your own analysis of an event - perhaps something that happened at school, or perhaps something that happened in a piece of literature or in history.

    4. In addition to information and explanation, there are a few other key expository patterns. Here are the most common ones, together with a Times models of each one, each paired with a related handout:

  • Comparison - Technology article on Bing vs. Google; Venn diagram
  • Cause and effect - Health article on "chemo brain"; Cause and Effect Organizer
  • Problem and solution - Op-Ed on how schools should handle flu outbreaks; Problem-Solution Organizer
  • Extended definition - The On Language column, such as this column on the use of "associate", "model" and even "the" and the Times Health Guide, a library of information on numerous health conditions; Vocabulary Log

    For more fun with definitions, see the Schott's Vocab blog.

    5. Whether you're writing a descriptive piece or incorporating description into a larger expository essay, specific details are vital, as in this piece on a city mural and this one about Michael Jackson's signature dance moves.

    Of course, one of the best places to find colorful descriptions is the Times' Sports pages, as in this article about a tennis match played by Rafael Nadal. Use our Play-by-Play Sports Descriptions sheet to get a closer look at descriptive phrases in this or other sports articles.

    6. "I've said all I have to say." "How can I possibly write three pages on this topic?" "What do you mean, develop my ideas?" Essay writers often struggle with adequate development. Times features are perfect examples of how to fully develop ideas. For example, you might read "Drivers and Legislators Dismiss Cellphone Risks" or Michael Pollan's polemic on cooking shows and the decline of home cooking in the Sunday Magazine. Then create a "reverse outline" to reveal how the writer developed the piece.

    7. Like development, smoothly incorporating supporting material and evidence - including introducing and integrating quotations - can be a challenge for young writers. Add the requirement to follow MLA or APA style for citations, and for many students the challenge is insurmountable. Part of the problem may be that most students see few articles or other texts with academic citations in their daily lives. Using The Times for models can help.

    You might suspend traditional academic style requirements, and instead try newspaper-style attribution or even the Web protocol of linking to the source of information - such as this article on digital curriculum materials, which, among many, many others, shows both approaches. Other articles, like this one about government recommendations to schools regarding swine flu, are good examples of how to integrate both partial and full quotations, as well as how to include paraphrases.

    8. Subject-verb and noun-pronoun agreement can trouble even established writers at the newspaper of record itself, as the After Deadline blog has discussed, more than once. Once you've reviewed agreement rules, test yourself by looking for errors in the daily paper. And given that Times style is to avoid using "he" as a universal pronoun, virtually any news article or feature provides examples of ways to write around the singular pronoun. Of course, it would help us all if English had an all-purpose, generic pronoun, wouldn't it?

    More on agreement and other grammar and language quirks can be found on the Grammar and Usage and Reading and Writing Skills Times Topics pages, as well as on our Teaching with The Times page on Language and Usage.

    9. News briefs and summaries are models of conciseness and clarity. Read a few briefs, like the ones about the music video directed by Heath Ledger, the death of a show-biz dog, and a spate of squid attacks. And for the ultimate in brevity, look at TimesWire for one-sentence (or sentence fragment) summaries of the latest articles.

    10. Can't use the first person in expository writing? No one uses second person? Third person is required, and must remain entirely neutral and objective? Pshaw! The Times regularly uses all three perspectives, in creative and effective ways. Here are examples:

  • First person - "Watching Whales, Watching Us", a Sunday Magazine article in which the reporter included personal experience alongside research, and "Finally, the Spleen Gets Some Respect", Natalie Angier's scientific report on the spleen, in which she characterizes herself as splenetic
  • Second person - "Party On, but No Tweets", and the Gadgetwise blog post on a smartphone app for stargazers, which explains how the tool works, both of which repeatedly refer to "you," avoiding the clunky and unnecessarily distancing "one"
  • Third person with a clear voice/personality - Rob Walker's "Consumed" column in the Sunday Magazine, such as the one on the yoga "lifestyle" shop Lululemon and the Style feature "Hair, Hair, Hair, Hair, Hair, Hair"

    Use these and other Times models to learn how to write an expository essay that is compelling, convincing and authoritative as well as engaging to read.


    The banner image above was based on a College Board image of sample SAT essays, from the article Perfect's New Profile, Warts and All by Tamar Lewin.
  • The number of academic writing genres is so expanding, that students always confuse the features of each of the styles. In college, teachers practice to assign them different types of an essay to train their writing skills. But they continue to confuse such elementary things as "narrative" and "expository" essay. However, the difference between these essay types is visible and clear. To uncover it, we want to you to take look at definitions of key words that reveal the purpose of these two variants of writing assignments.

    What is the difference between words "tell" and "explain"?

    "Tell" means to provide some information about certain subject or issue. "Explain" is to express the information on the topic in order to make it more understandable to the reader. So, in a narrative essay the writer tells a story, while in the expository essay the writer explains or describes the issue, provides guidelines to some process. 

    What to write in your expository essay?

    The aim of the argumentative essay is to expand the information on the topic in a logical manner. The essay writer must support his ideas with relevant evidence. With its content and structure, an expository essay must resemble manuals, descriptions, and instructions. All these types of writing provide sufficient information on the topic in easy to understand the logical order.  To be more precise, before you select argumentative essay topic, it is important to decide what essay variation you would like write. There are such types of it:

    - Expository definition essay. Take a concept of the phenomenon and discuss the denotation and connotation of it.

    - Expository process essay. Write the guidelines about the mechanics of making some particular process. Your goal is to instruct the reader.

    - Expository classification essay. Here the aim of the write is to categorize the broad concept into smaller groups according to their function.

    - Expository compare and contrast essay. The aim of any expository writing is to reveal the features of notions indicated in the topic. One of the most useful ways to detect these features is to compare and contrast them.

    - Expository cause and effect essay. In this case, two objects must be indicated in the topic and the writer must explain how one object affects the other.

    What is the key feature of expository essay topics?

    As the main aim of the expository essay is to explain a topic in a logical manner, the topics must contain signal words that illustrate this action. Good expository essay topics usually start with words "Describe", "Explain", "Define". They show the writer the aim of the text he is going to write. The direction of this writing and idea creation is determined by the signal word stated in the topic. It is important to keep to the denotation of this word. For example, if it is written “to define” in the expository essay topic, you must provide a substantial definition of the object, but not reflects the effects of it on another object.

    When should I make up a topic for an expository essay?

    Students usually come up with expository essay topic on the prewriting phase of essay writing. Sometimes teachers offer the topic, but most often students use their own creative skills to define about what they will write. So, a topic of the essay determines the further actions of the writer. You cannot start writing an essay without a sharp clue about what to write. When you have a well-formulated topic, it is a half success of your final writing. During the selection of the topic take into account such criteria:

    - the topic must be interesting for you to write and interesting for the audience to read;

    - the topic must force the writer to conduct a research to present a content of correspondent quality;

    - the topic must correspond to your academic level. Topics for high school students differ in the complexity with topics for college students. Mind it

    - expository essay topic must be relevant to the subject on what you were assigned to write. For example, if your subject is “law studies” it is an unsuccessful idea to write about reasons of children obesity in high school.

    - you must be able to find and show worthy evidence and examples on the topic. Without it, your topic cannot be fully covered and the writing will be poor.

    Expository essay writing prompts: 50 best ideas

    Teachers of many subjects can assign expository essay writing. That is why even if you know some prompts and a basic concept of this kind of writing it is still difficult to make up a worthy topic for the essay on a particular subject. So, we divided the most efficient topic ideas into groups according to the most popular subjects. Select the one you liek to write a perfect expository essay!

    1. Personal experiences

    Describing situations from your personal experience is the easiest way to make up a topic for your expository essay. It is a chance for a student to express his feeling about the certain issue or give an explanation of some phenomenon based on his experiences. This expository essay theme is a good source for your academic writing ideas because you can get much evidence with fewer efforts.

    • Describe your first day at school.
    • Explain how growing up with (or without) a sibling influenced on your personality.
    • Describe what is it like to live with a pet.
    • Explain how studying apart from parents raised your courage.
    • Define the meaning of true friendship to you.
    • Describe the hobby you enjoy doing and how someone could go about learning this hobby.
    • Describe your favorite vacation place. Give reasons as to why you enjoy spending time there.
    • Describe your first work experience and what skills and knowledge you gained during it.
    • Explain how your favorite teacher affected your professional development. 
    • Explain how music influences your life.

    2. Literature

    The most frequent task at literature lessons is to create an essay on the topic concerning the literary work students currently study. Usually, all students differ in the aspects they pay attention during reading and analyzing of the book or a poem. Someone pays attention to characters, other treat seriously the general idea of the creation. To write an expository essay concerning topic from literature you must define what aspects you are interested in analyzing books the most.

    • Define what writing style features are innate to the author of your favorite book.
    • Compare the motives of protagonist and antagonist from the novel.
    • Define the historical background of the main idea of the novel.
    • Explain how modernism movement had been developing.
    • Define the key signs of detective genre in the story.
    • Explain the significance of the literary work for future generations.
    • Describe the way how the author expressed social issues in the book.
    • Define the significance of the author for the cultural heritage of a certain nation.
    • Define who influenced the writing style of the author.
    • Describe psychological subtext of the novel.

    3. History

    History is a subject that is compulsory for students of at nearly every major. Because the awareness of basic historical events is a must for educated person. To make an expository essay topic on this subject bear in mind that history studies the development of countries, its significant inventions, and outstanding personalities.

    • Explain the consequences of the World War II for the United States.
    • Explain the significance of technical progress in the history of the United States
    • Explain the effect of newspaper invention.
    • Describe the period of Great Depression in the United States.
    • Describe the key aspects of John's Kennedy political activity.
    • Define who is responsible for mass terrors in XXth century.
    • Define current dangers of military activity in the Eastern Asia.
    • Define the precursors of Civil War in The United States.
    • Explain the significance of negotiations during military operations.
    • Explain why some countries tend to implement Communism.

    4. Social issues

    Social topics is a win-win if you want to present the audience impressive and actual material. You only have to dig into current social problems of your local community and get the basis for topics from there. The source of social problems is hard to exhaust because new problems intensively appear in the society.

    • Describe the reasons for rising teenage pregnancy rate.
    • Explain social precursors of drug addiction.
    • Describe three things you would like to change in your society and explain why you would change them.
    • Define possible consequences of brothers and sisters constantly fighting
    • Define current harmful hobbies for teenagers.
    • Explain the social significance of wearing a uniform at school.
    • Explain the possible consequences of dropping out of college.
    • Describe the changes in communication in the last 20 years since the internet emerged.
    • Explain why the tolerance in a workplace is crucial.
    • Define the causes and effects of not voting in the elections.

    5. Science and Technology

    The advancement of technology is rapidly growing nowadays. Every day you can learn some new facts about science developments. So, if you want to have nontrivial expository essay topic that requires thorough research, choose something that refers to a technological area of study. Even if you are a Liberal Arts student, there are plenty interesting issues to dwell upon in terms of this theme.

    • Explain why people should continue space exploration?
    • Define the latest developments in human brain study.
    • Explain how to cure of cold fast and on a low budget.
    • Describe the significance of studies about black holes.
    • Explain the current reasons of environment pollution.
    • Define the most popular alternative sources of energy.
    • Define the latest developments in searches for cure of cancer.
    • Explain how basic knowledge of IT is essential nowadays.
    • Explain the reasons people must use solar energy.
    • Describe the long-term effects of global warming.

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