What is an Expository Essay?
A major clue to what expository writing is lies in the word itself. It ‘exposes’ something to the reader. The term is sometimes used to refer to persuasive writing and while it can share many common features with persuasive writing, true expository writing does not seek to persuade the reader of the merits of a certain opinion, but instead seeks to explain something without the intrusion of the student writer’s own opinion.
We can find examples of expository writing everywhere. From encyclopedias to newspapers and textbooks, your students will likely have been exposed to many forms of expository writing long before they sit down to write their own expository essays. But, they will still need the fundamental features of this type of writing to be made as explicit as possible before putting pen to paper.
Features of Expository Writing
Students first need to distinguish expository writing as a nonfiction writing genre. This will inform the language decisions they make. Students should select their language accordingly. Expository writing is usually not the place for flowery flourishes of figurative imagery! Students should be encouraged to select straightforward language that is easy for the reader to understand. After all, the aim here is to inform and explain and this is best achieved with direct language.
As mentioned previously, there are many variations that can be classified as expository writing and while it is necessary for students to understand all of the following features, they should be given opportunities to familiarize themselves with the different types of expository writing. This will ensure they are able to make good decisions on which features to include and which to exclude when it comes time to produce their own expository writing.
The following are some of the common features that students will need a good grasp on to have a strong understanding of this genre. They should be taught explicitly and reviewed until the students have a good command of each feature before they try to incorporate them in their own writing.
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The title should be functional. It should inform the reader instantly what it is they will learn about in the text. This is not the place for opaque poetry!
Depending on the length of the text and the level of the students, a table of contents will help the reader locate useful information quickly without having to wade through the whole text. Usually the page numbers found here will be linked to headings and subheadings to be found in the text.
Headings / Subheadings:
These assist the reader in finding information, as mentioned above, by summarizing the content in their wording.
Usually listed in alphabetical order, the glossary defines unusual or topic specific vocabulary for the reader and is often accompanied with pictures, illustrations etc.
Most often used for longer texts, the index allows the reader to identify in the text where to find specific information. This is in a much more detailed manner than in the table of contents.
Visual Forms of Information
Many people learn best when they see information presented visually and this genre recognizes this by incorporating a lot of visual elements. The following are some visual features student writers should be familiar with. Encourage them to use in these their writing where appropriate.
Pictures / Illustrations / Photographs:
Pictures, illustrations and photographs can be used to present a main idea or concept within the text. They can also be primary or secondary sources in historical expository writing. Photographs can offer a broad overview or a close up of important details. These will often be accompanied with a caption explaining what the image shows.
Especially for more technical expository pieces, diagrams are a great way to convey complex information clearly and quickly. Remind students that diagrams must be labelled to ensure the reader knows what it is they are looking at.
Charts and Graphs:
These are extremely useful for showing data and statistics in an easy to read and clear way. They will usually be labeled clearly and correspond to the information in the nearby text.
Maps may be used to explain where something is, or was, located.
The Basic Structure of an Expository Essay
While the specific features outlined above are characteristic of expository writing, the basic structure of the expository essay shares much in common with other essay forms. The following information is applicable to the writing of most essay forms.
A good structure for students to use as a scaffold for writing their expository essay is the Hamburger Essay structure.
This basic structure encourages students to think of their essay as a hamburger consisting of the following:
This is the top bun of the burger and here the student introduces the topic of the exposition. This will usually consist of a general statement on the subject, providing an overview of what the essay is about. It may also preview each major section ahead indicating what aspects of the subject will be covered in the text. These sections will likely relate to the headings and subheadings identified in the planning stage.
Main Body Paragraphs:
If the introduction is the top bun of the burger, then each body paragraph is a beef patty. Self-contained in some regards, each patty forms an integral part of the whole. Each of the body paragraphs deals with one idea or piece of information. For more complex topics these may be grouped together under a common heading and the number of paragraphs will depend on complexity of the topic. For example, an expository text on wolves may include a series of paragraphs under headings titled things like: habitat, breeding habits, what they eat etc.
Each paragraph should open with a topic sentence indicating to the reader what the paragraph is about. The following sentences should further illuminate this main idea through discussion and / or explanation. Encourage students to use evidence and examples here, whether statistical or anecdotal. Remind students to keep things factual - this is not an editorial piece for a newspaper!
Be sure to check out our own complete guide to writing perfect paragraphs here.
Generally the conclusion of any essay should neatly close the circle by summarizing the information through restating the main ideas in a unique way. This bottom bun of the hamburger essay is no different. Remind students that a true expository essay is objective in nature and to beware of injecting their opinion or bias into the piece. The purpose here is to inform rather than persuade.
Your students will need a good understanding of the basic features of expository writing and a firm grasp on the hamburger essay structure itself. As with any writing genre, the prewriting stages are important too. This is particularly true for expository writing. As this genre of writing is designed primarily to inform the reader, good research is essential for your students to produce a competent text. For this reason, expository writing also offers excellent opportunities for students to develop their research and notetaking skills. Skills that will be very useful to them as they continue in their education.
Likewise, the redrafting and editing of their text is very important. Facts and statistics should be checked and rechecked and language edited tightly to ensure the language is clear and concise throughout.
The ability to produce a well-written expository essay is an extremely useful skill for a student to possess as they move through life. It encourages good organizational skills and the research stage can be very rewarding as students learn more about the world around them. And while we grade their efforts, we might even learn a thing or two ourselves!