More on expository essays

The expository essay is one of the most common writing assignments and often one of the shortest. But short doesn’t mean simplistic.

An expository essay is a writer’s exposition (explaining) of a short theme, idea, or question. It should be concise, and it should cleave to the author’s thesis. The thesis should be narrowly stated or defined, and the evidence backing it up should reinforce the author’s point of view. Often logic and personal examples form the bulk of the evidence – an expository essay usually doesn’t cover or require a great deal of research (though the author’s facts should, of course, be right).
            An expository essay can be a reaction to a work of literature, a personal testament about overcoming adversity, a political manifesto on world events, or a sports-page diatribe about a rookie sensation. Just as these kinds of sorties can succeed or fail, so too can your own expository essays.
            The expository essay works best as a short, sharp strike – “get in and get out.” It makes one major point, provides its support, and finishes up. Clarity is the name of the game. How do you get there? Here are some tips to supplement your knowledge of the form.
 

1 ANSWER THE QUESTION

It sounds obvious, but you’d be surprised how many essays fall far afield of the topic they’re supposed to discuss. Answering the question means that you must, in your thesis, specifically state your answer to the question or your position on the topic at hand.
 
SAMPLE ASSIGNMENT: Discuss the ways in which the Star Wars movies can be considered philosophy.
 
BAD THESIS: The Star Wars movies can be considered philosophy.
This doesn’t answer the question – we don’t know why or how.
 
ALSO BAD: There are many ways in which the Star Wars movies can be considered philosophy.
Again, the thesis doesn’t answer the question – “many ways” could mean virtually anything. We still don’t know why or how.
 
GOOD THESIS: By dramatizing the conflict of good versus evil, and by espousing the benefits of personal courage, the Star Wars movies transcend entertainment to become philosophy.
The author tells us two specific ways the movies are philosophical. Whether the author can defend this position remains to be seen.
 

2 AVOID DATA DUMPS

Expository essays need a position: yes, no, sometimes, never. You can take any one of these positions (if you can defend it). What an expository essay should not do is list facts about a topic without having those facts lead to anything. Lists and descriptions of information that don’t relate to the argument or story are sometimes called “data dumps”.
            Some students try the data-dump approach because they haven’t read the assignment and are hoping that a bunch of vague, general information will inveigle their teacher’s senses. It might sound smart – data dumps are full of facts – but they don’t answer the question, and in an expository essay, that’s a cardinal error.
 
WRONG: Darth Vader does many evil things, such as slaying Obi-Wan Kenobe, who used to be Darth Vader’s pupil; during the films, Vader overpowers Kenobe, claiming “now, I am the master.”
There are facts aplenty, but the sentence doesn’t explain what any of them have to do with one another or with the thesis.
 
RIGHT: The film suggests that the moral choices of one person can affect the fate of empires; for example, the choice of one man – Darth Vader – to turn from his evil ways results in the dissolution of the despicable galactic dictatorship.
The fact at the end explains what Vader does and how that relates to the theme.
 

3 BACK UP YOUR STATEMENTS

While expository essays aren’t about finding all the facts – that’s what a research paper is for – you’ll want to explain why you argue the way you do. Support your arguments with evidence: facts, anecdotes, and reasoning. Clarify the relationship between the evidence and the argument.
 
WRONG: Star Wars: The Phantom Menace was bad because of Jar-Jar.
This sentence is unclear; it puts two things together without telling how they’re related.
 
RIGHT: The presence of Jar-Jar Binks, a laughable character more suited to a Disney film, gave the first Star Wars film a silliness which is inconsistent with its more profound themes.
This is much better. The statement isn’t necessarily a great argument, but at least the reader can see how the facts are related.
 

4 DON’T WRITE FOR YOUR TEACHER

Your teacher knows you. Your teacher knows the assignment. Your teacher knows the subject matter on which you’re writing. The expository essay, however, isn’t a conversation between you and your teacher. Your essay should be clear enough for anyone to read it – even someone who knows nothing about your subject.
            This means that you shouldn’t assume your reader knows about your subject. Good writers clarify and elaborate.
 
WRONG: Yoda’s size makes him a very ironic character who shows the power of mind over body.
The author assumes we’ve seen the movie and know who Yoda is.
 
RIGHT: In The Empire Strikes Back, the audience discovers that Yoda, a master of philosophical and spiritual practice, is a two-foot-tall green munchkin; the irony of the situation underscores the film’s conviction that spirituality is more important than physical strength.
 
The other mistake writers make when writing for their teachers is an excessive wordiness and convoluted sentence structure. These writers aren’t writing to explain, plead, or convince a reader. They’re just hoping to sound smart. It’s a bad habit.
 
WRONG: The inherency of neither good nor evil is trenchantly noted when Anakin Skywalker’s purported evil turns to good, validating the faith that even in perfidious individuals morality may be found.
Here are a lots of big words used incorrectly in a convoluted sentence. The author may sound like an expert, but most readers will fall asleep.
 
RIGHT: Anakin Skywalker’s vacillations between good and evil demonstrates that both are present in the human spirit.
This is an improvement, and the author even left in a delicious vocabulary word.
Don’t write for your teacher, and don’t write to sound smart. Good papers can be read and understood by anyone who picks them up.
 

5 REVISE THE NEXT DAY

Once you’ve finished writing, do a revision. This means more than running your eyes over every line or clicking on the spell check. It means reading what you’ve written and applying a critical eye. Do the paragraphs support your thesis? Is the relationship between evidence and assertion clear? Are sentences concise? Is there a better way to phrase a sentence?
            Wait at least 24 hours before starting a revision. If you’ve just finished writing a sentence without a subject and you think it’s great, you’re probably still going to think it’s great 20 minutes from now. Do your work ahead of time, and leave a day for revision.
 

Assignment

Pick one of the following questions and write a clear thesis statement. Then write a 400-word expository essay supporting that thesis.
 
  1. Is the place of sports in modern society healthy or unhealthy?
  2. Should music be taught in high school? How and why?
  3. Identify one person from history whom you admire. Then write an essay arguing why your school should be renamed for this person.
  4. Describe the contents of your locker or desk drawer. Then explain why everyone should organize their locker or drawer the way you have.
 
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Sist oppdatert: 17.07.2008

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