The Thesis Statement
An expository essay should begin with a strong introductory paragraph that contains a thesis statement. The thesis statement should be clear, concise, and well-defined. Remember, the thesis statement is the writer’s main point, argument, or central idea and should be carefully narrowed to explain where the essay is headed. A weak thesis statement will make composing an effective or argumentative essay difficult.The Body of the Essay
The body paragraphs in an expository essay should contain evidence or support to explain the thesis or explore its complexities. This evidence or support should always connect to the thesis statement and should be explained with facts, statistics, logic, or anecdotes. Strong evidence or support is precise and allows the writer to convey something that matters to the thesis. Weaker evidence or support, however, is often general and fails to convey what the writer thinks about the topic. Each body paragraph should only include one piece of evidence or supporting idea to give the reader clarity and direction throughout the essay.
One of the most important tips on expository essay writing is to concentrate on the conclusion. The concluding paragraph is your final opportunity to leave a lasting impression on your reader, but many students experience difficulty creating that impression.
Two things you should avoid in writing your conclusion are simply restating the thesis and presenting new information in it. Instead, you should consider the implications of what you have discussed in the body of the essay. Presenting a brief summary of your main points is fine, but then you should think about answering the question, “so what?" You can answer this question by providing an explanation of the importance of the topic, or asking some questions that arise from it but which you have not addressed. The latter approach will keep your reader thinking about what you presented.
- Develop an argument clearly and logically. Your reader should not have to guess what you are trying to communicate.
- Avoid the use of personal pronouns. Remember, support your thesis with facts, not your opinions.
- Be sure to develop your points sequentially. That is, think about the order of your points and make sure they make sense. Does the order provide the most impact? Readers remember best what is said last.
- Use transitions between the introduction, body, and conclusion. These transitions should be clear, logical, and help guide the reader through the essay’s argument and structure.
- Proofread for spelling, grammatical, and typographical errors.
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:
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:
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:
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.