A Student's Brief Overview of Expository Writing
Learn about expository writing, the major umbrella term for most college writing assignments, including descriptive, narrative, argumentative, and comparative essays.
by Katharine Hansen, Ph.D.
Outside of creative writing -- fiction, poetry, short stories, plays, and the like -- expository writing is the major umbrella term for most college writing assignments, and many variations fall within the umbrella. In the most simplistic terms, an expository paper is one that explains. Edward Proffitt defines expository writing in the glossary of his Reading and Writing about Literature as "writing designed to explain something in a clear, concise manner. [Expository] essays, which may support a theme or argue a thesis, are aimed at communicating thoughts with clarity, and ideally, with pleasure." An expository essay can explain the views of others (such as other writers as in expository essays about literature), report on an event or situation, or subject (such as in descriptive and narrative essays), present and summarize a topic in detail (such as in a report), compare and contrast two or more works or two or more of anything (as in a comparative essay), or argue for a certain position (as in an argumentative essay).
A large portion expository writing in college consists of writing about other writing. In English composition and literature classes, you'll do expository writing about writings in those disciplines. In business and communication classes, you'll write expositorily from sources that may include writing but may encompass others as well.
Although professors will sometimes ask for expository papers summarizing other works, most assigned exposition is analytical. You are expected to examine and interpret components or aspects (such as plot, character, setting, theme, tone, or style) of units of writing. You may be asked to place readings into a larger context of other works in the field.
In assigning an expository paper that requires analysis, your professor may expect you to detect something particularly distinctive about the work you're analyzing. It's therefore a good idea to check in with the professor as your paper progresses to ensure that you're on the right track.
Breaking the work into components or aspects is the key to analysis. Analysis differentiates elements of the text and then describes the importance of each element to understand the work as a whole. Your writing should unfold in a way that makes your reasoning easy to follow and demonstrates how you conducted your analysis and reached your conclusions.
In addition to analytical treatments, your professor might assign you to take one of these approaches to expository writing:
- Explication: A narrower analysis of a work (often poetry), requiring examination and interpretation of components or aspects of comparatively small units of writing, such as paragraphs, lines, sentences, and words.
- Response: Your own personal reaction to a work and how it connects to your own experience, thoughts, and ideas.
- Evaluation: A step beyond a response essay, an evaluation essay is a judgment about a work, generally about whether the work is effective or ineffective or meets certain standards.
- Synthesis: An essay that shows how two or more works -- or two or more components or aspects of one or more works -- are connected without taking the further step of comparing/contrasting the works or parts of works.
- Process: An essay that describes, step by step, how to do something (for example, how to set up an aquarium, how to succeed at a certain video game).
While the form of expository writing known as the report is primarily the province of elementary, middle, and high school (because reports generally do not require the higher-order thinking skills expected in college), college professors sometimes assign reports. A report is an organized collection of information on a single topic. You may gather information from one or more primary sources, but your professor will probably direct you to secondary sources.
The following is an effective way to structure a report:
- Introduction identifying the question you're answering, topic you're summarizing, reading you've read.
- Summary of the most relevant information about the topic, organized logically.
- Brief conclusion providing highlights of the summary.
The professor's objective in assigning a report is usually content-driven. He or she wants you to answer a specific question, find out about a given topic, or show that you've absorbed a certain reading. It's the instructor's way of helping you learn or study about a particular subject. Writing skills are as important with any other type of writing, but content is likely your instructor's most important grading criterion.
Because you don't have the creative latitude afforded by asserting and defending your own argument, summarizing information for a report in your own words may be difficult. (Remember in grade school when you used the encyclopedia and struggled to write the information in your own words?) The ability to paraphrase is paramount with report writing.
Final Thoughts on Expository Writing
Knowing that expository writing comprises the bulk of writing assignments you'll be asked to produce in college will make you a more prepared student. Try to get a feel early on in your college career for the variety of expository assignments that will come your way.
Questions about some of the terminology used in this article? Get more information (definitions and links) on key academic terms by going to our College Success Glossary.
Katharine Hansen, Ph.D., is an educator, author, and blogger who provides content for EmpoweringSites.com, including MyCollegeSuccessStory.com. Katharine, who earned her PhD in organizational behavior from Union Institute & University, Cincinnati, OH, is author of Dynamic Cover Letters for New Graduates and A Foot in the Door: Networking Your Way into the Hidden Job Market (both published by Ten Speed Press), as well as Top Notch Executive Resumes (Career Press); and with Randall S. Hansen, Ph.D., Dynamic Cover Letters, Write Your Way to a Higher GPA (Ten Speed), and The Complete Idiot's Guide to Study Skills (Alpha). She curates, crafts, and delivers compelling content online, in print, on stage, and in the classroom. Visit her personal Website KatharineHansenPhD.com or reach her by e-mail at kathy(at)astoriedcareer.com. Check out Dr. Hansen on GooglePlus.