An explanatory essay is one of the most popular types of essays in high school and college. The essay sections you see on exam sheets and standardized tests are usually of explanatory nature. They are designed to test your knowledge of a subject by asking you to explain a term, event, or phenomenon in detail. However, explanatory writing is a useful skill you can later apply in business, science, and journalism.
This post is an example of explanatory writing too. To be more precise, it's process writing (or how-to writing) because it explains how to write an explanatory essay.
Explanatory writing usually requires no original research and arguments. However, you may still want to visit your school's library to arm yourself with information for this assignment.
What Is an Explanatory Essay?
An explanatory essay (sometimes called expository or informative essay) is an academic assignment where you must present an objective and detailed description of a process, event, phenomenon, or idea. To do that, you will use your own understanding of the subject, perspectives of various researchers, and supportive evidence to illustrate your explanation. Note that you don't have to prove anything or persuade your reader. Neither should you give your personal opinions on the matter. If the topic is controversial, you must present several existing outlooks. The tone must be objective – think textbooks and Wikipedia entries.
As a rule, you will use third-person language (he, she, they, the author, the witnesses of the event, etc.) In some rare cases, when the instructor specifically asks you to explain something based on your experience, you can use first-person and second-person language. For example, an essay prompt asks you to explain the dangers of sleep deprivation, tapping into your own challenges with sleep and time-management.
The explanatory essay format is diverse and includes several types of essays:
- Definition essay
- Descriptive essay
- Compare and contrast essay
- Cause and effect essay
- Problem and solution essay
- Process essay
How to Brainstorm Good Ideas for Explanatory Essay Topics
Most often explanatory writing assignments come with detailed essay prompts prescribing a well-defined specific topic. Even if the prompt doesn't say directly that this is an explanatory essay, you can easily deduce that from the cue words, such as "explain," "define," "compare," "explore," and others like this. The rule of thumb: if the essay requires some form of synthesis from several sources or differing views, it's likely an explanatory essay.
However, if your assignment gives you carte blanche on ideas, here are some tips on choosing the fitting explanatory topic:
- - Avoid controversial and divisive topics. To stay objective, you will have to present two or more points of view, which can be unmanageable within the scope of your assignment. Moreover, it will be challenging to stay objective and not to share your opinions inadvertently.
- - Narrow down big and complex topics. Again, to make it more manageable, focus on some aspect of the big issue rather than trying to explain it in full. For example, instead of writing an explanatory essay about Roman Empire, focus on some aspect of it, like the reasons Roman Empire fell, its governmental system, or its legacy in the modern world.
- - If possible, choose a subject you are familiar with. This way, you will spend less time researching, and the time you do spend will be efficiently invested since you will know what to look for and where to look for it.
How to Prepare an Explanatory Essay Outline
With an explanatory essay, outlining is even more important than with any other type of writing. You must define your paper's scope and decide what you will include and what you will have to omit. This is especially true for topics you are knowledgeable or enthusiastic about. You will be tempted to go on and on about your favorite subject. However, the word count is there for a reason, and your grader's time is limited. Don't hog it and be succinct. To make sure your essay is logically organized and stays within reasonable limits, outline it first.
Explanatory essays often follow a classical 5-paragraph essay structure:
- - introduction, including an attention-grabbing hook sentence, some background information, and a thesis statement summarizing what you are going to explore in the main body
- - body, consisting of three paragraphs and focusing on three main aspects of your subject
- - conclusion, with a broad summary of your main points and a key takeaway that your readers will remember
Note that this is an approximate structure. It suits the kind of 500-800 word assignment that you would usually get during an examination. However, the number of body paragraphs can be bigger, as explanatory papers' scope and length vary widely. Always make sure you are following the instructions in the prompt. If anything isn't clear – don't waste your time guessing and ask your teacher to clarify the task.
If you need more information on how to start an explanatory essay or how to end it, check out our posts on how to write an essay introduction and how to write an essay conclusion.
Tips to Writing an Explanatory Essay
Although you will draw information from many sources, you must synthesize it all into a coherent summary that follows its own inner logic. Here is what you can do to avoid a patchwork quilt effect.
1. Organize body paragraphs logically
Depending on your topic, the order can be chronological, spatial, hierarchical, typological, dimensional, etc. Choose one and follow it through. For example, if you are examining the reasons why Roman Empire fell, you can organize reasons:
- - chronologically (starting from issues that appeared earlier)
- - by magnitude (starting with the most significant)
- - by how apparent they are (starting from the most oft-cited and evident, like barbarian tribes invasion, proceeding to less prominent like government corruption, economic troubles, the spread of Christianity and loss of traditional values, military overspending and reliance on mercenaries, and so on)
2. Use transitional words
Transitional expressions that will improve the flow of your essay are, for example:
- - also, likewise, in the same way (to indicate similarity)
- - however, on the other hand, still, nevertheless (to indicate contrast)
- - first, second, … then, next, finally (to indicate sequence)
And so on.
3. Watch your tone
Academic style, third-person language, and no colloquial expressions are just the basics. You must also avoid argumentative and persuasive expressions. Show objectivity by using neutral verbs like "state", "mention", "reveal", "add", "verify" instead of "affirm", "believe", "insist", "complain", "warn", etc.
4. The devil is in the details
Note that tenses are used differently in styles of academic writing. While MLA uses present tense (Aristotle argues that…), APA uses past tense (Aristotle argued that…)
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