Expository Essay Advice from a Kibin Editor

If you’ve ever had your work edited by Crystal W., you already know that she’s a genius when it comes to the written word. I sat down with her to find out what makes a good expository essay. Here’s what she has to say.

In simple terms, what is an expository essay?

An expository essay exposes something—no, not that—sheesh, get your mind out of the gutter! It lays out all the facts, and only facts, to inform, investigate, evaluate and, in some cases, propose an argument. It’s not an argumentative essay, however. While you can pick a side, it’s not mandatory. The focus is on explaining.

You encounter expository writing everywhere—nonfiction books, textbooks, newspaper articles, biographies, online articles, just to name a few. What makes something expository is one key feature: it answers a question. Below are just a handful (or two) of relevant questions.

  1.  What is X?
  2.  How does X work?
  3.  What does X mean?
  4.  How are X and Y similar? Different?
  5.  What’s the connection between X and Y?
  6.  What is the history of X?
  7.  How has X evolved?
  8.  How do you do X?
  9.  What causes X?
  10.  What are the effects of X?

So, for example, you might create one of the following corresponding expository topics:

  1.  Down and Dirty in the White House: The Clinton Sex Scandal
  2.  How Urban Legends Are Born
  3.  Honey on the Brink: What Bee Extinction Means for the World
  4.  Why the Internet Turns Everyone Into a Nosey Neighbor
  5.  Why Cops and Donuts Go Together Like Bread and Butter
  6.  Wall Street Swindlers: How the Pyramid Scheme Got Started
  7.  The Evolution of Donald Trump’s Hair
  8.  How to See Invisible People: Making Introverts Feel Welcome
  9.  Why a Butterfly Sneezing in Guatemala Might Mean Higher Prices at the Pump
  10.  Binge or Purge? Effects of Social Media on Daily Life

What makes for a particularly good expository essay?

expository essay

A good expository essay sticks to the facts, follows a logical pattern, and teaches readers something they didn’t know—whether it’s how to fix anything with duct tape and WD-40 or learning about dog shaming. You should assume your reader has no background knowledge of the topic unless it’s super common knowledge.

For example, if you’re comparing and contrasting the superpowers and feats of Batman and Captain America, don’t assume your readers know what each superhero’s powers are or how each has (in theory) saved the world from extinction and utter annihilation.

Instead, inform readers about the powers and major feats, use facts to investigate how those powers were used, and evaluate how the use of the powers saved the world. Most importantly, stick to facts you can (and do) prove by using appropriate resources. 

What makes for a particularly bad expository essay?

If I read your expository essay and you’ve taught me nothing or the information you’ve provided is all subjective and biased, that’s bad—bad like Donald Trump’s wayward (alleged) toupee.

Using superheroes again, a bad essay would provide only subjective support. Since your goal is simply to inform, you don’t need to convince someone why Batman or Captain America is the best superhero in the galaxy. So avoid writing subjective information like “Batman is way better than Captain America.”

Assumptions also create a particularly bad expository essay. Assume nothing, and describe every step or element. If you’re explaining a process—how to shame your dog online, for example—don’t assume readers know what takes place. You will need to explain what “dog shaming” is, that they should write a note about their dog’s bad behavior and take a photo of the dog proudly showcasing the note, and where to submit the picture of their unapologetic pooch.

expository essay
Image from DogShaming.com (beware! The site is addictive.)

What are three simple steps that a writer can do to write a better expository essay?

Step #1: Choose an appropriate organizational pattern before outlining.

While creating an outline is essential to keep your essay focused, you first need to know how you intend to organize the information. With expository writing, you can organize your information in a variety of essay patterns—comparison/contrast, sequential, spatial, problem/solution, topical, chronological. These are just a few examples.

Each pattern has certain characteristics, so a strong thesis will guide you to the appropriate organizational patterns for expository essays. For example, an essay on how gas prices are affected by various events—big and small—throughout the world (cue the sneezing butterflies in Guatemala) is best organized in a topical structure that details what influences gas prices, organized by type of events/occurrences. So you might have three main topics/sets of examples: natural disasters, political unrest, and the seemingly inconsequential.

Step #2: Understand the power of everyday language.

Don’t fall into the trap of trying too hard to make your essay sound “academic.” Words are powerful because of how you use them, not because of the words themselves. Your writing should be clear, concise, and—gasp—simple. Your facts and support can be huge in theory, but the words themselves should be common language. One of my favorite Kibin blog posts is How to Become a Better Writer: Don’t Use Words That Sound Smart. If you haven’t read it, you should! It imparts delightful morsels of simple-wording goodness. For more advice on word choice, check out this handout from the UNC Writing Center.

Step #3: Learn to love reverse outlining.

While you’re probably familiar with outlining before you write, reverse outlining can benefit the relevancy and strength of your essay. It’s exactly what it sounds like—you outline your written draft to examine how well you stay on topic and write to your thesis.

If you’re unsure about how to reverse outline, you can read a brief resource, watch a video or complete a reverse-outline worksheet for a few ideas. However you approach it, a reverse outline helps you ensure you wrote about what you set out to write about and that you do it effectively.

What is your biggest writing pet peeve?

That’s an easy one—it drives me crazy when people use the words “reason,” “why,” and “because” in the same sentence to explain something. I often see “the reason why” and “the reason why is because.” These constructions are redundant. “Reason,” “why,” and “because” all have very similar meanings—they are used to explain—so only one should appear in an explanatory sentence.

Committing this redundancy is fairly easy in expository writing, so being aware of it can help you write stronger sentences.

Good exampleGood: “The reasons for gas price hikes can include natural disasters that affect distribution channels, political unrest in or near oil-producing countries, and seemingly mundane non-events like butterflies sneezing in Guatemala.”

Bad ExampleBad: “The reasons why gas prices increase can include natural disasters…”

Bad ExampleBad ExampleEven Worse: “The reasons why gas prices increase are because of natural disasters….”

About Crystal

Crystal W. is one of Kibin’s most seasoned editors. She’s edited over 3 million words at Kibin (and counting), and this includes her fair share of expository essays. Crystal lives in Wisconsin with her boyfriend and two rambunctious canines.

  • Favorite food: pickles
  • Favorite animal: gorrillas
  • Favorite vacation spot: Camping in the Northern Highland American Legion State Forest
  • Favorite book: Anna Karenina

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