The Expository Essay, Part 1: Planning the Essay
Lesson 1: What is the Expository Essay?
So far in this course, we have discussed and you have written two essay forms: the comparative essay and the illustration essay. Throughout the next three units and their accompanying lessons, we will be discussing the form, function, and execution of the expository essay.
Understanding the Expository Essay
The expository essay is a general term for a number of different media forms that all serve to expound or to explain a topic. An essay, book, or speech can be said to be expository because each is created with the primary goal of conveying information or a detailed statement. To be able to understand the expository essay, you need to be able to understand exposition. As the root concept of the expository essay, the nature of exposition is to “expose” the details of something by methodic and logical description, clarification, and elucidation.
Exposition is one of four modes of discourse, which also include narration, description, and argumentation. In EH 1010, we will cover description to some degree as a part of the illustration essay. Argumentation will be covered in depth in EH 1020, which focuses exclusively on argument. The modes of discourse, also known as “rhetorical modes,” are structured forms of writing in which each of the main four share characteristics and conventions.
An expository essay is written to demonstrate knowledge about a particular topic. So how is the expository essay different from the comparative or illustration essay? The answer is that an expository essay is not completely different from the comparative or illustration essay. In fact, an expository essay may include comparisons and contrasts, as well as illustrations—all of which are effective means of conveying information. Think of an expository essay as an essay that extrapolates several possible facets of a single topic.
There are a number of different types of expository essays including:
- Cause/Effect: explains the relationship between a cause and its effects or an effect coming from several causes
- Comparative: establishes the relationship between two items in order to establish the similarities and differences between them
- Problem/Solution: establishes a problem and then includes possible solutions or various aspects of the same possible solution
- Sequential: relies on conveying information about the topic by ordering items as they appear spatially or chronologically
In this unit, we will discuss three of these as possible forms that your expository essay might take: cause/effect, problem/solution, or sequential. We already discussed the comparative essay in depth in Unit III.
Investigating an Idea
One of the main tenets of the expository essay is that it invites the writer to investigate an idea or topic before sharing that information with readers. In other words, an expository essay is an exploration of a topic, and the tone is explanatory. However, the student writer must first know about a topic thoroughly so that he or she may speak with authority. As we have discussed in previous units, academic writing is evidence-based, so it is necessary to have the backing of sources in order to speak with authority on a topic. Throughout the remainder of the course, you will establish a topic, investigate that topic through reading and source gathering, and then write and revise your paper.
Evaluating the Evidence
As we have discussed in previous units, not all sources are the same, so you want to use only source material that is academically valid. The expository essay is a true academic form, meaning that it rarely exists outside of the university setting. Therefore, strict adherence to source material validity is paramount. For a reminder about what makes a source valid and credible, see Unit V, Lesson 4.
Setting forth the Argument
Each argument will be written in accordance with the form of the expository essay. After choosing your topic, you will need to choose the form that is most appropriate to fit the topic: cause/effect, problem/solution, or sequential. A thesis statement, which contains the paper’s argument, will be appropriate to the form you choose. We will discuss thesis statements later on, but it is good for you to begin to think about the form that you would choose and what kind of thesis statement may be appropriate for your topic.
- The expository essay is a general term for a number of different media forms that all serve to expound or to explain a topic.
- The nature of exposition is to “expose” the details of something by methodic and logical description, clarification, and elucidation.
- The modes of discourse, also known as “rhetorical modes,” are structured forms of writing in which each of the main four share characteristics and conventions. The four modes are exposition, narration, description, and argumentation.
- There are four main forms of the expository essay: cause/effect, comparative, problem/solution, and sequential. For the exposition essay due in Unit VIII, you will only be allowed to write a cause/effect, problem/solution, or sequential essay, as you have already written a comparative essay.
- One of the main tenets of the expository essay is that it invites the writer to investigate an idea or topic before sharing that information with readers.
- An expository essay is an exploration of a topic, and the tone is explanatory.
- Expository writing is evidence-based.
- Each argumentative thesis statement will reflect the form of the essay—whether the form is cause/effect, problem/solution, or sequential.
The Expository Essay, Part 1: Planning the Essay
Lesson 2: Choosing a Topic
Often students will find it difficult to come up with a good topic. They may have a vague notion of what they want to write about, but the topic is too broad many times. When a topic is too broad, then it will cause you to gloss over a large area, rather than being precise about your exposition. For example, let’s say that you wanted to write an essay about pollution. While a topic like this might take any of the three forms, you decide that the best form for your essay is cause/effect. The problem is that pollution is a huge topic! You could write about air, water, ground, or even noise pollution. You do not really want to write about all of these topics because then your essay would just be a gloss. Instead, you decide that you will write about water pollution only. But even the topic of water pollution is a big topic because you might write about ocean, lake, or stream pollution. Then again, you might write about trash and non-biodegradable materials or toxic dumps into water. What would be the best way for you to go about narrowing your topic?
Think about the methods that we discussed in Unit II Lesson 3. In that lesson, we discussed concepts of invention, which were all about coming up with a good topic for you. We looked at methods of prewriting, such as brainstorming, mapping/clustering, and freewriting. Use these methods in your own pursuit of a topic.
Talking to Those Around You
One way that you can narrow a topic is to talk to those around you—your friends, family, co-workers, etc. Sometimes you can become interested in a topic just by seeing what others are concerned or curious about. Many times, when you are drawing a blank on possible topics, you can find that others may be clued in to issues that you may not be familiar with or that did not seem readily apparent to you.
Observing Important Issues
As we discussed in Unit V, public information is a good place to begin when looking for a topic. The best topics are controversies that appear on the news or in print. These types of controversies often demonstrate a smaller concern about a larger topic. For example, if we look at our water pollution example again, we might see something in the news about a specific company that has dumped fracking waste in a particular river in a certain state. These types of news stories can help you to discuss the larger topic of water pollution, while looking at one specific instance of pollution. We often see these stories in our current events.
Another possible source for information can be ongoing issues, such as gun control, education, or civil rights. Again, these are larger issues that are just too big to write about, but you can investigate these larger topics in smaller ways. For example, you might want to write about gun control, but the topic is much too large. Instead, you may find that your state congress is discussing a bill that would allow firearms on all state-funded university campuses. The controversy around this bill is the perfect way to write about the larger controversy of gun control, while still writing about one definite issue that is currently affecting your state.
Similarly, you might want to look at issues that face you and your community locally. Sometimes local issues affecting your state, county, or city can be a great way for you to discuss a controversy without trying to tackle an issue that is too large in scope. For example, you might look at a proposed city tax that would add ½ cent to each transaction within the city limit with the funds going to local animal shelters. Those who are for the measure want to see these shelters supported because they provide an important service for the community. Those who are against the measure want people to have the option to donate if they choose to and/or the option to direct their funds to a different non-profit organization. The job of an expository essay is not to take a side on the controversy—to argue what is right or wrong—but to explain the controversy to someone who may not be familiar with it.
Reflecting on Issues that Are Important to You
Another way to think about or to narrow down a topic is to think about issues that matter to you. Perhaps, you are a hunter, and you are concerned with the length of the turkey-hunting season or the number of birds your state allows each season. You could easily use a topic like that as fodder for your exposition.
Thinking About Topics in Relation to Disciplinary Categories
One other way of coming up with a topic that is interesting to you is to choose something that is important to the discipline that you are studying at CSU. For example, if your major is fire science, then you may want to write an exposition about a particular kind of equipment used or an unsafe type of building material. If you are a psychology major, then you might want to write about the effects of stress on young children. If you have not yet declared a major, then you may want to think about academic disciplines that interest you and what some major issues are for those disciplines.
- It is important to narrow down the scope of your exposition essay topic as much as possible so that you can write in-depth about a specific topic rather than glossing over a larger, broader topic.
- One way that you can narrow a topic is to talk to those around you—your friends, family, co-workers, etc.
- The best topics are controversies that appear on the news or in print. These types of controversies often demonstrate a smaller concern about a larger topic.
- Another possible source for information can be ongoing issues, such as gun control, education, or civil rights.
- You might want to look at issues that face you and your community locally.
- Another way to think about or to narrow down a topic is to think about issues that matter to you.
- One other way of coming up with a topic that is interesting to you is to choose something that is important to the discipline that you are studying at CSU.
The Expository Essay, Part 1: Planning the Essay
Lesson 3: Prewriting and Research Planning
When you choose a topic, you should choose a topic about which you know some things. You certainly do not need to be an expert on the topic, but you should at least be familiar with it. Again, the expository essay is all about explanation, so if you do not know the first thing about your topic, then it will be very difficult for you to explain aspects of the topic to others. In this lesson, we will examine methods for assessing what you already know about a topic and what you need to know in order to explain the topic to others.
Assessing What You Already Know
Before you can begin to determine what you need to know to create a research plan and to collect materials, you need to establish what you already know. Establishing what you already know about the topic is another good way to narrow the scope of the project. You may find that you know a good deal about the general, larger topic, but when you begin to establish what you know, you find that a smaller, more specific area is where you are most interested. For example, if you are interested in horse care, then you might begin listing out a number of aspects of routine horse care. Then you may find that your concern actually lies in the area of hoof care, specifically prevention of infection and disease. Therefore, you establish what you already know about the topic and the areas where you have some amateur knowledge. Once this is accomplished, you will move on to consulting a credible source.
Determining What You Need to Know: Creating a Research Plan
Once you have determined what you know, then you can begin to work on an outline of your paper. You know that you will need to have an introductory paragraph, at least three body paragraphs, and a conclusion to your essay. Therefore, you will want to think about which of the forms you would like your essay to take: cause/effect, problem/solution, or sequential:
- Cause/effect: You will want to establish three or so body paragraphs about the effects of a particular cause. Your thesis statement will argue for the existence of these effects from this cause.
- Problem/solution: Similar to the cause/effect essay in structure. However, this essay would call for establishing at least three body paragraphs that offer (1) three solutions to a problem or (2) three aspects of one solution to a problem. The thesis statement would forward this solution(s) to the problem.
- Sequential: This essay would look at the progression of a particular problem. The thesis statement would argue for this progression rather than an alternative timeline.
Now that you have established a plan of execution by sketching out a tentative outline of your essay, you can begin to think about what kinds of information you will need in order to support your claims. You will need to include the voices of other authors to add credibility and authority to your text. This can only be done through research and proper citation.
- You certainly do not need to be an expert on the topic you choose, but you should at least be familiar with it.
- Before you can begin to determine what you need to know to create a research plan and to collect materials, you need to establish what you already know.
- Establishing what you already know about the topic is another good way to narrow the scope of the project.
- Determining the form of your expository essay (whether cause/effect, problem/solution, or sequential) will aid you in writing an outline for it.
- You will need to include the voices of other authors to add credibility and authority to your text.
Lesson 4: Grammar and Style
Diction Part 1, Non-Standard In-Text Citations
Diction Part I
Diction is a term that is often examined in the study of writing and language. While many use it as a rough synonym for the word usage, the definitions of the terms show something rather different. One definition says diction is an accent, inflection, intonation, and the speech-sound quality of an individual speaker measured against a common standard. Another definition stresses the means and manner of expression with the implications of higher levels of usage, particularly in reference to the choice of particular words. Finally, and more succinctly, yet another definition stresses a style of speaking and or writing particularly dependent on the choice of individual words. In this case, diction differs from formal Standard English in that while formal English stresses the highest levels of formality, diction may at times dictate that you deploy a lower level of formality in a specific context.
In a conversation with a friend, you might alienate him or her with the use of an elevated and stilted selection of words that might send a message of condescension or distance when nothing of the kind is desired. Knowledge of the consequences of selecting inappropriate words for particular circumstances is often critical to the success of one’s communication and the maintenance of interpersonal relationships. Although no list would be complete, the terms listed on the following screens represent some of the most often confused terms that confound our diction. Mark Twain’s famous comment about diction demonstrates not only the celebrity’s humor but the dramatic differences we face in the selection of particular words. Twain once said that the difference between selecting the right word and an alternative is like the difference between physical lightning and a lightning bug. The famous novelist Gustave Flaubert was notorious for his expression le mot juste, by which he meant that in his writing often only one perfect word could express exactly what he wanted. He often spent not hours but days searching for the perfect word when he was writing Madame Bovary. We will not encounter what Twain or Flaubert faced with our word selections, but we can realize that word choice is often critical and that aspects of our clear communication will be affected by selecting the wrong or right word.
Accede vs. exceed
- Accede: to assent or agree to a request or demand; also to assume a position, job, or office
- Exceed: to be greater in size, number, quantity etc.; to go beyond what is permitted; to be better than; to surpass
Access vs. excess
- Access: the right or ability or permission to enter, speak with, approach, or use; a way or means of approach
- Excess: going beyond what is regarded as normal, proper, or customary; immoderate, indulgent, intemperate
Affection vs. affliction
- Affection: love, devotion, or attachment; sentiment
- Affliction: grief, misery, pain, distress, loss, calamity
Allude vs. elude
- Allude: to refer to something casually or indirectly; to make an allusion to something or someone
- Elude: to escape or avoid something by speed, trick, or cleverness; to evade, dodge, or even shun
Allusion vs. illusion
- Allusion: a casual reference; mentioning something directly or even by implication
- Illusion: something deceiving and giving a false impression of being real; being deceived in one or another manner; false, as in an optical illusion
Climatic vs. climactic
- Climatic: pertaining or referring to climate
- Climactic: referring to or reaching the end of something; the climax, high point, or conclusion
Conscious vs. conscientious
- Conscious: aware of something, awake; deliberate, intentional, on purpose
- Conscientious: ruled by conscience, a sense of right and wrong; careful, meticulous, or methodical
Deprecate vs. depreciate
- Deprecate: to disapprove of, to be against something, to belittle
- Depreciate: to become lower in value; to represent something as of little value, merit, or worth
Elicit vs. illicit
- Elicit: to bring out something, to draw out, to evoke or bring out
- Illicit: not legal, permitted, accepted, or authorized; unethical or immoral
Elegant vs. eloquent
- Elegant: luxurious, refined, graceful, or poised
- Eloquent: fluent, forceful, appropriate, or expressive speech or linguistic skill
Exacerbate vs. exasperate
- Exacerbate: to make something worse; to increase the violence or feelings; to aggravate, irritate, exasperate
- Exasperate: to irritate, annoy to an extreme degree
Genus vs. genius
- Genus: in biology, a major subdivision of family or subfamily of organisms; a group, family, kind, sort, or class
- Genius: an exceptional gift of intelligence, talent or natural ability; gifted or smart
Inequity vs. iniquity
- Inequity: not fair, unequal, bias
- Iniquity: wickedness, evil, or sin
Ingenious vs. ingenuous
- Ingenious: clever, original, brilliant, or intelligent; showing evidence of genius
- Ingenuous: naïve, innocent, sincere, open, or honest
Irrelevant vs. irreverent
- Irrelevant: not important; not applicable or pertinent to something
- Irreverent: being disrespectful; showing no respect for something, often something religious
Moral vs. morale
- Moral: as an adjective – ethical, knowing right from wrong, virtuous, honest
- Morale: one’s attitude with respect to hardship or challenges; one’s demeanor, feelings, and attitude
Proceed vs. precede
- Proceed: to go forward or continue with respect to anything
- Precede: to come before in some way: birth, importance, time, order, rank, place etc.
Vicious vs. viscous
- Vicious: immoral, depraved, evil, wrong, savage, or ferocious
- Viscous: having a thick, sticky, jelly-like consistency
Check for Understanding (on Diction Part 1)
(See Answer Key at bottom of document.)
Select the appropriate term for consistent diction in the sentence.
- We knew that Tom would (accede, exceed) the speed limit on the trip.
- Our professor would always (allude, elude) to obscure pieces of literature.
- We found out that our boss had an (elicit, illicit) relationship with one of his secretaries.
- The (moral, morale) of the company had been low since the salaries were cut.
- We were told that Mary had to (proceed, precede) John when we all walked in.
- Without any doubt, Martin Luther King was an (elegant, eloquent) speaker.
APA In-text Citations: Non-Standard In-text Citations
The most common in-text citation is the name of an author and the date of publication (Baker, 1969). However, while many sources are those that will be considered standard, there are many that we might want to use in our documented work that will require very different citation formats and qualify under the category non-standard.
For instance, when you have two authors, the format for an in-text citation changes:
- (Masters & Johnson, 1966).
When you have three to five authors, there is a very different format:
- (Masters, Johnson, Smith, Cole, & Brown, 2008).
With those same three to five authors, after the first listing (above), there is yet another format:
- (Masters et al., 2008).
If there are six or more authors, there is no initial posting, and only the first author and et al. are used:
- (Johnson et al., 1966).
What do you do if your reference does not have an author? The answer is both simple and logical: You use a few key words from the title and maintain traditional punctuation in the words of the title, follow the words by a comma, then add the year:
- (“Dickens’ Jo,” 1948)
Here (above) there is an article that likely begins with “Dickens’ Jo” although there might well be more to the title. Although there is no author listed for the article, it was published in 1948.
What do you do when you run into the rare case in which your source has “Anonymous” listed? Use the word Anonymous as if it were the unknown author’s name both in the parenthetical reference as well as on the reference page itself:
- (Anonymous, 2012)
What might you do if you have two different sources by authors with the same last names?
- (J. Smith, 1622; E. Smith, 2009)
What happens when you make a statement common to multiple sources in the same sentence?
- (Baker, 1969; Reynolds, 1988)
Although not very likely, what if you had an author who published two different items in the same year and you must refer to both?
- Carlos Baker (1969a) wrote that Hemingway adored his father.
Note above that this citation (above) tells us that there are two things on the references page by Carlos Baker, both published in 1969, and here the citation refers to the first of those two; therefore, when the second is used, it would be Baker (1969b).
What if you have a source that is published by an organization or Government agency?
- (National Rifle Association, 2012)
Although it might seem difficult with an organization or Government agency, just use the proper name and year. Further, if you use another reference to the same item, and if that organization or agency has common letters for its abbreviation, you can use those, but only after stating the name in full the first time. However, one thing you have to remember is that when you use the reference more than one time, then the first use would have to be done this way:
- (National Rifle Association [NRA], 2012)
Note (above) that the abbreviation must be in brackets, not parentheses, and when later references appear, they would be posted this way:
- (NRA, 2012)
What can you do if you find something in an Introduction, Preface, Foreword, or Afterword and want to include it in your paper?
- (Bloom, 1996)
For all of these (above), all you have to do is list the author and year because on your reference page, part of the reference will be the appropriate word to identify it, such as Preface or Foreward.
What if your topic calls for the use of letters, e-mails, Facebook, an interview or another similar type of personal communication? Personal communications are not listed in the full reference list, so it is imperative that you indicate that the source is some type of personal communication within the in-text citation:
- (C. Baker, personal communication, March 20, 1965)
What—and this happens to everyone who has ever written a documented research essay—if you find something you need to quote by an author but not the author of the book or article in which you find it? This situation is called using an “indirect source.”
- Scott Fitzgerald told Hemingway that . . . . (as cited in Baker, 1969, p. 333).
This issue turns out to be easy because all you have to do is name the source you want to quote in the body of your paper and then include where you found the material in the following citation (see above).
Today many if not most of our sources will be electronic sources. As a general rule, try to use citations to electronic sources just as you would those to paper sources, at least as much as is possible. However, if the electronic source gives no author or particular date, you must handle the citation this way: in your written text include the title of the article or webpage. Then include the words of a short title or simply key words from a long title with n.d. (no date) in the parenthetical reference:
- (“Hemingway in Paris,” n.d.)
As you would expect, the complete reference with the details of the source will be listed on the references page.
What should you do when you realize your electronic source has no page numbers?
- (“Global Warming Issues,” 2004, para. 2)
- (Sharapova, 2009, para. 4)
- (Fall of Stalingrad section, para. 7)
Most electronic sources will not have page numbers, and one critical rule for using such sources is never use page numbers with pages you print from an electronic source. As illustrated above and depending on what you have, you are able to use a title, date, and paragraph; an author, date, and paragraph; or the name of a section of the piece, usually by sub-title, with a paragraph.
Check for Understanding (on Non-Standard In-text Citations)
(See Answer Key at bottom of document.)
Select the appropriate structure for the parenthetical reference to fit the criterion as described.
- Six authors:
- (Ochoa, Diaz, Goldwater, Taz, Nguyen, and Ngubo, 2012).
- (Ochoa et al., 2012).
- An anonymous article:
- The front porch contained three generals and a colonel that afternoon (Unknown Author, 2010).
- The front porch contained three generals and a colonel that afternoon (Anonymous, 2010).
- The first instance of a publication by the Internal Revenue Service:
- 1040 forms may be submitted by e-file or paper (IRS, 2014).
- 1040 forms may be submitted by e-file or paper (Internal Revenue Service [IRS], 2014).
- Something from a Foreword:
- After he won the Nobel Prize, everyone knew the name Gabriel Garcia-Marquez (Foreword, 1999).
- After he won the Nobel Prize, everyone knew the name Gabriel Garcia-Marquez (Rabassa, 1999).
- Something from a personal letter:
- (O’Connor, personal communication, May 23, 1966).
- (O’Connor, letter, May 23, 1966).
Non-standard In-text Citations