How to write an expository essay
“Expository” means “intended to explain or describe something.” An expository essay provides a clear, focused explanation of a particular topic, process, or set of ideas. It doesn’t set out to prove a point, just to give a balanced view of its subject matter.
Expository essays are usually short assignments intended to test your composition skills or your understanding of a subject. They tend to involve less research and original arguments than argumentative essays.
When should you write an expository essay?
In school and university, you might have to write expository essays as in-class exercises, exam questions, or coursework assignments.
Sometimes it won’t be directly stated that the assignment is an expository essay, but there are certain keywords that imply expository writing is required. Consider the prompts below.
The word “explain” here is the clue: An essay responding to this prompt should provide an explanation of this historical process—not necessarily an original argument about it.
Here, the prompt is asking you to compare and contrast the work of two different writers. Note that you’re not being asked which writer you prefer, but how each writer handles a particular theme.
Sometimes you’ll be asked to define a particular term or concept. This means more than just copying down the dictionary definition; you’ll be expected to explore different ideas surrounding the term, as this prompt emphasizes.
How to approach an expository essay
An expository essay should take an objective approach: It isn’t about your personal opinions or experiences. Instead, your goal is to provide an informative and balanced explanation of your topic. Avoid using the first or second person (“I” or “you”).
The structure of your expository essay will vary according to the scope of your assignment and the demands of your topic. A common structure for a short expository essay consists of five paragraphs: An introduction, three body paragraphs, and a conclusion.
Introducing your essay
Like all essays, an expository essay begins with an introduction. This serves to hook the reader’s interest, briefly introduce your topic, and provide a thesis statement summarizing what you’re going to say about it.
Hover over different parts of the example below to see how a typical introduction works.
Writing the body paragraphs
The body of your essay is where you cover your topic in depth. It often consists of three paragraphs, but may be more for a longer essay. This is where you present the details of the process, idea or topic you’re explaining.
It’s important to make sure each paragraph covers its own clearly defined topic, introduced with a topic sentence. Different topics (all related to the overall subject matter of the essay) should be presented in a logical order, with clear transitions between paragraphs.
Hover over different parts of the example paragraph below to see how a body paragraph is constructed.
Concluding your essay
The conclusion of an expository essay serves to summarize the topic under discussion. It should not present any new information or evidence, but should instead focus on reinforcing the points made so far. Essentially, your conclusion is there to round off the essay in an engaging way.
Hover over different parts of the example below to see how a conclusion works.
Frequently asked questions about expository essays
- How long is an expository essay?
An expository essay is a broad form that varies in length according to the scope of the assignment.
Expository essays are often assigned as a writing exercise or as part of an exam, in which case a five-paragraph essay of around 800 words may be appropriate.
You’ll usually be given guidelines regarding length; if you’re not sure, ask.
- When do I write an expository essay?
An expository essay is a common assignment in high-school and university composition classes. It might be assigned as coursework, in class, or as part of an exam.
Sometimes you might not be told explicitly to write an expository essay. Look out for prompts containing keywords like “explain” and “define.” An expository essay is usually the right response to these prompts.
- What’s the difference between an expository essay and an argumentative essay?
An argumentative essay tends to be a longer essay involving independent research, and aims to make an original argument about a topic. Its thesis statement makes a contentious claim that must be supported in an objective, evidence-based way.
An expository essay also aims to be objective, but it doesn’t have to make an original argument. Rather, it aims to explain something (e.g., a process or idea) in a clear, concise way. Expository essays are often shorter assignments and rely less on research.