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Expository Essays: A Complete Guide

Updated on
October 22, 2021
Students
Expository Essays: A Complete Guide

You write a lot of essays, and while they might share some broad characteristics such as their structure, they can be quite different from each other. Some essays are meant to convince the reader that the position you’re arguing is the correct position, while others explore the differences and similarities between literary works. Beyond these, you might also be assigned to write essays that explain subjects, events, and concepts to the reader, sometimes walking them through processes. These essays are known as expository essays. 

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What is an expository essay?

An expository essay is an essay that communicates factual information. Broadly, this type of writing is known as expository writing. Expository essays rely on different structures to communicate their positions, like compare and contrast, process essays, and analyzing cause and effect. 

Expository writing is one of the four main types of writing. The others are persuasive, narrative, and descriptive writing. 

Knowing how to write an expository essay, along with knowing how to write other types of essays, is an essential skill for any student to master. Expository writing isn’t the place to be cute, clever, or edgy; it’s the kind of writing where you position facts and observations to let them speak for themselves in the most effective way possible. It’s the kind of writing you do when you’re analyzing information you’ve been assigned to study, thinking critically about concepts covered in class, and explaining the processes and reasons behind the conclusions you’ve reached. 

The purpose of expository writing

Expository writing has a clear purpose: to educate the reader. While it may also entertain or persuade the reader, these are secondary benefits and not the author’s goal. Well-crafted expository writing demonstrates the author’s expertise on the subject and in many cases demonstrates how they learned about their subject.

For example, you might be assigned to write an essay about the mock trial your class held. In this essay, you would introduce the assignment and the case your class worked on through the trial. Then in the following body paragraphs, you would describe each stage in the mock trial process (discovery, opening statements, cross-examination, closing statements, jury deliberation, and verdict) and how your class completed each of these stages. In the final paragraph, you would state the verdict your class reached and the judge’s ruling. 

Your essay about the mock trial doesn’t argue that the ruling was right or wrong. It merely explains the process your class used to work through the trial process and learn how real court cases move through the court system. In other words, your essay would present facts and process rather than opinion and commentary.

Types of expository essays

As we mentioned above, expository essays come in many forms. These include the following:

Classification essays

In a classification essay, you write about various subjects within one category, discussing each subject’s unique characteristics alongside the characteristics that connect it with others in its category. For example, you might write a classification essay about different kinds of herding dogs. Your essay would start with a thesis statement about how herding breeds are different from other categories of dogs, then in each paragraph, discuss specific herding breeds (corgi, collie, heeler, etc.). 

Definition essays

A definition essay defines its subject by presenting clear facts about it. Your definition essay might challenge commonly repeated myths about a historical event by presenting firsthand accounts of the event from primary sources and discussing relevant social, political, and economic trends that impacted the event and influenced perceptions of it. 

Process essays

A process essay walks the reader through the steps involved in completing a task. A recipe has a lot in common with a process essay. A process essay’s opening paragraph explains the process that will be covered and the end result of following the directions. Each body paragraph is a step in the process, then the conclusion explains what the reader should have achieved by completing each step. 

Compare-and-contrast essays

In a compare-and-contrast essay, you support your thesis statement by examining the differences and similarities between the sources cited. For example, you might write an essay comparing and contrasting the dress code at your school with the dress codes at two neighboring schools. Your body paragraphs might examine the differences in which articles of clothing are and aren’t allowed as well as the overall preciseness of each dress code’s language and the amount of “gray area” present in each policy. 

Cause-and-effect essays

As the name implies, a cause-and-effect essay gets into how specific events and/or actions caused others to occur. They sometimes trace chains of events to explore why we find ourselves facing certain circumstances today. An example of a cause-and-effect essay might be one tracking how shifting market trends over the past few decades impacted the industries in your region, creating the current local economy. 

How expository essays are structured

Expository essays follow the same general structure you use with every essay assignment: an introduction, body paragraphs that support and expand upon the points you made in your introduction, then a conclusion that reiterates those points and underscores your thesis. 

Unless your instructor requires your essay to hit a certain word count, there’s no specific length your essay needs to be. Similarly, it doesn’t need to have a specific number of paragraphs—but it does need to express your points thoroughly and accurately. To achieve this, your essay should follow this format, give or take the quantity of body paragraphs for the number of supporting points you make: 

Introduction

In the introduction, you present your essay topic and your thesis statement, ideally hooking your reader with intriguing facts. You also introduce your supporting evidence and all necessary context to help your reader understand your thesis. 

Body paragraph

Each supporting point you make needs its own body paragraph. Although the five-paragraph essay is typically considered the “standard” essay length, you might need a six-paragraph or longer essay to thoroughly communicate your thesis statement. 

Body paragraph

Use transition words and sentences to transition between body paragraphs. Transition words and sentences are the phrases that express the relationship between two paragraphs, signaling to the reader why you’re making a specific point and how that point fits into your overall work. 

Body paragraph

In your last body paragraph, you’ll need to transition to your conclusion. That doesn’t mean you should start summarizing here—give your final body paragraph as much insight and detail as you gave your previous body paragraphs. 

Conclusion

In your conclusion, you restate your thesis statement and summarize the points you made in your body paragraphs. It should neatly tie up any loose ends and answer any lingering questions the reader may have. 

How do you write an expository essay?

Before you write your next expository essay, familiarize yourself with the conventions and rules for essay writing. These general guidelines will help you structure your essay and determine the most effective way to present your information. But because you’re writing an expository essay, it’s also important that you understand and incorporate all the characteristics that separate expository essays from other kinds of writing. Keep the following rules for expository writing in mind:

  • Your thesis statement needs to be well thought out and presented clearly in your opening paragraph. Your thesis statement is the decisive statement around which you’ve built your entire essay. A good thesis statement is a sentence that communicates your essay’s position, the context for this position, and the scope of your essay’s supporting paragraphs. This might sound like a lot for one sentence—generally, thesis statements are fairly long sentences with multiple clauses. Here are two examples of good thesis statements:
    • Despite the taboo, insects make an excellent food source and could stem humanity’s looming food shortage, based on both their protein output and the sustainability of farming them.
    • The backlash to rock ’n’ roll music in the ’50s by religious groups and traditionalists actually boosted the genre’s popularity instead of diminishing it as intended.
  • Your tone should be objective and academic. While narrative and descriptive essays can take on artistic, impassioned, and familiar tones, expository essays stick to conventional language and a neutral tone.
  • Stick to the facts. An expository essay is not the place to express your opinion—or even present the facts in a way meant to change or shape the reader’s opinion. 
  • Always be completely sure of the facts you’re presenting. That means thoroughly vetting your sources, cross-checking them with other reputable sources, and properly citing every fact you put forth as the truth.

Start writing your expository essay the same way you would start the writing process for any other project: by brainstorming. If you weren’t assigned a topic, you’ll need to determine an appropriate topic on your own—brainstorming is where you’ll determine that topic. It’s also where you’ll determine your thesis statement, the most important component of your expository essay. Don’t move forward with outlining your essay until you have a thesis statement. 

Once you have a clear thesis statement, it’s time to outline your essay. With an expository essay, it’s especially important that you present accurate facts in a logical way. It can be very helpful to note your sources for each paragraph in your outline. 

With a completed outline, it’s time to start writing. Follow the standard writing process through this first draft, editing, and your revision. Once you’re finished, make sure you proofread your essay carefully—not only for grammar and spelling mistakes, but to double-check that you’ve properly cited every source and formatted your essay according to your assigned style guide.  

You write the essay, Grammarly gives it extra polish

In an expository essay, it’s especially important that your writing is mistake-free. Having spelling and grammatical mistakes in your writing undermines your credibility as a writer, so even if your ideas and insights are solid, readers won’t get as much out of your work as they would if it had no mistakes.

That’s why proofreading is so important . . . and why Grammarly is so helpful. Before you submit your essay, use Grammarly to catch any mistakes or unclear sentences that might have sneaked past you while you were proofreading your work. It can also ensure that the tone you’re using is the tone you want to be using—and that it’s consistent through your whole essay. 

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