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What Is an Exploratory Essay?

By Maggie Worth
Updated May 23, 2024
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An exploratory essay is one in which the writer explores a specific topic, often in depth. This may be a concrete topic, such as the ways in which smoking affects health, or it may be more abstract, such as the way the writer feels about sunshine. Such essays differ from most other types of essays in that they do not require the writer to come to a firm conclusion or opinion. The intent, rather, is simply to think about the topic, investigate it, and write about the experience.

A writer should begin an exploratory essay by telling the reader what topic she intends to explore and why it matters. For example, a writer who is exploring the risks and rewards of changing careers in her 40s might state her intent and explain that it is important because many women face the same dilemma. This establishes a purpose for the essay and gives the reader a reason to keep reading.

The body of an exploratory essay explains how the writer came to think about this particular topic and reviews her findings. These findings might be purely thought-based or purely factual, but are often a combination of the two. For example, the career change writer might reveal that she researched job change statistics in her country and found that almost 30 percent of women in their 40s have considered changing careers. She might also write about how she talked about her own desire to change careers with several friends and reveal the advice they gave her. Both would be examples of topic exploration.

The writer also needs to summarize her exploration at the end. This may involve stating a conclusion or opinion, but this is not required. The writer of the career essay, for example, may simply conclude that she still has a lot to think about. If the writer does come to a conclusion, expressing that information should be secondary to, and should take fewer words than, exploring the topic.

Unlike many other types of essays, an exploratory essay is rarely rigidly structured. For example, many types of essays require the writer to state a purpose, then state methodology, then move on to findings, then draw a conclusion, and then summarize. While an exploratory essay should begin by stating its purpose and end by summarizing, the main body of the essay is often free-flowing, particularly when such essays are literary in tone. It is important, however, that exploratory essays that cite sources do so accurately and consistently throughout.

Writing an exploratory essay may require more abstract thinking than other types of essays. For this reason, such essays are rarely assigned to students in grades below high school. They are, however, popular assignments for university classes, such as philosophy, psychology, and creative writing.

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