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What Is an Expository Essay?

Cynde Gregory
Cynde Gregory

The expository essay is a category of essays that include subgenres such as an illustration essay, a cause and effect essay, and a process analysis essay. Expository essays have as their primary purpose the close examination of an activity or concept that can be taught or explained to a reader. A well-written expository essay typically begins with an introductory paragraph that contains a thesis statement followed by several body paragraphs and ends with a concluding paragraph.

Illustration essays use vignettes or other specific, briefly visited examples to clarify or enhance the paper’s purpose. For example, an illustration essay that explores the benefits of eating organic produce might briefly discuss an individual who has gained control over a health issue and ascribes it to a change to a more healthful diet. Through the use of a written "visual aid," the point can be made clearly and directly.

One type of expository essay is writing a "cause and effect" paper.
One type of expository essay is writing a "cause and effect" paper.

Another type of expository paper is cause and effect. This genre can focus on the reasons a particular situation exists or on the effects that it has on other things. Some papers combine the two, addressing both the causes and effects. A paper that explores the reasons for teenage drug abuse and the likely results if the abuse is not controlled is an example of the latter.

Process analysis essays are expository papers that explain something that must be done in a series of interrelated steps. Oftentimes, a process analysis paper teaches the reader how to do something, such as change engine oil or plant a wildflower garden. A process analysis expository essay that is too broad, such as one that describes how to repair all types of appliances, cannot go into sufficient detail to be useful; one that is too narrow, such as a paper that explains how to repair a carrot peeler, will be too narrow to draw many readers.

This type of academic paper isn’t designed to argue an idea or to compare two ideas or events. Its ultimate purpose is to teach the reader by offering new information or examining and clarifying something the reader knows a little about. A travel piece about a small village in Honduras could be the subject of an expository essay as could a close examination of the Battle of the Bulge or explanation of how to score the greatest number of points playing solitaire. An essay that delves into biology, such as the life cycle of frogs, is a further example.

Discussion Comments


@hamje32 - Cause and effect is the most interesting expository essay format to me. It forces you to think about the world around you and examine why things are the way they are.

What’s interesting about tackling these kinds of papers is that they can take you down different paths than the one you had in mind. You may decide to take on the subject of poverty in America and have some predisposed ideas about the causes of widespread poverty.

But as you dig into the statistics, facts and so forth, you come up with another set of causes altogether. You have an awakening of sorts. As a result the cause and effect essay winds up being the most illuminating kind of essay for the writer, in my opinion.


@everetra - I don’t think that it holds a lot of weight with scientists or other academic types. You are right. They dismiss it as anecdotal “evidence,” if you even want to consider it as evidence.

Most college papers written by these scientific minded students fall into the process analysis papers, where they are describing how to create a certain chemical reaction or engineer something, step by step.

These are a step above your basic research papers where you are taking a topic and expounding on it.


@David09 - What do you think of the illustration essay? I can’t recall specific examples of using it, but how much weight does this kind of writing carry?

After all, in essence what you’re doing is writing an anecdotal piece. You use someone else’s experience as proof for your claims – whatever it is you’re trying to persuade the reader.

To me that seems like pretty flimsy evidence. Yet, we buy into it. There is something about the power of story and personal testimony. We believe in it, even though common sense should dictate otherwise.


One of the most common expository essay topics that I dealt with when I was in high school had to do with literary criticism.

I was taking passages from books, plays or poems and dissecting them, sometimes a line at a time. I remember one of the biggest papers I wrote was on Milton’s Paradise Lost.

I wrote this in college yesterday and I consider it my best paper in college – as did my professor. I read a lot of background material and wove that information into my analysis of the poem, delving into every nuance of expression and turn of phrase.

My professor loved it and read portions of it to the class. But that was the kind of expository writing I liked, where you tried to take apart someone’s literary work and make sense out of it.

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    • One type of expository essay is writing a "cause and effect" paper.
      By: AlexOakenman
      One type of expository essay is writing a "cause and effect" paper.