Definition: An explanatory essay—sometimes called an expository essay—is a paper in which you present the views of someone else or tell of an event in way that is easy to understand.
You’ve seen a movie where the narrator or the characters basically talk to one another about what is going on in the plot for the sole purpose of updating the audience, right? This is called exposition. It is deliberate, informational, and wholly out of place with the general flow of the narrative. It is a moment when whoever is telling the story stops and says, “Okay, but before we can go on, you first need to know…” It is the moment at the beginning of every Star Wars movie ever made when the opening crawl rolls up the screen telling the viewer about what’s been going on between the rebels and the Empire.
An explanatory essay should be like that.
It summarizes for the reader the background info needed to help bring context to the events, views or situation that the essay will explain. It takes a look at the whole, segments it, and shows how A leads to B, which leads to C and D and E and so on.
Now let’s look at how to write an explanatory essay in more detail!
How to Write an Explanatory Essay
First Step: Know your audience!
- How can you explain something to someone if you don’t already know what they don’t know? You have to know what your audience knows and what they need to know to be better informed. How terrible would the Star Wars crawl be if every time it happened, it reminded us of what Luke and Han did in Episode IV?
- If you’re given a prompt, you should have a sense of whom you’re writing for.
- If you have to pick you subject all on your own, determine in your mind ahead of time what type of audience you will be addressing—and then specifically address that audience in your opening paragraph. For example, you can write something like: “This paper will explain for individuals unfamiliar with the role of the Federal Reserve how central banking actually works.”
Second Step: Get out in front of it!
- Be the guy at the entrance to the gate calling out to the public what it is they’re about to see. He’s the “Step this way! Right this way, folks!” guy. He wears the cape, top hat, holds a pointer and has a loud voice. He gets the attention of everyone by explaining what they will see inside for a small fee. Be him. Don’t be the guy chasing after the parade trying to catch up and get everyone to turn around and pay attention to something they already passed ten minutes earlier.
- Don’t start at the end or the middle in an attempt to be Christopher Nolan. He’s a movie maker. He can get away with chopping up narratives and leading the audience in circles. You are an essay writer. You have to start at the very beginning.
- Break it down just like Julie Andrews breaks down Do Re Mi for the kids in Sound of Music. She introduces the first three notes, then goes back and explains each one using an image to make them more memorable: Do = deer. Re = a drop of golden sun. Mi = a name I call myself. Then she goes on to the rest of the notes. Fa = a long, long way to run. And so on. That’s what it means to get in front of it.
Third Step: Respect the source.
- You’re not arguing anything. You don’t even have to agree with your subject. You’re simply explaining it so that you and your audience can better understand it. Consider it an exercise in empathy. Empathy is the ability to understand. The better you can explain the view, impartially and without judgment, the more empathetic you will become—and trust us, that is a good thing!
- Julie Andrews doesn’t enter into a debate about whether Do should follow Re or whether Mi should really come before Fa. She simply tells it as it is. She is a messenger—a messenger who has come to deliver the sound of music to children. In your explanatory essay, you should think of yourself in the same way: you are a messenger who has come to communicate to your reader the essence of whatever your subject is.
Fourth Step: Know your subject.
- The more you know your subject, the better you will be able to explain it. It’s that simple!
- Julie knows those notes backwards and forwards and that enables her to proceed with confidence. In order for you to explain your subject, you must know your subject—and that usually means research! Don’t be afraid, do the leg work—no one wins the race without using some muscle.
Okay, so now you have some tips—great! But how do you write the essay? Ah! That’s where outlines come into play. The basic explanatory essay structure is simple. Think—Introduction, Body, and Conclusion.
The Introduction is your opening paragraph. Here you introduce your topic and tell your reader what it is you will explain.
The body is where you provide A, B and C—the Do Re Mi—the notes of whatever it is you are explaining. You start at the beginning—say, with the history of the subject. Bring it up to speed. Show where it’s at now. And give some indication of where it is heading. Follow a logical sequence, with each paragraph in the body acting as a supporting paragraph—like a supporting pillar of a bridge that allows a person to get from one side to another. Your paragraphs should connect your reader to knowledge by helping them leave the shores of ignorance by way of your essay, which is the bridge to understanding.
When you read your own essay, try putting yourself in your audience’s shoes: imagine you are hearing about all this for the first time. What questions do you have? If they aren’t answered adequately in the body of your essay, consider addressing these points in more detail. Everything should move the reader towards clarity—not confusion.
The conclusion is simply a paragraph that re-iterates the main idea of your paper and summarizes the subject. Now let’s look at how this might look in outline form!
a. Introduce your topic
b. Tell what you will explain and who you are explaining it for
c. Provide a glimpse of how your essay is constructed—what will follow
a. Put your paragraphs in some type of sequential form—historical, logical, or thematic
b. Use each paragraph to explain one aspect of the subject, each paragraph to discuss a single point
c. Use transition words and phrases to link ideas/paragraphs together
a. Restate the main idea of your paper in new words
b. Summarize the points you covered
Here are some topics that you can use to help you come up with your ideas for a great explanatory essay. Remember—the best topics are those that people want or need to know more about, subjects that you know a lot about, or events that are important to understand. There are no rules and virtually anything can be explained—so be creative, pick something that interests you and that you would like to help others to better understand. Or pick a subject that you yourself know nothing about but that you would like to understand better. This is the perfect opportunity, after all, to investigate a topic that you otherwise might never examine! Try out these ideas below and see if they strike your fancy.
- What is the meaning of the first line in the Gospel of John: “In the beginning was the Word…”?
- This might be a good one for an audience interested in Biblical or theological studies. It’s a great opening and one that has a lot that you can unpack.
- How did the dinosaurs die?
- Granted, a lot of this will be speculation—but that’s okay: it’s not your speculation, it’s just you explaining what others have had to say about the extinction of the giant reptiles that once roamed the earth.
- What are the positive and negative features of social media?
- Social media is loved by some, hated by others. Not everyone understands it, so in this essay you could simply explain what social media is, how it is used, who uses it, what they use it to achieve, and why it works and doesn’t work. Explain its potential and its limitations.
- Explain the problems of time travel as they appear in the Back to the Future trilogy.
- Back to the Future is a great 80s film that presented some clear parameters for time travel: you need a lot of energy—say, a bolt of lightning or plutonium—and a fast car. Oh, yeah—and a flux capacitor. With the sequel, those parameters began to a get a little fuzzy—like when Doc gets sent back 100 years even though the time machine is not racing along at 88 mph. Problem? Yes. Explain why.
- What is the history of organized crime in the United States?
- A lot of names come up in the history of organized crime in the U.S. Lansky, Luciano, Capone, Cohen. Explain the environment, the groups involved, how they worked together (or didn’t work together) and help your audience to understand more deeply the overall picture of organized crime in America.
- What is the significance of the Balfour Declaration in world history?
- Lord Balfour essentially promised a handful of people that they could colonize land in Palestine—and the result was the Middle East as we know it today. Explain how it all went down and how that simple promise set off a domino effect of activity that has culminated in the present ongoing wars in that part of the world.
- Explain how a car engine works.
- Cars are cool—everyone loves them. Not everyone knows how they work. If you can explain how a car engine works, your cool factor shoots up to 11. So go ahead, shoot up your cool factor. Explain car engines.
- What can be done to combat obesity in America?
- Obesity is a major issue in the U.S. and a lot of researchers are taking a look at it to see why it is becoming such an epidemic and what steps can be taken to fight against it. Explain this health issue and what doctors are doing to help bring it under control.
- Explain Tebowmania.
- Tim Tebow is controversial—though not for the same reasons that, say, Donald Trump is controversial. Explain why some love Tebow and why others love to hate him.
- What is the background of Tolstoy’s War and Peace?
- War and Peace is a massive novel that is actually quite easy to read. It contains a lot of history, a ton of romance, great humor and plenty of action. Explain the historical context in which the novel is situated so that those unfamiliar with that era of history can better understand exactly what was going on at that point in time in that particular place.
- Explain high frequency trading.
- Some people like to buy and sell stocks online. They might try to hit the bid or hit the sell only to find the price has moved just as they send off their order. Well—what in the world would cause that to happen? Oh, yeah! HFTs. Explain what they are, how they work, and what is being done to address their dominance of the market. (Hint: IEX).
- What is the purpose of continuing to explore outer space?
- Back in the heyday of the Cold War, exploring space made sense from a technological point of view: the more dominant a country could show itself to be, technologically speaking, the more weight it could throw around on the global stage. Today, however, there are a lot of questions about why governments should continue funding space exploration. Explain the reasoning behind the continuation of space exploration so that those with questions can feel better informed on the subject.
- What are the arguments for and against genetic modification?
- Genetic modification is not just something that occurs in plants—it is also something discussed in animals and humans. Explain the purpose of genetic modification, the risks, the possibilities, the concerns, and the issues to be aware of going forward.
- Explain why the 1920s in America was called The Lawless Decade.
- It was a great time in the U.S.—a time full of legends: there was music, dance, clubs, sports, movies, gangsters, money, and fame. Life was happening everywhere one looked—till all of a sudden things blew up in a big hurry. Explain this decade, what went on and why.
- What happened at Jekyll Island in 1910?
- Six powerful men gathered at this island resort to discuss the future of America. This meeting would remain a secret for another two decades—and by then the events they conspired to set in motion were already well underway. Explain who these men were and what their objective was.
- Explain how to build a house.
- Building science is a complicated matter. Break it down so that even a layman can understand it: start with the basics—the foundation, the plumbing, the electric, the ventilation, the framing and roofing. Then discuss the interior and aesthetics.
- Explain why diagramming sentences was a big focus in schools for a while and then why it seemingly went away.
- Grammar used to be an important subject in schools. Teachers would make students diagram sentences on the board. Then that all stopped. High school graduates were going to college unable to tell an adverb from an adjective. Explain what happened—why diagramming was an art for so long—and why that art up and vanished over night.
- What happened with the Chicago Black Sox?
- The 1919 World Series was a bust. Eight men were charged with throwing the Series. Shoeless Joe Jackson was banned from the professional league for life. They even made a movie about it. Explain the history of this club and the fallout from the scandal.
- Explain the Industrial Revolution and the rise of the Robber Barons.
- The American landscape changed a whole lot in the 1900s thanks to some high-flying captains of industry and their tenacious ways.
- What are the theories for how the Egyptian pyramids were built?
- Explain how these ancient marvels are believed to have been erected without the aid of modern technology.
- What is the history behind the creation of the most iconic comic book superheroes of the 20th century?
- People know names like Stan Lee and Frank Miller and Bob Kane—but not many people know how their creations came into being. Explain the history of the comic book industry, how it got started and how its most brilliant creators came up with their ideas.
- Explain the philosophy of Confucius.
- Confucius had a big impact on Asian culture for many thousands of years. Explain what it was that he did and taught and why it left such an imprint on human history.
- Explain why Socrates was put to death.
- Socrates was one of the greatest philosophers of Ancient Athens. He had some pretty great followers too—like Plato. Explain, therefore, why he was ordered to drink the hemlock juice!
- Explain how Iceland’s approach to addressing the aftermath of the 2008 economic crash was different from the approach of the U.S.
- Iceland and the U.S.—like many countries around the world—suffered from the bursting of the housing bubble and the trading of bad loans based on that bubble. Yet those two countries came up with two very different solutions to the problems that hit in 2008. Explain those different approaches.
- What is the history of the Protestant Reformation in Europe?
- The Protestant Reformation did a lot to change the face of Europe. How did it happen and what was the lasting effect?
- Explain why President Donald Trump is such an avid fan of social media and of Twitter in particularly.
- President Trump rose to power on a wave of personality. He was able to use social media to get his thoughts directly to the people. His fans loved it—his foes hated it. Explain the reasons Trump was and is such a big fan of social media.
- Explain the concept of withdrawal.
- Addiction is a powerful force and one that many people find hard to break. Going through withdrawal can be a difficult time for many people—especially for those who have to witness it. Explain the concept of withdrawal and why it happens and how some people cope with it.
- Explain the concept of the Transcendentals.
- Believe it or not, the Transcendentals were a big time subject for a lot of philosophers for centuries on end. Everyone from Plato to Aquinas gave their impressions of the good, the true and the beautiful. However, these concepts were certainly not stagnant and by the 19th century, Transcendentalism was really something much different from the medieval Transcendentals identified by Aquinas. Explain this subject.
- What is the history of the Academy Awards?
- Awards night in Hollywood started off as a rather small and intimate affair. Gradually it ballooned into the star-studded spectacle that is now broadcast live on TV for what amounts to a marathon of Hollywood handshaking and political commentary. How did this happen?
The explanatory essay is super easy to write if you follow the advice given above! All you have to do is take an issue, event or viewpoint and try your best to understand it without making a judgment one way or the other. Then convey that understanding to your reader using a simple Intro/Body/Conclusion approach.
Write your essay in a logical sequence. Introduce your topic in the first paragraph and be specific about what your paper will explain. With the body of your paper, start with a short history of the subject, explain the current situation, and clarify the viewpoint, the issue or the circumstances surrounding the event. The main objective here is to reduce confusion and plainly show how one side or several sides are examining a single topic. The more light and lucidity you bring to the subject, the more rewarding your explanatory essay will be! Close it out with a restatement of what you have explained and you’ll be good to go. Good luck!