How to Write an Expository Essay

The term “exposition” denotes the thorough explanation and description of a particular concept, theory, artefact or process. Hence it is a specific kind of elucidatory discourse, writing or speech whose objective is to expound, to impart information.

The clue is in the term itself, whose root is in the Latin expositio, leading to exposit – or, in common parlance, expose. You in essence exposing an idea, laying bear its inner workings.

Context

Because exposition may be applied to any number of contexts, its use is highly varied. Quite likely almost every form of scholarly composition will entail some degree or other of exposition. Indeed, one might argue that the majority of academic prose is necessarily expository.

Expository writing is a mainstay of critical reviews, educational texts, technical papers, briefing notes, and so on; any work whose intention is principally to explain, by exposition, and not to persuade by argument, or move by emotional appeal.

By the end of an expository essay, then, the reader should understand the topic in discussion far more clearly than before - without necessarily having had a particular point of view impressed upon them.

Looking under the Bonnet

We might consider this by dint of an auto-mechanics analogy. Consider that an idea is like an automobile, with a clear overall surface form, which serves a simple purpose (transportation). However, under this surface form exist numerous other mechanical devices and processes working to multifarious purposes, all of which contribute to the vehicle's primary function.

Were we to start detailing how the car's transmission controls the power within the crankshaft, whereupon this power is transmitted to the wheels, thus enabling the driver to control the speed of movement through the gears (and so on and so forth), we would be exposing the inner mechanics of an automobile.

In a similar vein, we might approach an exposition of the term “patriarchy”. We could likewise say that this concept has an overall basic form, as a sort of byword for gender imbalance in favour of males. Though, if we were to pop the bonnet, we could go far deeper.

Perhaps we might identify the origins of the term in the Greek word, πατριάρχης (patriarkhēs), meaning “father or chief of a race”. Next we might contextualise this etymological observation by noting the historical usage. In Antiquity, patriarchy connoted the power vested in the male head of a family over which he held primacy.

Having established this context, we can begin to see how the current usage of the term acquired currency. It is fairly commonplace within the social sciences to relate the microcosm of the family with the macrocosm of the state. Hence we may transpose singular male power over the family to collective male power over the nation.

Note that in both of the above examples, we have taken a surface form (or final outcome) and worked, as it were, backward reverse engineer it. So, just like by opening the bonnet of a car we expose its engine, in pulling apart a philosophical concept we may expose its internal processes, structures and logic.

Note, also, that we are engaging in processes of argumentation and analysis. We are taking the larger hole and dismantling it down to smaller components, unpacking the ideas at work. Importantly, this needs to be done in a systematic and logical manner. This is easier to conceive of when we are thinking about a mechanical object, whose inner parts have a linear relationship with one another.

When it comes to abstract ideas, however, the case is not so straightforward. In this context, we need to identify a logical through line which will enable us to assert some level of order upon the chaos. This is why it is useful to start with the most structured and systematic elements available, looking at linguistic, semantic and other modes of formal, rule-bound attribute. For these present us with a logical starting point.

Structure

While your expository essay will follow the standard introduction, argument body, conclusion structure which characterises the bulk of academic writing, the particular mode of approach you take is up to you.

After all, what is the best way of explaining something? Clearly there are several different ways that something can be explained. Perhaps you will achieve this by comparison and contrast, forensic analysis, critical review - or any number of other scholarly approaches.

The point is to identify the most effective way of conveying the information you need to put across. You want to ask yourself: what is the best way to expose the topic at hand? If we were to open the bonnet, what would be the first thing we notice?

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