If you ever wrote a paragraph about your family or your favorite food or your dog named Spot, you’ve probably written an explanatory essay. A staple of academic writing, these essays are some of the first we write for school—when we’re just learning to string words into sentences.
Now, later in our academic careers, the assignments are longer and more complicated. Higher levels of education mean more in-depth essays on more difficult subjects. It’s easy to feel overwhelmed.
If that’s you, take a deep breath.
Now, kiss that overwhelm goodbye, because this guide is just for you.
Designed to demystify the process of writing an explanatory essay, this blog walks through five simple steps you can follow to write your next one. No sweat and no stress required.
Let’s start by making sure we’re on the same page.
What Is an Explanatory Essay?
If you google “explanatory essay”, you’ll find a bunch of sites saying that an explanatory essay is the same as an expository essay, or that it’s totally different, or not even mentioning that expository essays exist. Who’s right?
Answer: Whoever your professor agrees with.
No, seriously. Your professor decides the parameters of your assignment. So if your professor defines an explanatory essay as one that describes a perspective or analyzes the efficacy of, for example, a local housing policy—that’s the definition you should work from.
But if your professor distinguishes between explanatory essays (which simply explain what something is and how it works or was developed) and expository essays (which expose the reality of a person, place, thing, or idea through investigation and evaluation), you should distinguish between them as well.
For the purposes of this piece, we’re going to use explanatory and expository interchangeably. The dividing line that some draw between these essay types is unnecessarily technical. What’s important is that both:
- Use an objective perspective
- Let the facts speak for themselves
As long as your essay does the same (and includes analysis if required by your professor), you should be in good shape.
A few subtypes of explanatory essays:
Description or definition
Perhaps the most basic, this subtype does the deceptively simple work of, well, describing or defining a concept, place, person, etc.
Example: How Suspension Bridges Work
This essay explains: The way suspension bridges are constructed and how their design enables them to carry such immense weight.
This type of essay hones in on a particular phenomenon to show what caused it (i.e., where it came from) and how it influences other things.
Example: How Federally Funded Highways Transformed the United States
This essay explains: The history of federally funded highways in the U.S., when federal programs to fund highway construction started, why politicians and others thought highways were important, and what the effect has been on the landscapes, communities, economies, and ecosystems of the country.
Take two or more things, gather the facts about them, and then write about their similarities and differences.
Example: Hybrid vs. Electric Cars
This essay explains: The various features of hybrid and electric cars, and shows how they are either different or similar in terms of: cost, energy consumption, size, drive time, ease of use, and so on.
Walk your reader step-by-step through a procedure so they can do it for themselves. (We’re doing this later!)
Example: How to Prepare for an Intercontinental Bike Trip
This essay explains: How to get ready for a bike trip between nations and continents. Readers learn how to research their route, find out what travel documents they need, choose the right gear, and determine how much training they should do before leaving.
Problem and solution
Explain a problem (along with its causes and effects) and then describe one or more potential solutions to that problem. This subtype could also be combined with compare-and-contrast to determine the most effective solution.
Example: How Bike Infrastructure Could Solve American Obesity
This essay explains: How American reliance on motorized vehicles promotes a sedentary lifestyle that drives obesity, whereas building bike lanes and trails could encourage Americans to be more active and improve their health one pedal at a time.
Explain the history or backstory of a person, place, thing, or idea in chronological order.
Example: The Evolution of the Bicycle
This essay explains: The initial invention of the bicycle and how its shape, frame, and size changed over the years.
What type of explanatory essay are you writing? Hopefully, this list helped you hone in. Now, let’s start the writing process.
5 Steps to Write Your Essay
Whether you’re writing an explanatory/expository essay or a persuasive essay, the process of researching and writing is pretty much the same. Both genres require research, organization, and thought. But with expository essays, the thought focuses on making sure you understand your topic inside-out and determining the best way to explain it, while with persuasive essays, you’re focused on crafting a convincing argument.
Follow these steps to turn that blank page into a final manuscript:
1. Choose topic and angle.
Do you have free rein to write about the topic of your choice? Make the most of it.
In college, my public speaking professor let us choose all of our own speech topics. A classmate gave an explanatory presentation on how to survive the zombie apocalypse. She brought props and had the class totally enchanted. Our professor encouraged creativity, so I’m sure she earned a winning grade—and had fun in the process.
You can’t use props or sound in a written essay, but you can still work some creative magic. That magic starts with choosing your topic and angle.
To choose well, first make sure you understand the assignment:
- What exactly has your professor asked you to write? Which of the subtypes should your piece be?
- Are there any parameters for what type of topic you can write about?
- What kind of class is this? An English composition class will offer more freedom than, say, a history class focused on the French Revolution.
If you’re allowed to write about anything, brainstorm a list of topics you’re curious about. Then think of smaller topics within that area.
- Electric cars
- The highway system
Any of these topics you could easily write volumes about, so next, narrow down to your specific angle. One way I like to come up with angles is to think of how two or three different topics intersect.
Example 1: electric cars + the highway system
Angle: How Much Will It Cost to Update Federal Highways with Charging Stations for Electric Cars
Notice that this angle includes a third element: cost
Example 2: bicycles + bridges
Angle: The Safest Bridges for Bicycles Have One Thing in Common: No Cars
Third element: safety
Example 3: electric cars + buses
Angle: Electric Cars vs. Buses: Which Is Better for the Environment?
Third element: environment
Your turn: Make a list of topics you’re interested in. Then, identify some intersecting topics. Based on your assignment parameters, develop an angle that narrows your focus to an intersection that interests you.
Not sure what angle to go with? Do some broad research on your topics and then return to this step.
2. Research, research, research.
Explanatory essays require solid research. These essays exist to lay out the facts for the reader so they can clearly understand the topic. Your opinion—what you think about electric cars or suspension bridges or transportation infrastructure—doesn’t matter. And it doesn’t belong here.
Where you should start your research depends on how much knowledge you already have.
If you’re writing about suspension bridges and you already know the Brooklyn Bridge and Golden Gate Bridge are suspension bridges, you probably don’t need to start with the encyclopedic entry for “suspension bridges”. But if you don’t know the basic facts about your topic, encyclopedias are a great place to start.
Thanks to the advances of technology—and this marvelous thing called the internet—you don’t have to go to a research library to gain that ground-level knowledge of your topic. But you do still need to make sure you’re drawing from credible sources.
For encyclopedias, try these to start:
Dictionaries can be helpful too:
Once you know your topics’ basic facts, focus on researching those topics in the context of your angle. It may help to make a list of questions you’re trying to answer so you can keep your research focused.
Example: Electric Cars vs. Buses: Which Is Better for the Environment?
- Are most buses gas-powered or electric?
- What’s the average emissions of greenhouse gas from gas-powered buses?
- How much energy do electric cars use? What’s the lifespan of their batteries? Are they just using electricity that was produced in a polluting way somewhere else? What about electric buses?
- How many people can ride a bus? How many people typically are transported by one car?
- What would be the average energy consumption per person in an electric car versus a bus?
Once you know the questions you need to answer, look for sources that address those questions. For an academic essay, you’ll probably want to stick with academic sources: peer-reviewed studies and research papers published by academic journals. But official government databases can also be useful. And news stories from reputable publications can provide some direction as well (check with your professor to see whether or not you can use news publications as sources for your essay). Your educational institution likely provides access to all of these kinds of sources through the university library.
Your turn: Think through your angle and make a list of questions your piece needs to answer. Next, start searching academic databases for the information you need. Take notes as you research, and be sure to save any links, titles, author names, page numbers, and publication information you’ll need to properly cite your sources.
3. Outline your essay.
Call me crazy, but I actually think this is the fun part. I hated writing outlines when I was in school, but since making my living as a professional writer, they’ve become the #1 way I beat writer’s block.
First: Throw out the idea that your outline should be a series of bullet points neatly organized into sections and subsections. Your outline only needs to make sense to you, so play around to find an approach that works with your brain. The idea here is simply to make a map you’ll follow when you sit down to write.
Here’s what I do:
- Identify the specific hook I’m going to use to start things off.
- List the different examples and details I need to include.
- Use the main focus or idea of my piece to order everything in a natural, logical way.
A lot of times, my outline becomes a combination of bullet points and sentences or paragraphs I write as I’m sketching out the piece. I’m basically just thinking the piece through, from beginning to end. Instead of getting stuck while I’m writing, I work through the tough spots in the outlining stage.
This is what my outline looked like for this piece:
Okay, that’s kind of long, so I cut it off early—but you get the point.
A lot of times, my outline starts as bare-bones bullets. As I work on it, ideas pop up that I stick in where they make sense. But when I write, those elements might move around (notice how the examples of transportation essays got bumped up to the section on subtypes of essays).
Your outline is just a guide. It’s not an architect’s blueprint that needs to be followed to the exact millimeter. There’s room for things to change.
But an outline keeps you on-track when you’re writing. If you find yourself stuck (or lost) in the writing step, reference your map. You might need to backtrack, move what you’ve written around, or adjust your route.
Your turn: Take a few minutes and sketch out your essay. Where does it start? What points does it hit? Are there any ways you see the different points connecting that should inform how you order them? As you think it through, scribble out any lines or paragraphs that come to you and stick them in the outline where they make the most sense. Even if you don’t use these exact words later, they’ll help prevent that deer-in-the-headlights stare that hits when you see a blank page.
Time to put everything together!
With your outline and research ready, start your intro and set up your piece. Your opening should briefly introduce your readers to the topic(s) you’re writing about and the questions you’re going to answer—but don’t give everything away. You want to stir up readers’ curiosity and give them a reason to keep reading.
Depending on the length of your essay, your intro may be one to three paragraphs long (longer pieces get longer intros). But it should be concise and to the point, and smoothly transition into the body of your essay.
The body is the meat and potatoes of your piece. Answer those questions, flesh out your explanation, and give readers a thorough understanding of your topic. Show off your research! Include those bizarre and fascinating facts you learned along the way. Use a tasteful metaphor or compelling anecdote to explain some of the more difficult aspects of your topic.
As you write, be sure to follow a consistent logic throughout your piece:
- If you’re detailing a history or an event, use chronological order: start at the beginning and write about the events in the order that they happened.
- Are you explaining how a machine or other invention works? Start with where the movement starts—the pedals of a bicycle, the wind turning the turbines—or with the feature doing the most significant work (e.g., the wires of the suspension bridge).
- Other logics include: size (small to large, large to small), significance (greatest to least), or space (left to right, right to left, outside to center, center to outside).
You don’t need to label everything you write about as the “next biggest” or “least significant”, but sticking to a logic helps your readers orient themselves—and helps you determine which paragraph or subtopic should go where. This way, your thoughts clearly flow from one paragraph to the next.
Quick note: If you can’t name the logic that’s guiding your piece, don’t worry. As long as your paragraphs naturally follow each other and all questions raised in the intro are answered by the end, your essay probably follows a logic just fine. But if you feel like your piece bounces around willy-nilly, play with a couple different logics and see if one smoothly orders your sentences and paragraphs.
Your turn: Get writing! If you’re stuck on the intro, try writing a working title for your piece to focus your attention. Then, follow your outline to work all the way from the beginning to a conclusion that sums everything up.
If you can, let your piece sit for at least a day. Then, for the editing process, open up that document and read through with these questions in mind:
- Does the essay fulfill the assignment? Review the assignment description from your professor. Does your essay tick all the boxes? If not, what’s missing? Can you weave that element into what you’ve already written? Revise as necessary.
- Are the sentences and paragraphs ordered in a way that makes logical sense? If your essay feels clunky in places, you might have switched logics (as explained above) or you might need to insert some more explanation that clearly ties the sentences or paragraphs together. Make sure your essay doesn’t just list facts, but also shows how they relate to each other.
- Does the hook catch your eye? The beginning of your piece should grab your reader’s attention. Check out our advice for prize-winning hooks here.
- Does the conclusion effectively sum things up? Instead of repeating everything your essay says, your conclusion should briefly distill the main takeaway or core idea for your reader. It should show that you’ve fulfilled the promise made in your intro, without being unnecessarily repetitive or redundant.
- Have you cited all your sources? Make sure to cross this off before hitting “submit.” Follow the citation style specified by your professor.
- Is spelling and grammar clean and correct? You are writing, after all, and these things matter. A bonus tip to help you catch those sneaky typos: Read your piece backwards. You might be surprised what you spot.
Did We Explain That Well Enough?
This blog was basically a long, non-academic explanatory essay, so hopefully, you’ve learned something new and are feeling less overwhelmed about your essay on medieval literature, transportation infrastructure, Persian history—or whatever you’re writing about.
This article was co-written with Wordtune. Wordtune didn’t write the whole piece. Instead, it contributed ideas, suggested rephrasing alternatives, maintained consistency in tone, and of course - made the process much more fun for the writer.