How to Write an Explanation Essay

Explanation essays are descriptive essays that examine a process, event, or idea and explain how it works or what it is. To write a good explanation essay, the writer must have a clear sense of whom the reader is and maintain an awareness of what that reader will need in order to understand the topic. The writer also has a responsibility to fully address the topic, warts and all, otherwise, the essay will sound like advertising copy. On the other hand, the essay shouldn't sound like an attack, either. Explanation essays are not position papers.
  • Brainstorm your topic from the point of view of someone who knows little about about it, if anything, making notes as you think of points that you want to discuss. You can then arrange them into an outline or orderly list from which you will write. Toss out ideas that you realize don't fit.
  • Introduce the topic in the opening paragraph. Include some background or basic facts to orient the reader and a statement of purpose, rather than a thesis, which is not necessary for an explanation essay. A statement of purpose tells the reader what you will be discussing, whereas a thesis tells the reader what you will be arguing. The statement of purpose can also narrow the scope of an explanation essay, so, for example, if your broad topic concerns the nutritional value of vegetables, you can narrow that down to the nutritional value of root vegetables.
  • Develop the body of the essay by devoting an appropriate amount of explanation to each main point. A main point may need only one paragraph or several that are organized in a logical fashion. Keep in mind that you are explaining something to someone who is unfamiliar with the topic, so you don't want to leave out material that will be necessary for reader comprehension, even if it seems obvious to you, and you do want the reader to see how one point may be the foundation to another. Purdue University's Online Writing Lab recommends that you "always consider and think about your audience."
  • Transition gracefully between paragraphs and sections. You can play off the last sentence of a paragraph to lead you naturally into the first sentence of the next paragraph. Between sections, you can do the same thing or use section markers, such as Roman numerals or sub-titles.
  • Conclude the essay with a summary of the points you covered or by discussing the importance of the topic or both. Discussing the importance of the topic is a more sophisticated approach, but you must take care not to develop an argument that turns the article into a persuasive essay rather than an explanation essay.


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