Series on Style: Employing the Expository Style in Your Blog
The written word — when written well — communicates and conquers, explains and exposes, narrates and navigates, pleases and persuades. The well-written word has the power to bring about social change or the power to jumpstart a new aspect of business. Writing is often referred to as an art, and to a certain point, we agree. As an art, it’s a mix of technical know-how and a clear vision of what you want to say, which is inspired by creative urge and personal experience. In spite of our love of prodigies, artistic skills don’t just appear. In this sense, writing isn’t any different from sculpting or playing the piano or graphic design. Like any successful endeavor, the well-written word is achieved by a daily dose of pen-to-paper (more like fingertips-to-keyboards, but it just doesn’t have the same ring, does it?), the courage to review and critique your own writing, and the endurance to do the rewrite. For blogs, this process is less tiresome than, say, a lengthy proposal or the damned novel. But the sitting-down-and-doing-it, and redoing it, and redoing it until you’ve got what you want — that is called craft, and craft is where the magic happens. To come to the point, there are four general styles of writing that have been crafted. They are tried-and-true styles, used for different writing purposes, and able to guide you. This article will lay out the purpose, characteristics, and strategies of an essential writing style: the expository essay.
You might not know this one by name, but you can certainly recall your English teachers going on about compare and contrast, thesis statements, topic sentences, and conclusions. All of these are, in one way or another, staples of the expository style. Expository is fancy and academic for exposition. Basically it means explaining or demonstrating. This style is great when writing about ideas. It’s perfect, however, for arguing about ideas.
When people talk about a writer’s style or the structure of a book or an article or a blog post, really they’re just talking about the words the writer uses and the way the writer organizes those words. So what makes your writing a style, per se, is actually the words you choose to use and the way you arrange those words. Teachers in schools across the world use the traditional five-paragraph model to teach the important parts of structure, and it’s what we’ll be using here. The first paragraph is appropriately called the introduction.
The introductory paragraph is the equivalent of a written conversation starter. It is a place to work your way into the point you want to make. Like conversation starters, there are different strategies for introducing the topic: telling a joke, saying something clever, asking a question, or quoting someone who is knowledgeable about the topic. The conversation starter is called the hook, and you use it in the first sentence. It’s your opener. From there, you should get into the background information of the topic. For a short blog post, this can be done in as little as two or three building sentences. To end the introductory paragraph, you’ll need to include a thesis statement. The thesis statement is the argument you want to make, the point you want to state, the idea you want to sell, or the stance you take on an issue. Let’s look at the following example, where we argue that the cat is superior to the dog. The study and the names are fictional, except for the Jeff Valdez quote at the end:
It’s a never-ending conversation — one rooted in the first days of civilization and human’s habit of domesticating animals. The independent, carefree swagger of cats has long been touted as a demonstration of their greatness. Loyal and lovable, dogs have served man for millennia. But which of them deserves the honor of best pet? A recent study by every scientist ever proclaims that felines have the evolutionary advantage, which leaves us with little to debate. Cats are the superior creature.
This is a short and simple introductory paragraph. Did you spot the introductory strategy, or the hook? It’s there in the first sentence: our humble effort at something sort of clever. Did you spot our argument, the thesis statement? It’s right there at the end: five simple words that clearly communicate our point: cats are the superior creature. The sentences in between the hook and the thesis are my building sentences. Like I said, the building sentences explain the context, or background information of the idea, for the reader. There you have it; the introduction is wrapped-up. Let’s move on to the body paragraphs.
In the five-paragraph model, the body follows the introduction. The body is made up by the second, third, and fourth paragraphs. Once again, we are using the five-paragraph model because it’s the standard when teaching writing styles, and it’s simple to understand. Depending on the depth of your topic, it’s absolutely possible that there are fewer than or more than five paragraphs in whatever you are writing. No matter the length of your blog post, anything between the introduction and the last paragraph (the conclusion, which we’ll get to later), is considered the body. Here, we’ll only explain the structure of the first body paragraph; but it should be said that all body paragraphs have the same structure.
The body paragraphs are used to present the evidence which supports your thesis statement. Like in the court of law, or arguing with a friend over beers about who is the best basketball player, reliable information must be used to support your argument. That information must be relevant to your thesis and it must be strong.
The first sentence of the body paragraph is called the topic sentence. Think of it as a sub-thesis. It helps prove your point. Sticking with my cat example, here is a body paragraph:
It has finally been proven: cats are more evolutionarily advanced than dogs. A study of some 10,000 fossils has demonstrated that felines are better survivors than dogs. It appears their reclusive nature and stealthy tactics not only encouraged the evolution of cats, but actually inhibited the development of dogs. Dr. George Shortsnout at the world’s greatest university ever stated, “Cats have had a fatal impact on the variety of dogs throughout history. Frankly, I’m surprised canines have been able to survive.” The scientific report concluded that felines contributed to the extinction of hundreds of dog species. It’s hard to argue with science, but science certainly isn’t the only reason cats prevail.
The topic sentence here? As stated, it’s up there at the top, leading the way:
“It has finally been proven: cats are more evolutionarily advanced than dogs.”
It communicates to the reader that the first piece of evidence is scientifically supported, something that is relevant to the thesis and strong.
The last sentence in the body paragraph should bridge the topic from the first body paragraph and the second one. In our example the bridge would be:
“It’s hard to argue with science, but science certainly isn’t the only reason cats prevail.”
The last sentence is critical to connect to help your writing flow from one idea to the next while at the same time providing context to your thoughts.
The stuff in between: that’s all the essential filler. Those sentences are called support sentences. They explain a bit of the scientific claim. Each body paragraph in the expository style is the same structure, no matter if it is first in line or last. So if you can do one body paragraph, you can do a hundred body paragraphs. Speaking of last, that brings us to the conclusion.
The final paragraph in the five-paragraph model is the conclusion. As you can guess, it concludes your writing, and wraps up your argument. And just as the introduction and body paragraphs, the conclusion has a specific structure.
The conclusion starts out with the thesis. Let’s say that one more time: you’re restating your simple and concise argument or idea at the beginning of the paragraph. But we don’t want to be repetitive and boring; never do we want to be that, so we word the thesis a bit differently. Once that’s out of the way, spend a few lines reviewing your evidence. And as a token of your gratitude for the reader, finish it off with some food for thought or something to remember. How about this:
Cats, my friends, are clearly champs who’ve conquered chumps. Don’t just take my word for it though; science has proved it! The feline flaunts because it can — wiping out species is a predatory pastime. American producer, writer, and entrepreneur Jeff Valdez hit the nail on the head when he stated “Cats are smarter than dogs. You can’t get eight cats to pull a sled through the snow.”
Now that the purpose and the structure of the expository style have been explained, it’s time to lay out a few different strategies for setting up your argument or topic. Remember: expository means to explain or to demonstrate. These are different strategies for accomplishing that.
Comparison and Contrast
The first, and most common, strategy is comparison and contrast. Here, comparison means similarity and contrast means difference. If we want to compare cats and dogs, then we could start with the most basic ones: they both belong to the animal kingdom; both are mammals; both have varied diets; both can be found in the wild; and both have been domesticated. For contrasts, dogs and cats are different species. Social behavior is generally different, and they also differ in normal physical size. Once you have your information mentally sorted into comparisons and contrasts, you can set about organizing your writing in a few different ways.
A simple way to organize the compare and contrast style is to keep one topic per paragraph. For example, list all of the similarities between cats and dogs. In the next paragraph, you would then list all of the differences. In the third body paragraph, an overall analysis would be made.
Another method is to list all things cat-related in one paragraph; then do all things dog-related in the next paragraph. Once again, the final body paragraph would be dedicated to an analysis. A more in-depth look at organizational methods can be found here.
Cause and Effect
A different strategy is the analysis of cause and effect. In explaining the greatness of cats, we would first start with the causes — superior hunting skills, keen sensory perception, and wide geographic distribution. Each body paragraph could be dedicated to one of these topics. Within the paragraphs, then, the effects would be deduced. For more examples on the cause and effect strategy, check out this helpful site.
The final strategy uses a definition. Since our thesis stated that cats are “superior,” we should first use a proper definition of the word superior. In order to get it out of the way, and jump into the analysis, state the definition in the introduction. Better yet, use the definition as the hook. The following body paragraphs would then explain how (keeping with my example) the hunting skills, sharp senses, and geographic dominance of cats fit with the definition of superior.
We covered a lot of information about the expository style, here are the highlights:
Purpose of the expository style: To explain, to demonstrate, or to argue an idea
- The hook (a joke, a witty statement, a question, or a quote)
- Building sentences (provide context of argument)
- Thesis statement (your idea in the debate)
- Topic sentence (strong evidence which supports the thesis)
- Support sentences (explain the evidence for the reader)
- Concluding sentences (end the paragraph and make the transition)
- Restate thesis (mixing it up, come back to your main argument)
- Main points (summarize the strongest evidence from the body)
- Final statement (food for thought)
For other references and explanations, check out the great online writing lab from Purdue University and this short unit from Cambridge University Press.
Congrats! You’ve made your way through an essential writing style. Now put it to work on that blog, communicate and conquer that blank page!
This post originally appeared on Co.Writer, an online publication focused on helping working professionals improve their writing.