“Like all Holmes’s reasoning the thing seemed simplicity itself when it was once explained.”
— Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, “The Stock-Broker’s Clerk”
The main point of an explanatory essay is the clarification of an idea. Such essays often make the assumption that we have already agreed on a definition of something, and we can now go on to discuss its operation or application in some specific context. This kind of essay concentrates less on what something is and more on how and why something happens. It is often used to explain processes, or causes and effects.
The question “What is a science fiction movie?” is one of definition or description. The question “Why is Star Wars popular?” is one of explanation. (The subject “Star Wars is the greatest science fiction movie ever made” requires an argumentative or persuasive essay, the kind of essay we will discuss in the next unit.) (No, I don’ believe it’s the greatest science fiction movie ever — one could even question its being science fiction at all.)
Textbooks, newspaper articles, and many exam essays are examples of explanatory writing, so knowing how to read and write this kind of essay is important for your continuing education. “Who”, “what”, “when”, “where”, and “why” (with the occasional “how”) are often considered the journalist’s basic formula. Most hard news articles will open with a sentence containing at least the first four items.
main points for this unit
Let’s consider the essay subject “Why is Egyptian civilization often called ‘The gift of the Nile’?” The question assumes that we know what we mean by civilization, and we won’t need to go into details about that.
Because we are now concerned with an activity, we need to identify the agent, or doer, of that activity. This could be a large entity, like a civilization, or a small one, like a blood cell traveling through the circulatory system; it could be an institution, like the Church; it could be a group of people who are only connected by the central question of our essay, such as the fans of Star Trek. In our particular example, the doer is the Nile River, which is being credited with making Egyptian civilization possible.
With an explanatory essay, we have agreed on the what; we may need to state a simple definition or set some boundaries. Here we have two ideas, civilization in general and Eyptian civilization in particular. We may want to identify particular aspects of Egyptian civilization (religion, agriculture, government, literacy) that are both common characteristics of civilization in general and things made possible in Egypt by the Nile in particular.
Similarly, we may need to set the temporal boundaries of our subject. The question “Why was the battle of Gettysburg the turning point of the Civil War?” requires that we place the battle at a particular date, to show how events before and after it were different in some way. We may choose to limit our description of Egypt to ancient Egypt in particular (although modern Egypt would also be vastly different without the Nile). You will need to read the essay prompt carefully to determine whether dates and chronology are important (and if so, you should discuss events in chronological order, first to last).
We want to identify the geographical location covered by our subject if such a category is useful. We have two possibilities: we want to limit the essay to a particular area because we don’t have time to cover everything, or we may need to identify a particular area because it is basic to the explanation that we are making. As an example of the first case, we could approach a topic like “Show how urbanization has disrupted the natural environment” by choosing to limit our examples to cities on the East Coast of the United States. In the second case, our subject of Egypt as a gift of the Nile requires that we explain that, while the borders of Egyptian civilization have changed throughout history, it has always centered on the Nile delta and the Nile River.
Some explanatory questions will have no geographical location. “How did Hawthorne’s view of nature affect his writing?” does not rely on a particular geographical setting, so identifying or describing it is unnecessary.
Often the meat of the explanatory essay lies in the identification of the causes or effects of some particular situation. Aristotle came up with four types of causes for things, which are often useful starting points when we are asked why?:
A couple of these causes do point us in the direction of what a chair is, though: material cause and formal cause together are helpful in defining what a material object is. For a concept like civilization, it may be harder to come up with the answers than for a chair, but we are still concerned with what is it made of, what form it takes, who did it, and why someone did it. It is possible, therefore, to continue the exercise for Egyptian civilization as an “effect” of the Nile as well:
One of the best ways of showing that you understand some procedure thoroughly is to explain how to do it to someone else. In a “how-to” essay, you must give enough specific, unambiguous information that the reader can complete the desired activity without making a mistake or causing a disaster. A how-to essay may need warnings on what not to do as well as what to do. Lab instructions, cookbooks, diet guides, and this web page are all examples of “how-to” essays.
When writing a how-to essay, the goal of the activity and the final result must be clearly described. Be sure to list at the beginning of your instructions all the materials that will be required to complete the activity. If there are choices for materials or variations in the process, explain why one choice might be better than another in different circumstances. Then list each step in the proper order. Tell the reader the state that things will be in at the end of each step, so that he or she will know when that part is finished (E.g., “Bake the cake at 350° until it is golden brown, and the crust is firm”).
Technical writing—that is, writing instructions on how to use machinery, computer programs, appliances, and even games—is a special craft. Good instructions can enhance a product, making it much easier to use, and encouraging the new owner to develop new skills.
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