How to Write an Exposition for an Essay

When you're analyzing a text, a clear and fair exposition is essential. If you haven’t properly represented the view you are analyzing, this can derail your whole paper. Here's our guide for how to write expositions for academic essays.

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1. Read critically

When you’re asked to critically analyze a text, make sure you read it actively, not passively. As you are reading, ask yourself questions: What is the author's aim with this piece? What are their main arguments for their conclusion? Do any of steps seem implausible or have problematic implications?

The author should tell you their aim early on, most likely in the introduction. Keep this aim in mind as you read on and assess their arguments. Pay attention to the parts of the work that are more difficult for you to follow. Sometimes this difficulty can simply mean that an idea is particularly challenging, but it could also be that you’re picking up on an inconsistency or a problematic implication.

2. Mark up the text

When you’re preparing for an analytical essay, being able to mark up the text is essential. These days, we’re doing a lot of our reading on our laptops. This is fine so long as you have software that allows you to highlight and annotate PDFs. You can open PDFs in Word or try out some free PDF editors if you want to stick to screens (and avoid Adobe's fees). For most close reading, though, it’s easier to work with a printout.

While it's tempting to highlight everything that seems like it might be important, if this is more than a few things per page, you can find yourself with a wall of color that makes no sense two hours later. Be economical. Mark up where the author's aim is stated, where their central arguments take places, and anywhere that you feel is apt for criticism.

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3. Budget for your word limit

Before you start to select the material for your exposition, think about how long you need it to be. If you are writing an analytical essay and offering criticism of a primary text, you don't want your exposition to be too long. As a general rule, exposition should never take up more than half the word limit of a critical essay. Though expositions are tricky to get right, what typically picks you up the most marks is your critical analysis. Even if your exposition is really excellent, if it leaves you with only 30% of your word limit remaining, this will damage your grade.

4. Work out the essential points to include in your exposition

Ask yourself what the essential information of the piece is. What are the premises that must be included for there to be a logical progression to the conclusion? What are the ‘big picture’ reasons for the author’s position? What is the structure of the argumentation? For example, does the author argue for A, B, and C, in order to argue for D? Try to reconstruct a summary of the argument, imagining that you are explaining it to someone who has not read the paper. Use clear and economical language. Avoid too many of what Richard Wydick (Plain English For Lawyers) calls ‘glue words’:

"In every English sentence are two kinds of words: working words and glue words. The working words carry the meaning of the sentence. In the preceding sentence, the working words are these: working, words, carry, meaning, and sentence. The others are glue words: the, the, of, and the.

The glue words do perform a vital service. They hold the working words together to form a proper, grammatical sentence. Without them, the sentence would read like a telegram. But if the proportion of glue words is too high, that is a symptom of a badly constructed sentence.

A well-constructed sentence is like fine cabinetwork. The pieces are cut and shaped to fit together with scarcely any glue. When you find too many glue words in a sentence, take it apart and reshape the pieces to fit together tighter."
glue words senteces exmples From

5. Reverse engineer with your thesis in mind

This is a more nuanced step and is why you should always plan out your thesis first (before you begin to do exposition). For tips on how to plan out your essay and the best order to do it in, have a look at How to Write an Essay in Ten Steps.

What you want to argue will somewhat affect which parts of the text your reader needs to know about. This may mean that you need to include certain things in your exposition that would not necessarily make the cut if all you were doing was summarizing the main argument of the text. Of course, if your main critical point concerns only the central detail of the text (already included from step 4), then this step will not change what material you choose to include in your exposition. Completing this step should not mean that you litter your exposition with lots of minor details. It means that right from the start, even when making your expositions selections, you should have your thesis statement in mind.

6. Test your exposition out

Read your exposition to a friend or roommate who has not read the text you are analyzing. Does it make sense to them? Are there any points where they look confused or where they need to ask followup questions to make sense of what you've said?

Being able to summarize a text clearly and succinctly is a great skill to practice outside of essay prep. If you can pick up this habit early on, it will serve you well. Chat about your readings with friends in other classes. Catch people up who didn’t have time to finish the text. You’ll find that over time this practice makes expositions noticeably easier to write. Students are asked to finesse this skill right through to postgraduate study and it’s highly valued in many jobs. The sooner you practice doing it regularly, the better!

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7. Add citations to your exposition

Now that you have decided what information to include in your exposition, look back over the original text that you are analyzing and, using your highlighting for guidance, add citations to your exposition. For this, you need to decide when to use a quotation and when to paraphrase.

Many students fall within one of two extremes when it comes to quotation: they either don't do it at all, or they do far too much of it. Not including any quotes in your essay shows a lack of engagement with the text. Quoting too much, while making it clear that you have read the text, can also be detrimental to your grade. Your professor needs to be shown that you have understood the ideas yourself. Leaning too heavily on quotations leaves them guessing at how much of the material you have a good handle on. Be careful that you are not using quotations to do the job of explaining the material for you.

Direct quotation is best used when it is important to establish a writer's exact choice of words. For example, someone's choice of words may be unclear, and you may want to explain why this is and justify your interpretation of them. A writer might introduce a new term for something and, by using quotation, you can make it clear that this is their term (and not yours). Finally, quotations are useful if you want to provide evidence for a particular claim in your argument (for instance, when you quote an expert).

Paraphrasing - putting an idea into your own words - does not mean that you can't reference: cite the source and page number after your paraphrase just as you would with a quote. While page numbers are optional in paraphrase citations, they do show your reader that you understand exactly where the claim is coming from and that your engagement with the original material has been really thorough.

8. Don't forget to edit

Always make sure that you leave time for editing. Your essay will make the strongest first impression if it is clear, to the point, and error-free. Ideally, you will ask a peer to read your exposition and give you feedback on how clear it is. Try to finish your essay with a day or two to spare so you can take a break from it and look it over with fresh eyes. If you don't have time for this step, you can create some distance from your own work by reading it out loud.

Help with editing

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  1. Read critically
  2. Mark up the text
  3. Budget for your word limit
  4. Determine essential points
  5. Reverse engineer
  6. Add citations
  7. Test your exposition out
  8. Edit!

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