Basic Expository Writing
Daniel J. Castellano, M.A.
(2006, rev. 2011)
The most important rule of writing is that there are no rules. That being said, we can still identify good expository writing by discerning a coherent, structured argument and an orderly presentation of ideas. Writing a well organized essay can be difficult even for the highly talented, so many writing instructors will give a specific template or set of rules for essay construction, which may serve as a helpful crutch to ensure that their students’ essays are not random assortments of disconnected ideas. Nonetheless, the use of such templates or rules runs the risk stifling the creativity of the more talented students, by forcing them into the straitjacket of an overly rigid, artificial format.
The “Five Paragraph Essay” is the most widely taught expository writing format in U.S. high schools, yet college freshmen are often surprised to learn that this template is ineffective for serious research papers. Some college instructors have even denounced the Five Paragraph Essay format as a useless and arbitrary norm. Among the problems with the Five Paragraph Essay are its rigidity, repetitiveness, banality, and weakness as an argument. Some high school teachers go as far as to specify the number of sentences in each part of each paragraph. Sparing the reader such details, here let us summarize the basic structure of this familiar format:
- Introductory Paragraph: Attention-grabbing lead-in to statement of central idea/thesis, followed by statement of three supporting ideas.
- Body Paragraphs (x3): Each body paragraph starts with a topic sentence, stating one of the three ideas that supports the thesis, followed by evidence establishing this supporting idea, and an explicit link to the central idea/thesis.
- Concluding Paragraph: Restates central idea/thesis and supporting ideas.
The Five Paragraph Essay is absurdly repetitive for such a brief composition, and even in the most expert hands, it can produce little more than banalities. There is no such thing as a five paragraph essay as a real literary genre, and if there were, such a brief work would not need an introduction and conclusion. Essays written in the conventional five-paragraph style make unconvincing arguments because they only discuss supporting evidence and do not address counter-arguments. It is unfortunate that many high school teachers mislead their students into thinking this pablum is the “correct” and only way to write an expository essay, when in fact no real writer uses this format. There are only guidelines to good writing, not firm rules, and it is ignorant to insist that the Five Paragraph Essay is some kind of mandate or standard of good writing, when at best it is a learning aid, and a flawed one at that.
Despite its shortcomings, the Five Paragraph Essay does have some meritorious points that help students to develop good habits in organizing the structure of their essays. I hope to bring these points out by substantially revising the format from the way it is usually taught, eliminating unnecessary constraints and emphasizing its purely pedagogical aspects. To this end, I present:
The Five Paragraph Essay Done Right
The first step in reforming how we present the Five Paragraph Essay is to recognize that essay formats are only guidelines, not rules. Unfortunately, several major standardized tests require the five paragraph format for essay questions, which are graded based on conformity to this arbitrary structure. This teaches students nothing about how to write, rewarding bad writing that fits the stilted format, and punishing good writing that does not. There is nothing magical about the number five, and there is no reason why a short subject essay cannot have more paragraphs. We should not artificially restrict our number of supporting ideas to three, but instead we should subdivide our work in whatever enumeration is best suited to our argument. Thus the first correction to the Five Paragraph Essay is to redefine our subject as:
The Five or more Paragraph Essay Done Right
Now that we’ve removed the arbitrary constraint of five paragraphs, we are free to develop our ideas and make the essay format conform to our argument, rather than the other way around. In other words, we must first have some idea about what we want to say and how we want to say it before we worry about how many paragraphs we need. This means identifying a central idea or thesis, and various ideas that either support or qualify the thesis. In contrast to the standard Five Paragraph Essay, we want to include ideas that would contradict our thesis, and address the issues that they raise. We can briefly outline our ideas by simply listing them:
Some instructors recommend a more structured outline, such as:
This more cumbersome type of outline can quickly become difficult to maintain, which defeats the purpose of outlining. An outline is supposed to make it easier for us to organize our ideas, but forcing ourselves to organize everything in thorough detail so soon can actually make the task more difficult than if we just started writing the essay directly.
For most short essays, it suffices to write a list of your ideas, and if there are many of them, try to group them into several topics that go together. There is no reason for more than a two-tiered outline: topics and specific ideas. If you are comfortable with more complicated outlines, go right ahead, but if not, remember that the outline is supposed to aid you in writing the essay, rather than you becoming a slave to the outline. One advantage of a more flexible outline is that it becomes easier to edit your essay if you need to add or discard ideas.
The length of the introduction should be proportionate to the length of the essay. For most college-level essays, one or two paragraphs of introduction should suffice. An introduction ought to contain the following components:
- Lead-in: The first few sentences should grip the readers' attention and make them want to read more, either by showing the relevance of your thesis to some popular issue, or by relating some interesting anecdote or analogy that can be linked to your thesis. This is an option, not an obligation. If your thesis itself can be directly stated in a way that provokes interest, do that instead of beating around the bush. It’s better to state your thesis up front than to tell a shaggy dog story that eventually links to your thesis. If the anecdote is no more interesting than your main topic, discard the anecdote. If you do use a lead-in, be sure to end it with a sentence that links it to your central idea, without being so explicit as to insult the reader’s intelligence.
- Central Idea/Thesis: State your thesis simply and declaratively in one or two sentences. If it is a complex thesis you can use more sentences, but state the main idea of it up front. This is not the same as stating your conclusion. You do not have to give away your conclusions, except in the broadest strokes. You might not even know your conclusions yet, since you haven’t written the essay. Intellectual honesty requires that you should not determine a conclusion before you have made an argument. Be prepared to modify your introductory thesis statement if the evidence and argument developed in the body of your essay compel you to do so.
- Outline of Approach: Explain the means by which you will show your thesis. This may entail outlining your argument’s method or approach, but not necessarily listing all of your ideas. Contrary to the conventional Five Paragraph Essay, you do not need to explicitly state the main ideas for all your body paragraphs here. This would be tedious for long essays, and needlessly repetitive for short essays. You may include some of your more important idea here, be they supportive or antithetical. The introduction should be a basic roadmap to your essay, but it does not need to show every street.
The general guideline for body paragraphs is “one idea per paragraph.” Naturally, even a sentence contains many ideas, but everything in a given paragraph should be closely related to a specific idea. It usually helps the reader if you state this idea explicitly in a topic sentence, either at the beginning or end of the paragraph. Ask yourself about each paragraph: “What is the point of this paragraph?” The answer to that question should be your topic sentence. If you have difficulty answering this question, you should consider deleting the paragraph or radically rewriting it.
Remember, paragraph structure exists for the benefit of the readers, helping them digest the essay in smaller portions, and to see at a glance the flow of the argument. For most of history, paragraph breaks were not used, so this structure is not essential to good writing. It should be regarded as a convenience to the reader, not a constraint on the author’s creativity. Nonetheless, it is helpful to pay attention to the length of your paragraphs, as they may be an indication that your essay is rambling and losing focus. The discipline of breaking long paragraphs up into distinct ideas, and then associating supporting sentences with each idea or topic helps keep your argument organized, coherent, and readable.
The main idea of a paragraph ought to be clearly conveyed, in an explicit topic sentence if necessary. You should also clarify how this idea is related to your thesis, if this is not self-evident. A main idea can be one of three types:
- Supporting Thesis: The main ideas of most paragraphs should be in support of your thesis; otherwise, you may want to consider revising the thesis. The rest of the paragraph should give evidence establishing this main idea. The evidence should be followed by analysis that develops your point and addresses possible objections. If the objections are weighty, they may merit having their own paragraph.
- Antithesis: Your essay is a deficient argument if it does not address antithetical evidence. You should anticipate the strongest objections to your argument, and expound their merits and limitations. A paragraph whose topic is an antithesis should make clear how this idea would contradict or qualify your thesis. You should give evidence in favor of the antithesis, followed by analysis. If evidence and argument to the contrary of this antithesis is lengthy, they probably deserve a separate paragraph. You should always explain how this antithesis, if valid, impacts your overall thesis. Such a synthesis may also require its own paragraph.
- Synthesis: Sometimes it is best to devote a body paragraph exclusively to analysis showing how any objections raised may be harmonized with your thesis. A synthesis at the end of each section of your essay also helps summarize your arguments in small pieces, so the reader does not have to wait for the conclusion to see how you've made sense of it all.
This expanded vision of what a body paragraph can be borrows from a template used in French schools for a four paragraph essay, consisting of Introduction, Thesis, Antithesis, and Synthesis. This dialectical model is a stronger method of argumentation, and it also lacks the repetitiveness of the Five Paragraph Essay. Nonetheless, like all writing templates, it is too restrictive if followed rigidly. There is no reason why there should only be four paragraphs, and for complex essays, there may be many theses, antitheses, and syntheses in varying degrees. There is similar flexibility in the ordering of paragraphs, so there is no reason why all the antithesis paragraphs should be grouped together, for example. Structure should be constrained only by the logic of an argument, not by some arbitrary “rule” of writing essays.
Here is a sample structure of body paragraphs:
- Topic #1
- Paragraph #1: Supporting Thesis
- Paragraph #2: Supporting Thesis
- Paragraph #3: Antithesis
- Topic #2
- Paragraph #4: Supporting Thesis
- Paragraph #5: Antithesis
- Paragraph #6: Synthesis
- Paragraph #7: Supporting Thesis
There is no required order here, except that a synthesis paragraph should be preceded by an antithesis paragraph (otherwise, what would it be synthesizing?). An antithesis may be a response to a supporting thesis of an earlier paragraph, or it could be an unrelated objection to your overall thesis. Sometimes antitheses are not weighty enough to merit their own paragraph, so these can be omitted or incorporated into the appropriate supporting thesis paragraph. Similarly, some syntheses are sufficiently simple to merit omission or incorporation into the appropriate antithesis paragraph. This distinction of thesis, antithesis, and synthesis is simply an analytical tool to help you organize your arguments and identify any omissions. For each supporting thesis, consider whether there are any objections. For each antithesis, consider how it can be reconciled with your thesis or whether your thesis needs to be modified.
All body paragraphs should be explicitly or implicitly linked to your main idea. If this is not possible in some cases, you should consider omitting such paragraphs as irrelevant.
Writing the conclusion should be the most rewarding part of the essay, since the labor of proving the thesis was done in the body, so all that remains is to reap the rewards of asserting your results and what you think it all means. Unfortunately, this opportunity for individuality to shine is too often foiled by format-minded instructors who reduce the conclusion to a mere summary repeating what has already been said. Not only is this boring to read, but it also gives the impression that no progress was made during the essay. An expository essay ought to be a journey, and the conclusion is the destination. If the conclusion merely restates the thesis of the essay, it would seem we have learned nothing in the body.
In the course of the essay, your thesis should have been subjected to scrutiny that enables us to emerge with a deeper understanding of the subject. The conclusion should show how you have proven the thesis, illustrating our progress, including any caveats or qualifications that some of the antitheses may have brought to light. It is also a good idea to show why this thesis is important, and speculate on some of its possible implications. These speculations may be followed by a call for further research of the new issues your thesis raises. A conclusion such as this leaves the readers hungering for more, as they are not only persuaded of the validity of your thesis, but also tantalized with new possibilities. This style of conclusion allows for much more creative expression, as there is more room for speculative opinion.
Templates such as the Five Paragraph Essay may be useful pedagogical tools if they are understood to be aids, not mandates. Clearly, writing at the collegiate and professional levels must evolve far beyond the use of these crutches. Even at a younger age, the more talented writing students should not be forced into a rigid, arbitrary structure, as this will only stunt their development as writers. Still, it can be credibly argued that strict templates are useful for beginners, such as middle school students or those learning English as a foreign language. Even then, students should quickly progress beyond the formal template, and never mistake it for real writing. A high school writing curriculum that goes no further than the Five Paragraph Essay is a program that fails to teach writing.
The practice of good writing cannot be reduced to simple formulas, which makes it extremely difficult to teach writing. It is wrongheaded to circumvent this difficulty by imposing an arbitrary standard of correctness that is easier to teach and grade. Our current fixation with standardized tests has helped resuscitate the Five Paragraph Essay, as several state and national exams actually require this format for essay questions. Such exams do not test writing ability, but proficiency in the worthless skill of following a format that is not used in any literary genre.
Perhaps a small niche might be found for the Five Paragraph Essay in timed short essay exams, as are common in college. The format is easy to remember and follow, so when pressed for time, one can resort to it to produce a quick, organized essay. However, if time is truly a constraint, a three paragraph essay would be a much better option, to save yourself useless repetition in the introduction and conclusion. One or two introductory sentences in the first paragraph, followed by a couple of concluding sentences in the third paragraph, will suffice. This will allow you to focus on the meat of your argument in the body, upon the substance of which you will be graded, assuming your instructor is not a format-driven zombie.
Structure and style do count for a lot in writing, but these are more plastic concepts than the template-pushers are willing to recognize. I hope to have outlined above the bare necessities of good organization of expository essays. The details of this organization, like the contents of the essay, are best left to the individual author.
See also:Writing Style Tips | Research Methodology
© 2006, 2011 Daniel J. Castellano. All rights reserved. http://www.arcaneknowledge.org
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When it comes to expressing your thoughts in French, there’s nothing better than the essay.
It is, after all, the favorite form of such famed French thinkers as Montaigne, Chateaubriand, Houellebecq and Simone de Beauvoir.
But writing an essay in French is not the same as those typical 5-paragraph essays you’ve probably written in English.
In fact, there’s a whole other logic that has to be used to ensure that your essay meets French format standards and structure. It’s not merely writing your ideas in another language.
And that’s because the French use Cartesian logic, developed by René Descartes, which requires a writer to begin with what is known and then lead the reader through to the logical conclusion: a paragraph that contains the thesis.
Sound intriguing? The French essay will soon have no secrets from you!
We’ve outlined the four most common types of essays in French, ranked from easiest to most difficult, to help you get to know this concept better. Even if you’re not headed to a French high school or university, it’s still pretty interesting to learn about another culture’s basic essay!
Must-have French Phrases for Writing Essays
Before we get to the four types of essays, here are a few French phrases that will be especially helpful as you delve into essay-writing in French:
Introductory phrases, which help you present new ideas.
- tout d’abord– firstly
- premièrement– firstly
Connecting phrases, which help you connect ideas and sections.
- et – and
- de plus – in addition
- également – also
- ensuite – next
- deuxièmement– secondly
- or – so
- ainsi que – as well as
- lorsque– when, while
Contrasting phrases, which help you juxtapose two ideas.
- en revanche– on the other hand
- pourtant – however
- néanmoins– meanwhile, however
Concluding phrases, which help you to introduce your conclusion.
- enfin– finally
- finalement– finally
- pour conclure – to conclude
- en conclusion – in conclusion
4 Types of French Essays and How to Write Them
1. Text Summary (Synthèse de texte)
The text summary or synthèse de texte is one of the easiest French writing exercises to get a handle on. It essentially involves reading a text and then summarizing it in an established number of words, while repeating no phrases that are in the original text. No analysis is called for.
A synthèse de texte should follow the same format as the text that is being synthesized. The arguments should be presented in the same way, and no major element of the original text should be left out of the synthèse.
Here is a great guide to writing a successful synthèse de texte, written for French speakers.
The text summary is a great exercise for exploring the following French language elements:
- Synonyms, as you will need to find other words to describe what is said in the original text.
- Nominalization, which involves turning verbs into nouns and generally cuts down on word count.
- Vocabulary, as the knowledge of more exact terms will allow you to avoid periphrases and cut down on word count.
While beginners may wish to work with only one text, advanced learners can synthesize as many as three texts in one text summary. The concours exam for entry into the École Supérieure de Commerce de Paris calls for a 300-word synthesis of three texts, ranging from 750 to 1500 words, with a tolerance of more or less 10 percent.
Since a text summary is simple in its essence, it’s a great writing exercise that can accompany you through your entire learning process.
2. Text Commentary (Commentaire de texte)
A text commentary or commentaire de texteis the first writing exercise where the student is asked to present analysis of the materials at hand, not just a summary.
That said, a commentaire de texte is not a reaction piece. It involves a very delicate balance of summary and opinion, the latter of which must be presented as impersonally as possible. This can be done either by using the third person (on) or the general first person plural (nous). The singular first person (je) should never be used in a commentaire de texte.
A commentaire de texte should be written in three parts:
- An introduction, where the text is presented.
- An argument, where the text is analyzed.
- A conclusion, where the analysis is summarized and elevated.
Here is a handy guide to writing a successful commentaire de texte, written for French speakers.
Unlike with the synthesis, you will not be able to address all elements of a text in a commentary. You should not summarize the text in a commentary, at least not for the sake of summarizing. Every element of the text that you speak about in your commentary must be analyzed.
To successfully analyze a text, you will need to brush up on your figurative language. Here are some great resources to get you started:
- This guide, intended for high school students preparing for the BAC—the exam all French high school students take, which they’re required to pass to go to university—is great for learning how to integrate figurative language into your commentaries.
3. Dialectic Dissertation (Thèse, Antithèse, Synthèse)
The French answer to the 5-paragraph essay is known as the dissertation. Like the American 5-paragraph essay, it has an introduction, body paragraphs and a conclusion. The stream of logic, however, is distinct.
There are actually two kinds of dissertation, each of which has its own rules.
The first form of dissertation is the dialectic dissertation, better known as thèse, antithèse, synthèse. In this form, there are actually only two body paragraphs. After the introduction, a thesis is posited. Following the thesis, its opposite, the antithesis, is explored (and hopefully, debunked). The final paragraph, what we know as the conclusion, is the synthesis, which addresses the strengths of the thesis, the strengths and weaknesses of the antithesis, and concludes with the reasons why the original thesis is correct.
For example, imagine that the question was, “Are computers useful to the development of the human brain?” You could begin with a section showing the ways in which computers are useful for the progression of our common intelligence—doing long calculations, creating in-depth models, etc.
Then you would delve into the problems that computers pose to human intelligence, citing examples of the ways in which spelling proficiency has decreased since the invention of spell check, for example. Finally you would synthesize this information and conclude that the “pro” outweighs the “con.”
The key to success with this format is developing an outline before writing. The thesis must be established, with examples, and the antithesis must be supported as well. When all of the information has been organized in the outline, the writing can begin, supported by the tools you have learned from your mastery of the synthesis and commentary.
Here are a few tools to help you get writing:
4. Progressive Dissertation (Plan progressif)
The progressive dissertation is a slightly less common, but no less useful, than the first form.
The progressive form basically consists of examining an idea via multiple points of view—a sort of deepening of the understanding of the notion, starting with a superficial perspective and ending with a deep and profound analysis.
If the dialectic dissertation is like a scale, weighing pros and cons of an idea, the progressive dissertation is like peeling an onion, uncovering more and more layers as you get to the deeper crux of the idea.
Concretely, this means that you will generally follow this layout:
- A first, elementary exploration of the idea.
- A second, more philosophical exploration of the idea.
- A third, more transcendent exploration of the idea.
This format for the dissertation is more commonly used for essays that are written in response to a philosophical question, for example, “What is a person?” or “What is justice?”
Let’s say the question were, “What is war?” In the first part, you would explore dictionary definitions—a basic idea of war, i.e. an armed conflict between two parties, usually nations. You could give examples that back up this definition, and you could narrow down the definition of the subject as much as needed. For example, you might want to make mention that not all conflicts are wars, or you might want to explore whether the “War on Terror” is a war.
In the second part, you would explore a more philosophical look at the topic, using a definition that you provide. You first explain how you plan to analyze the subject, and then you do so. In French, this is known as poser une problématique (establishing a thesis question), and it usually is done by first writing out a question and then exploring it using examples: “Is war a reflection of the base predilection of humans for violence?”
In the third part, you will take a step back and explore this question from a distance, taking the time to construct a natural conclusion and answer for the question.
This form may not be as useful in as many cases as the first type of essay, but it’s a good form to learn, particularly for those interested in philosophy.
Here are a few resources to help you with your progressive dissertation:
As you progress in French and become more and more comfortable with writing, try your hand at each of these types of writing exercises, and even with other forms of the dissertation. You’ll soon be a pro at everything from a synthèse de texte to a dissertation!
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