How to Write an Explaining Essay

Updated on May 3, 2018
VirginiaLynne profile image

Virginia has been a university English instructor for over 20 years. She specializes in helping people write essays faster and easier.

Explaining Papers

Teach the reader something they don't know.

Answer who, what, when, where and how.

Can be found in textbooks, instructions and "how to" websites.

Explaining vs. Argument

Argument essays are always trying to persuade the reader about something. The focus for an explaining essay is informing by:

  • describing
  • giving examples
  • telling how something works
  • showing cause and effect

However, even though an explain essay is not necessarily intended to be an argument, the way you explain something can be persuasive to the reader. How? As you define something, you often are arguing how we should define something or how people ought to see a concept.

For example, When you write about "What causes divorce?" you might give several reasons for people to divorce, such as couples are too focused on money, or couples aren't willing to sacrifice for one another, or couples don't get enough premarital counseling. However, in presenting those particular reasons, you are actually presenting an argument that other people might not agree with. They may think that divorce is caused primarily by cheating, jobs that make people travel, or marrying too young.

Finding a Topic

If you want to write your essay quickly, it is best to choose a topic you already know a lot about. Here is a quick exercise that often works:

  1. Set a timer for 10 minutes.
  2. Write a list of anything you know a lot about. Think about your hobbies, things you've studied, sports you've been in, personal lessons you have learned, jobs you've had, and advice you like to give to others.
  3. Take a look at that list and choose the top three that interest you.
  4. Pick one and then set the timer again for 5 minutes.
  5. Write as much as you can think of about that topic.
  6. Usually, by the end of 5 minutes, you'll know if you want to write on that. If you decide you don't, try again with another topic.

Still stumped? I've written a list of 150 Explaining Essay Topic ideas to help you out!

What Causes Poverty?

What does "Developing World" mean?  Why are so many women poor?
What does "Developing World" mean? Why are so many women poor? | Source

10 Steps in Writing

All of us know what it is like to try to understand something which is not being explained clearly. Or have you ever had an instructor who did teach clearly, but was boring? Or only told you things you already knew? Your job in this essay is to:

  1. Know Your Audience: You can vary the way you write this topic depending on who your audience is. For instance, you can write an essay on “how to shoot a free throw” both for someone who’s never played basketball before and for an experienced player who wants to fine tune her technique. Generally, you will aim for an audience who knows less than you do about that topic or someone who is at your same level but doesn't know the specific information you can teach them
  2. Narrow or focus your topic so you can tell about it in depth and give a lot of interesting details.
  3. Tell your reader something he doesn’t already know about this concept. Go beyond “common knowledge."
  4. Give your reader a reason to learn about your concept. Connect this information to something they already know, or give them a definition which either reverses their expectations or gives a new perspective or insight.
  5. Give a clear definition. Explain any unfamiliar terms or special vocabulary. Use comparisons or analogies if appropriate.
  6. Choose an organizing technique which works for your topic. Make sure the introduction and conclusion are linked. The conclusion should not summarize but give a final thought to the audience.
  7. Describe your concept clearly and in a logical sequence. Be careful about transition markers.
  8. Use reliable and accurate sources. If you know a lot about a concept, you can certainly use your own knowledge and experience. However, it also helps to look up the concept online and also use interviews and surveys to help pinpoint what your audience knows and what they need to know. If you know someone who knows more about this concept than you, you can interview them to get information. Moreover, if this person (or you) has special credentials which show they are an expert on this subject, be sure to include that in your essay so that your reader knows your explanation is authoritative.
  9. Research interesting details and information. Sources can be your own observation, personal experience, readings, interviews, research and surveys
  10. Make it interesting by giving vivid detail, using humor, and giving good examples. Draw reader in with title and opening paragraph

How Did this Happen?


Choosing a Topic

First, you might want to look at my list of 150 topic ideas for essays that explain. Once you have a topic, you will need to decide what way you want to approach it. Most topics can be several types of essays. Here is an example:

Topic: Love

Types of Love (classification): Divide your concept into different categories or types (types of love, such as “Puppy Love,” “True Love,” or “Dangerous Love”). The body of the essay then discusses these categories one by one in separate paragraphs.

How to: Explain how something happens or how to do something. Divide it into parts or steps. Tell it in chronological order, use storytelling techniques and time transition words (example: “How to fall out of love or How to fall in love with your husband again.”)

Comparison and Contrast: Use something familiar to explain something unfamiliar. The body of this essay would use different aspects of the comparison for each paragraph. This uses similes, metaphors or analogies and vivid word pictures (examples: love is like a river, a basketball game, or a teeter-totter).

Cause and Effect: Show how one thing causes another to occur (example: falling in love causes you to seem more attractive to others).

Historical Overview: What is the history of this term and how did it come to have the meaning it has today? Or contrast the current meaning with a meaning from the past (example: love in the 18th century, the history of divorce, or history of the phrase “love at first sight”).

Reverse Expectations and Definition: In this sort of paper, you will compare your expectations of something, or what people usually think about this subject with what you think the reality is or the real definition of that term (example: Love is not a feeling; it is a chemical process. The body paragraphs would give the different chemicals and explain how they work to create the feelings of love).

Is China the Next Superpower?

What causes pollution? Is Global warming real?
What causes pollution? Is Global warming real? | Source

5 Types of Essays

Type of Explaining Essay
Organizing Strategy
Audience/ publishing
How to?
Explains the steps of doing something.
Organize in logical sequence.
How to study in college.
Entering freshman students. Publish in college newspaper.
Defines what a concept is and is not.
Topical: Divide into parts of that concept, or aspects of it.
What is "Baylor Nation?"
People who don’t know much about Baylor. Could be published on Baylor’s website
Explains cause or effect of something. Sometimes explains both cause and effect.
Organize by least important to most important. Or organize by different aspects of cause.
What causes a football team to be successful?
People interested in sports. Could be published in the sports column of a newspaper or website.
What is its history?
Explains the changes in something over time. Usually used to discuss human history or artifacts.
Broken into parts and told in sequence.
What is the history of the Empire State Building?
People visiting New York. Brochures for the building or in a history book.
How does it happen?
Explains what can be observed about the process of something, or how something works.
Usually tells the sequence of how something occurs.
How does a homeless person live?
People interested in understanding homeless people. Could be published in a magazine or on the website of Salvation Army.

Organizing Your Paper

Often, we have lots of ideas of what we want to say but don’t know how to put them into a logical order. Luckily, explaining essays have some easy organizational forms. Here are some of the most common. Look through the list and see which one works best for your topic:

  1. Chronological/ in time
  2. Spatial/ in space and time
  3. Process/step by step
  4. Defining by Classifying different parts
  5. Topical/ part by part
  6. Cause/effect
  7. Historical overview—how it developed over time
  8. Comparison and contrast
  9. Reverse expectations
  10. Specific examples

You can actually use these organization ideas not only for the body of your paper but also for paragraphs within your paper.

Introduction, Body and Conclusion

Reverse Expectations (one of the easiest strategies and especially successful if you have some topic which is very different than what people expect)
What you expected, or what most people think about this topic
What this is really like.
How you react to your expectations being reversed. What you would suggest your reader to think, do or believe.
Expectations Fulfilled (this can be for something either very good, or very bad. It makes a good technique for a satirical piece)
What you or most people expect
How this is exactly what you would expect with lots of details giving a vivid picture.
How the reader should react to this topic
Vivid Description (particularly good for a place or event)
Vividly describe the subject using lots of sensory images.
Tell about the event, place or person in a logical sequence.
Conversation or final story, or how the reader should react.
Start with a conversation about subject. Often this conversation is actually a "what is expected" sort of introduction.
Tell about your subject by either describing it by topics, or telling about it in a story or time sequence.
Finish the conversation or give a final definition.
Definition: Comparing your subject to the dictionary definition.
Use one or more dictionary definitions of your subject, or some other “official” definition.
Explain your subject to show how the dictionary definition is wrong, inadequate, or incomplete.
Give a new definition.
Comparison or Analogy
Compare your topic with something else by using an analogy.
You can continue the analogy by showing how two things compare or contrast.
How this comparison brings new meaning to your topic.
History of
Explain the background or history of your topic, or give a story from the past about your topic.
Explain what your topic is like today.
Compare the past with the present.
Reverse Frame Story
Tell a story which is negative, or is what people usually think
Explain your topic.
Retell the story with a positive conclusion, or the definition or explanation you have given.

How to Write an Excellent Thesis Statement

Uses for this Sort of Writing

Almost every profession requires that you use this sort of writing. For example:

  • In a business, a salesman might have to explain to the head of your company the results of a sales campaign.
  • A health professional reports the symptoms and proposed treatment for a patient on reports.
  • An engineer who has designed a part has to carefully explain how that part needs to be made to the factory workers.
  • The higher you move up in your profession, the more you will have to use explaining types of writing.

As I’ve explained my work to many of my husband’s scientist friends (many of whom are heads of businesses, scientific research groups or engineering divisions), they almost always tell me that they use the information they gained from this sort of essay more than anything else they learned in college because they are always having to write explanations for other people.In fact, the higher you move up in a company, the more you will often need to use this sort of writing.So if pays to learn how to do it well.

What part of Explaining Writing is hardest for you?

See results

Questions & Answers

  • How do I start the first sentence of a descriptive essay?

    Start with vivid images that paint a picture for your reader of the scene. Close your eyes and re-imagine the moment. Then write down all of your senses and brainstorm words that describe:

    1. smells

    2. what you see (colors, shapes, images, mood)

    3. what you feel (textures, patterns)

    4. sounds

    5. tastes

    Use that brainstorming list to write a clear, descriptive sentence.


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    • profile image


      5 months ago

      I think the hardest part is gathering credible sources.

    • profile image


      8 months ago

      Useful site , I get a lot of knowledge and thank you author

    • profile image


      2 years ago

      useful in class

    • profile image


      2 years ago

      Thank you

    • profile image


      7 years ago

      How would you go about explain the significant contribution made by a personality in a specif field

    • VirginiaLynne profile imageAUTHOR

      Virginia Kearney 

      8 years ago from United States

      Thanks for leaving a comment Arfa! One thing I love about online writing is being able to get some feedback from my readers.

    • profile image


      8 years ago

      Very informative hub. It helped me a lot. Thanks :)

    • VirginiaLynne profile imageAUTHOR

      Virginia Kearney 

      8 years ago from United States

      For newspapers, there is another format to use because so many readers just read the headlines and the start of the article. Generally, you want the whole main idea of your essays to be spelled out very clearly in the first 1-3 sentences (who, what, when, where, why). Then you would go into details later. Also, in most essays, I suggest that you leave the best points for the end, but in newspaper writing, you probably need to put the best first (I may need to write a whole hub about that!).

    • Vinaya Ghimire profile image

      Vinaya Ghimire 

      8 years ago from Nepal

      Though I have tried writing Explaining Essay for the newspapers, I have never succeeded. Perhaps I could not do enough background research. After reading this I think I can write better.


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