Skip to main content

How to Write an Exploratory Essay With Sample Papers

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

Exploratory essays don't take a position. Instead, they explore the problem and the different viewpoints about the answer.

Here are the steps for writing an exploratory essay, with examples

Here are the steps for writing an exploratory essay, with examples

What Is an Exploratory Essay?

Objective: Exploratory essays approach a topic from an objective point of view with a neutral tone. Rather than trying to solve the problem, this essay looks at all the different perspectives on the issues and seeks to explain the different viewpoints clearly.

Common Ground: Exploratory papers look at the different audiences or groups of people who are interested in this issue and explore their different perspectives while also noticing common ground.

Three or More Points of View: Sometimes there are two sides of an issue that are most often expressed and which polarize debates. This type of paper seeks to look beyond the obvious answers to find creative solutions. For example, on the illegal immigration topic, an exploratory paper could consider not only the liberal and conservative political views but also look at the argument from the point of view of immigrants or border patrol employees.

8 Steps in Writing Exploratory Papers

  1. Prepare a basic outline using the outline format below.
  2. Re-read your articles and your summary-analysis-response paper.
  3. Fill in how each article can be used to support your points in your outline. Be sure to include the source of that point in MLA form, which is author last name and page in parenthesis. Example: (Brown 31).
  4. Talk out your paper with a friend. Work with a friend or a small group. Explain your paper using your outline. Tell them your points and make sure they understand. Do they have any ideas on how to make your essay more interesting? Have them answer the questions on Peer Edit Outline below.
  5. Optional: you may want to gather some visuals to include in your essay.
  6. Write a draft. Be sure to include transitions such as “some people believe,” “another perspective is,” “one way to look at the issue is,” and “a final perspective might be.” Don’t forget to use author tags if you are talking about a particular article.
  7. Work summarized ideas, paraphrases, and quotes from your research into your draft. In an exploratory paper, you mainly summarize or paraphrase in your own words the positions you describe. Only use quotations that are especially striking or make the point in a way you can’t by paraphrasing.
  8. Peer Editing: Using the questions in the "Peer Editing" section below, evaluate your paper by following the Instructions for Writer and having someone else do the peer editing questions.
  9. Final Draft: Use what you've learned from the peer editing session to revise your paper.
How beneficial is weightlifting to a healthy life?  Do protein drinks help people build muscles?  How much exercise do you really need to do?

How beneficial is weightlifting to a healthy life? Do protein drinks help people build muscles? How much exercise do you really need to do?

Exploratory Outline

  1. Introduction: Define and describe the issue and present the arguable question.
  2. Body Part 1: Analyze the rhetorical situation of the issue, including Text, Reader, Author, Constraints and Exigence (see below on outline).
  3. Body Part 2: Identify and summarize at least three major positions on this issue.
  4. Conclusion: Indicate your personal interest in this issue and the position you favor.
  5. Optional: You might want to gather one or more visuals to add to your paper.

What Makes a Good Topic?

Exploratory papers need to have an arguable question, which means it is a question that is:

  1. Not solved.
  2. Not a fact you could easily check the answer to.
  3. Something people have different views about (try to find at least three).
  4. Interesting to people right now.
  5. Linked to an enduring issue.
Does military discipline need to be strict to work?  Does service in the military make a man or woman a better citizen?  What can be done to eliminate sexual harassment in the military?

Does military discipline need to be strict to work? Does service in the military make a man or woman a better citizen? What can be done to eliminate sexual harassment in the military?

What Are Enduring Issues?

Enduring issues are ones that people continue to care about over time. Enduring issues concern claims of fact, definition, value, cause and polity. They concern our need for good government, quality of life, social justice and personal rights.

Current IssuesEnduring IssuesNeed

How much tax should people pay?

Where should government get money?

Good, stable government which meets needs of people.

Should technology be used in the classroom?

How can we best educate students?

Well educated next generation.

Should sex offenders be restricted from social media?

Who is responsible for protecting citizens from crime?

Safety from violence.

What makes a person ready to leave for college?   How should college students decide a major?

What makes a person ready to leave for college? How should college students decide a major?

How to Write a Great Introduction

There are three things you need to do in the introduction:

  1. Grab the reader's interest in the arguable issue. Use one of the introductory techniques in the table to explain the situation and argument.
  2. Make sure the reader understands the issue and why it is important (some issues need lots of explanation and description, but others are so well known you don't need to explain).
  3. Tell the arguable question (usually at the end of the introduction).
Scroll to Continue

Read More From Owlcation

Introduction Ideas

  • Re-tell a real story.
  • Give statistics.
  • Depict a made-up scenario.
  • Vividly describe a scene or situation.
  • Explain a typical situation.
  • Have a real or imagined conversation about the issue.
  • Talk about what makes this argument important now.
  • Use an intriguing statement or quote.
  • Give history of this idea or argument.
  • Make a list of problems.
  • Give several examples of this problem.
  • Ask a series of questions.
  • Use a frame (use part of story to open, then finish story in conclusion).
  • Use interview questions and answers.

Body: Part 1

The body of this type of essay has two parts. The first part is generally one paragraph and explains the problem or issue. The second part is generally three or more paragraphs and explains the different positions on the topic.

Part 1: Explain the Rhetorical Situation:

  • Text: What sort of writing is being done on this subject? Is it a question being discussed in the news? By advocacy groups? Politicians? Is there an academic study being done?
  • Reader: Who are the audiences interested in this question? What are the different positions they hold? Why are the readers interested in this question?
  • Author: Who are the people writing on this question? What is common ground between the authors and readers (audiences)?
  • Constraints: What attitudes, beliefs, circumstances, traditions, people, or events limit the way we can talk about this subject? Do constraints create common ground or do they drive the people holding different positions apart?
  • Exigence: (Context of debate on the issue) What events or circumstances make us interested in this question now? What is the history of this issue and question? How has interest in this question changed over time? What enduring values (big life issues) does this debate relate to?

Body Part 2: Explain Different Positions

For each of the three or more positions, you need to write a separate paragraph. In each paragraph:

  • Explain the position.
  • Tell why people believe that position.
  • Give the best arguments for that position.
  • Explain how those arguments are supported.

You can also do some contrast and comparison between the positions. That makes an especially effective transition. For example:

In contrast to the idea that homelessness is caused by a lack of homes, faith-based homeless agencies often argue that there are relationship issues that are at the heart of the problem.

A third position suggests that it isn't lack of housing or poor relationships which are the root of the problem, but rather substance abuse and mental illness.

Sample Starting Sentences for Body Part 2

Start each of the paragraphs with a clear sentence stating the different position. Here are examples of how to begin each paragraph:

Position 1: Many people believe…

What is this point of view? Which articles can you use for this point of view? What part of the article is helpful?

Position 2: Other people would contend…

What is this point of view? Which articles can you use for this point of view? What part of the article is helpful?

Position 3: Another way to look at this question is….

What is this point of view? Which articles can you use for this point of view? What part of the article is helpful?

Conclusion Ideas

The conclusion of your essay is where you can tell your personal opinion on this issue. You can also explain why you are interested in this particular topic. Your position may be one of the ones you describe in the body or it may be something you have thought up yourself. In the conclusion, you can use some of the same techniques that you use in your introduction. Here are some other ideas:

  1. Finish the frame story.
  2. Add the final evidence you find most convincing.
  3. Tell the reader your conclusions and point of view.
  4. If you aren't sure what you think, then say that and explain what you think are the most important points to consider.
  5. Challenge the reader to decide.
  6. Outline the main things we need to think about when we decide this question—what is important and what is not.

Outline Peer Editing

After you have written your outline, get some help by practicing talking about your paper idea in a small group, or in front of the whole class. Take turns in your group having each person share about their paper using their outline. Then the group can respond to questions, comments, and suggestions. It helps if you write down your comments so the person can remember. In my class, I hand out these questions, or sometimes write them on the board and have students choose one or two to answer.

  1. Is the introduction interesting? Do you feel you understand the issue and the question?
  2. Do the question and the three positions match up? Is there a contrast in the positions? Are there other positions you think need to be considered?
  3. Is the context/constraints of the question clear?
  4. Is there other supporting evidence you can think of?
  5. Is the response interesting? Does the author respond to the ideas and connect them with their own thoughts and/or experiences? How can they do that better?
  6. Anything you think is missing or needs to be explained or expanded?

Draft Peer Editing Worksheet

Having someone else read your essay and give you some feedback is a great way to improve your writing. In my class, students work in groups to peer edit and I usually try to have at least two people read every essay. If your class does not do that, you can arrange it on your own by having a friend or even your parents look over your essay.

Here is the peer editing worksheet I use in my class. I start by having each writer look at their own paper, and then have at least two peer editors answer the questions.


I. Mark on your own paper:

  • Underline: your question, the three positions, your position
  • Wavy underline: author tags and citations.

II. Write (at top of draft or on a separate sheet of paper):

  • What is best about your paper.
  • Questions you have for the peer editor.
  • What you want them to help you with.

Peer Editor:

I. Read the paper and make marks on the draft about:

  • Grammar and spelling errors
  • What you think is good
  • Where they need more support
  • Where they need better transitions
  • Where they need references, citations or author tags (or any problems with ones they have)
  • Where they need more explanation or description

II. On a separate sheet of paper write:

  1. Intro: was the issue both defined and described? Anything that needs to be added? Was the opening interesting? How could it be improved?
  2. Body: How well does the paper examine the rhetorical situation? (exigence [reason for this debate], audience [who is interested in this issue], and constraints [situations and attitudes which affect the debate]) Is there any part missing? How can it be improved? Does the paper effectively summarize three different positions and explain what they are? Who believes them? Why do they believe it? Does the paper give enough evidence for each position?
  3. Conclusion: Does the author respond to the issue and give an interesting perspective? Does the author need to add anything?

Exploratory vs. Argument

Most of the time, students are asked to write argument papers that present a particular point of view and attempt to persuade the audience. Sometimes that makes this writing assignment seem confusing. Here is the difference between this assignment and an argument paper:

Argument essays focus on proving one point of view: An argument or position essay seeks to come to a conclusion and convince the audience which side of the issue is correct. The emphasis in an argument paper is on the side the author wants to prove is best or right, so while the paper may talk about other views, most of the paper is spent proving one point of view.

Exploratory essays look at several points of view in a neutral way. Rather than trying to solve the problem, this sort of paper explores the different perspectives of the problem and seeks to understand the cultural and social context of the issue. It is the sort of paper you would write before writing a solution paper. An exploratory paper is common in businesses when they are attempting to find a solution to a problem and need to get all of the possible perspectives and information available.

Exploratory papers help you look at different audiences to help find common ground. This paper also explores the different audiences or groups of people who are concerned about this issue, giving their different viewpoints on the cause, effects, and solutions proposed. In order to do this paper, you may want to narrow the issue you are thinking about so that you can cover the idea more effectively.

Exploratory papers should examine at least three points of view: Sometimes there are two sides of an issue that are most often expressed and which polarize a debate. In an exploratory paper, you are asked to look beyond the obvious answers in order to find other points of view which can sometimes help in solving the problem. For example, in looking at the issue of illegal immigration, you can examine the conservative and liberal political views, but you can also look at the viewpoint of the illegal immigrants themselves, the viewpoint of the government that the illegal immigrants come from, and the viewpoints of the people who live on both sides of the border where illegal immigrants cross. You might also consider the viewpoint of the border patrol employees.

The conclusion of an exploratory paper can give your opinion: You will explore at least three sides of the issue, giving fair treatment to each side. However, in the conclusion of the paper, you will indicate your own position and why you are persuaded in that direction.

How important is it to research our ancestors?

How important is it to research our ancestors?

Exploratory Essay Uses

Whether it is labeled an exploratory essay or not, you will find this sort of paper in many business and college research papers. The basic point of this paper is to let you examine all the different viewpoints on an issue. Here are some examples of exploratory questions:

  • What caused the Civil War in the U.S.?
  • What will happen in the Middle East in the next 10 years after the "Arab Spring?"
  • How should the U.S. handle illegal immigration?
  • What should we do with embryos left over from in-vitro fertilization?

In a business, an employee might be asked to write an exploratory report about:

  • How do people perceive our product based on different types of advertising?
  • How do people use our product most often?
  • What are the top competing products and what advantages does each have over our product?
  • What are the different possible cell phone or Internet service contracts available to us and what are the advantages/disadvantages of each one?

By looking at three or more viewpoints, you can get a better understanding of the different audiences for an issue and better understand how a solution or compromise might be developed.

Questions & Answers

Question: What do you think of the topic, "Why do opposites attract?" for an exploratory essay?

Answer: Here are some other variations:

1. What causes people to be romantically attracted to someone very different from them?

2. Is the old adage true that "opposites attract?"

3. Does marrying someone who is opposite in personality to you produce a successful relationship?

4. Is it harder or easier to live with someone who has a personality opposite to yours?

Question: "What impact does the Olympics have on urban residents?" How can I expand upon this as an exploratory essay?

Answer: 1. What is the impact of the Olympics on a town that hosts?

2. Does watching the Olympics encourage young people to be more active in sports?

3. Is joining a junior Olympics program generally a positive or a negative experience?

Question: Does teaching about cultural diversity deter racism?

Answer: Here are some other ways to ask that question:

1. Does "multiculturalism" in the classroom result in students who are more accepting of others?

2. How important is teaching cultural diversity?

3. What are the results of teaching about cultural diversity?

4. How can we best teach cultural diversity?

5. What can teachers do to combat racism?

Question: How does divorce affect children?

Answer: Since divorce is such a common recent experience in many families, exploring the different ideas on how it affects family members can make a good paper. Along with your question, you could do:

1. How does divorce affect a father's relationship with his children?

2. How does being a non-custodial parent affect the parent-child relationship?

3. How does divorce affect the relationships between siblings?

4. How does divorce affect the relationship between grandparents and grandchildren?

5. How does divorce affect the relationships with extended family members of the ex-spouse?

Question: Can this method be used on a newspaper for young adults?

Answer: Actually almost all news articles are exploratory essays, or at least the ideal news article is one that gives the facts and opinions of all sides. It would be very helpful for young adults to learn to approach an issue by looking at it from as many different angles as possible.


Virginia Kearney (author) from United States on November 06, 2016:

Hi Sharon! Welcome back to the classroom. I'm so glad this has helped you. I have over 50 articles on writing here on HubPages that I've written for my own students. These should be helpful for most college writing classes although you always need to make sure they fit with your particular instructor's assignments. Hope you do very well this semester!

Sharon on November 06, 2016:

This is extremely helpful for me as a student. I've been out of school for quite some time. Unfortunately, not all instructors are the same. Thank you for sharing your knowledge with us.

TL on November 02, 2015:

Really Helpful!

kking on August 20, 2014:

This is so helpful, thank you!

Susan Baxter from Georgia on August 15, 2013:

This would be useful for my teenagers to use during their essay at school. Thank you.

Virginia Kearney (author) from United States on March 17, 2012:

Aubria--thanks for your comment. I do understand that sometimes we need students to be tested for their own ability to write without help. I do that too. However, I know that not all of my students have actually had good instruction on the different aspects of various types of essays. Often the instructions in textbooks aren't as clear as they could be.

Virginia Kearney (author) from United States on November 17, 2011:

Thanks so much kerlynb! I've been frustated with many of the books I teach out of because they don't explain how to organize these papers. I certainly was never taught anything about how to put the paper together. So after a few years of college teaching, I started analyzing the essays in my textbooks and also the best student essays and came up with my series of "How to write" papers. I've been amazed how many views they get each day. I'm so glad if I can help students!

kerlynb from Philippines, Southeast Asia, Earth ^_^ on November 17, 2011:

Just where were you when I was in HS? This is so useful! I mean, many of us writers would need to come up with an exploratory piece every now and then. Have to vote this one up and useful :)

Related Articles