Writing Explanation Essays

Almost all students will at some time be expected to write an essay, or some other kind of argument, e.g. a review or discussion section, in a longer piece of writing. In English, an essay is a piece of argumentative writing several paragraphs long written about one topic, usually based on your reading. The aim of the essay should be deduced strictly from the wording of the title or question (See Academic Writing: Understanding the Question), and needs to be defined at the beginning. The purpose of an essay is for you to say something for yourself using the ideas of the subject, for you to present ideas you have learned in your own way. The emphasis should be on working with other people's ideas, rather than reproducing their words, but your own voice should show clearly. The ideas and people that you refer to need to made explicit by a system of referencing.

According to Linda Flower (1990, p. v), "students are reading to create a text of their own, trying to integrate information from sources with ideas of their own, and attempting to do so under the guidance of a purpose."

2. Main text

English essays are linear:

- they start at the beginning and finish at the end, with every part contributing to the main line of argument, without digressions or repetition. Writers are responsible for making their line of argument clear and presenting it in an orderly fashion so that the reader can follow. Each paragraph discusses one major point and each paragraph should lead directly to the next. The paragraphs are tied together with an introduction and a conclusion.

The main text of the essay has three main parts:

  1. An introduction
  2. A main body
  3. A conclusion

    The introduction consists of two parts:

    1. It should include a few general statements about the subject to provide a background to your essay and to attract the reader's attention. It should try to explain why you are writing the essay. It may include a definition of terms in the context of the essay, etc.
    2. It should also include a statement of the specific subdivisions of the topic and/or indication of how the topic is going to be tackled in order to specifically address the question.

    It should introduce the central idea or the main purpose of the writing.

    The main body consists of one or more paragraphs of ideas and arguments. Each paragraph develops a subdivision of the topic. The paragraphs of the essay contain the main ideas and arguments of the essay together with illustrations or examples. The paragraphs are linked in order to connect the ideas. The purpose of the essay must be made clear and the reader must be able to follow its development.

    The conclusion includes the writer's final points.

    1. It should recall the issues raised in the introduction and draw together the points made in the main body
    2. and explain the overall significance of the conclusions. What general points can be drawn from the essay as a whole?

    It should clearly signal to the reader that the essay is finished and leave a clear impression that the purpose of the essay has been achieved.

Essays are organised differently according to their purpose. Essays can be divided into the following main types.

1. The descriptive essay

a. Description of object or place

b. Describing a sequence of events.

c. Describing a process

d. Describing and explaining

2. The argument essay

a. The balanced view

b. The persuasive essay

c. The to what extent essay.

3. Compare and contrast essays

a. The contrast essay

b. The compare essay

c. The compare and contrast essays

1. The descriptive essay

a. Description of object or place

Describe essays require you to state the appearance of something, or to state the major characteristics of it. Note the word state i.e. you are not asked to comment on the subject or to give your personal point of view on it. Questions are often introduced by:

Describe ....
Narrate...
Tell....

Plan:

Introduction

major aspects of the subject.

description of aspect A

description of aspect B

etc.

Conclusion

See: Academic Writing: Functions - Describing objects, locations & directions

b. Describing a sequence of events.

Describing a sequence of events is simply telling a story.

State clearly when events happened or how one event caused another. Questions may be introduced by:

Give an account of...
Trace...
Examine developments in...

Intoduction

First situation

then A happened

then B happened

etc.

Final situation

Conclusion

See: Academic Writing: Functions - Reporting & narrating

c. Describing a process

This is like telling a story but here the connections between the facts must be clearly shown and explained. Group the events into steps or stages.

Examples of such questions are :

Explain/What is the connection between...
Describe the procedures by which...

Definition of process

Main equipment/Main steps

Step One

leads to

Step Two

leads to

Step Three

Conclusion

Summary of process

See: Academic Writing: Functions - Describing processes & developments

d. Describing and explaining

Some of the words and phrases which introduce this type of description are:

Explain the causes/reasons....
Account for....
Analyse the causes....
Comment on (the reasons for)....
Show that....
Show why...
Examine the effect of....
Suggest reasons for....
Why did...?
What are the implications of...?
Discuss the causes of....
Discuss the reasons for....

When we are asked to describe or explain causes, factors, functions or results, the examiner wants us to group our facts. Similar causes are put together, for instance the economic causes of a situation. There are basically two main ways to organise this type of essay.

The question is "Describe the causes of A. Illustrate your answer by specific examples."

i.

Introduction to causes of A

Cause 1 + example

Effects 1

Cause 2 with example

Effects 2

Cause 3 with examples

Effects 3

Cause 4 with example

Effects 4

etc.

Conclusion

ii.

Introduction to causes of A

Causes + examples

Transition

Effects

Conclusion

See: Academic Writing: Functions - Expressing reasons and explanations / cause and effect

2. The argument essay

There are two main methods of presenting an argument, and in general the one you choose will depend on exactly how the essay title is worded.

a. The balanced view

If the essay title begins with something like:

Give the arguments for and against....
Assess the importance of....
Examine the arguments for and against....
What are the advantages and disadvantages of...?
Evaluate....
Critically examine the statement that....
To what extent is...true?

or even just the word

Discuss....

then it is clear that a balanced essay is required. That is to say you should present both sides of an argument, without necessarily committing yourself to any points of view, which should always be based on evidence, until the final paragraph.

At its simplest your essay plan will be as follows:

Introduce the argument to the reader.

e.g. why it is particularly relevant topic nowadays
or refer directly to some comments that have been voiced on it recently.

Reasons against the argument

Reasons in favour of the argument

After summarising the two sides,
state your own point of view,
and explain why you think as you do

See: Academic Writing: Functions - Arguing and discussing; - Expressing degrees of certainty; - Generalising; - Comparing and contrasting: similarities and differences; - Giving examples

b. The persuasive essay

This second type of argumentative essay involves stating your own point of view immediately, and trying to convince the reader by reasoned argument that you are right. Perhaps the essay title will begin with something like:

Give your views on....
What do you think about...?
Do you agree that...?
Consider whether....

Or perhaps the title itself will be so controversial that everyone will hold a definite opinion in one direction or another.

The form of the essay will be, in outline, as follows:

Introduce the topic briefly in general terms,

and then state your own opinion.

Explain what you plan to prove in the essay.

Reasons against the argument.

Dispose briefly of the main objections to your case.

Reasons for your argument

the arguments to support your own view,

with evidence and examples.

Conclusion - Do not repeat your point of view again.

End your essay with something memorable

e.g. a quotation or a direct question.

See: Academic Writing: Functions - Arguing and discussing; - Expressing degrees of certainty; - Generalising; - Comparing and contrasting: similarities and differences; - Giving examples

c. The to what extent essay

In this type of essay the examiner is giving you a statement. It is obviously true but truth is never 100%. You must decide how true it is? Are there some areas where you disagree with the statement. If so, describe how far you agree, and your points of agreement and disagreement. Words used in the question are:

To what extent ....
How true ....
How far do you agree....

A possible answer structure is:

Introduction to problem

Aspect 1 - true

Aspect 1 - false

Aspect 2 - true

Aspect 2 - false

Aspect 3 - true

Aspect 3 - false

etc

Conclusion

a ‘subtraction’ sum

See: Academic Writing: Functions - Arguing and discussing; - Expressing degrees of certainty; - Generalising; - Comparing and contrasting: similarities and differences; - Giving examples

3. Compare and contrast essays.

a The Contrast essay

Contrast or distinguish between questions usually present you with two or more terms, instruments, concepts or procedures that are closely connected, and sometimes confused. The purpose of the essay is to explain the differences between them. The question may be of the form:

Contrast ....
Distinguish between ...
What is the difference between....
What are the differences between....
How are ... and ... different?

A suitable answer structure would be:

Introduction to differences between A and B

Contrast A & B in terms of first difference

Contrast A & B in terms of second difference

Contrast A & B in terms of third difference

etc

Conclusion

See: Academic Writing: Functions - Comparing and contrasting: similarities and differences; - Defining; - Generalising; - Giving examples

b. The Compare essay

Compare questions usually present you with two or more terms, instruments, concepts or procedures that are closely connected, and sometimes confused. The purpose of the essay is to explain the similarities between them. Words used are:

Compare ....
What features do ... and ... have in common?
What are the similarities between....
How are ... and ... similar?

A suitable answer structure would be:

Introduction to similarities between A and B

Compare A & B

in terms of first similarity

Compare A & B

in terms of second similarity

Compare A & B

in terms of third similarity

etc.

Conclusion

See: Academic Writing: Functions - Comparing and contrasting: similarities and differences; - Defining; - Generalising; - Giving examples

c. The compare and contrast essay

Compare and contrast essays require you to indicate areas in which the things to be compared are similar and different.

Compare and contrast....

There are two main ways to answer such questions:

i.

Introduction to differences and similarities between A and B

Difference 1

Difference 2

Difference 3

etc.

Transition

Similarity 1

Similarity 2

Similarity 3

etc.

Conclusion

ii.

Introduction to differences and similarities between A and B

Aspect 1 - similarities

Aspect 1 - differences

Aspect 2 - similarities

Aspect 2 - differences

Aspect 3 - similarities

Aspect 3 - differences

etc

Conclusion

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To write a good essay, you firstly need to have a clear understanding of what the essay question is asking you to do. Looking at the essay question in close detail will help you to identify the topic and ‘directive words’ (Dhann, 2001), which instruct you how to answer the question. Understanding the meaning of these directive words is a vital first step in producing your essay.

This glossary provides definitions of some of the more typical words that you may come across in an essay question. Please note that these definitions are meant to provide general, rather than exact guidance, and are not a substitute for reading the question carefully. Get this wrong, and you risk the chance of writing an essay that lacks focus, or is irrelevant.

You are advised to use this glossary in conjunction with the following Study Guides: Writing essays and Thought mapping written by Student Learning Development.

Essay termDefinition
Analyse
Break an issue into its constituent parts. Look in depth at each part using supporting arguments and evidence for and against as well as how these interrelate to one another.
AssessWeigh up to what extent something is true. Persuade the reader of your argument by citing relevant research but also remember to point out any flaws and counter-arguments as well. Conclude by stating clearly how far you are in agreement with the original proposition.
ClarifyLiterally make something clearer and, where appropriate, simplify it. This could involve, for example, explaining in simpler terms a complex process or theory, or the relationship between two variables.
Comment uponPick out the main points on a subject and give your opinion, reinforcing your point of view using logic and reference to relevant evidence, including any wider reading you have done.
CompareIdentify the similarities and differences between two or more phenomena. Say if any of the shared similarities or differences are more important than others. ‘Compare’ and ‘contrast’ will often feature together in an essay question.
ConsiderSay what you think and have observed about something. Back up your comments using appropriate evidence from external sources, or your own experience. Include any views which are contrary to your own and how they relate to what you originally thought.
ContrastSimilar to compare but concentrate on the dissimilarities between two or more phenomena, or what sets them apart. Point out any differences which are particularly significant.
Critically evaluateGive your verdict as to what extent a statement or findings within a piece of research are true, or to what extent you agree with them. Provide evidence taken from a wide range of sources which both agree with and contradict an argument. Come to a final conclusion, basing your decision on what you judge to be the most important factors and justify how you have made your choice.
DefineTo give in precise terms the meaning of something. Bring to attention any problems posed with the definition and different interpretations that may exist.
DemonstrateShow how, with examples to illustrate.
DescribeProvide a detailed explanation as to how and why something happens.
DiscussEssentially this is a written debate where you are using your skill at reasoning, backed up by carefully selected evidence to make a case for and against an argument, or point out the advantages and disadvantages of a given context. Remember to arrive at a conclusion.
ElaborateTo give in more detail, provide more information on.
EvaluateSee the explanation for ‘critically evaluate’.
ExamineLook in close detail and establish the key facts and important issues surrounding a topic. This should be a critical evaluation and you should try and offer reasons as to why the facts and issues you have identified are the most important, as well as explain the different ways they could be construed.
ExplainClarify a topic by giving a detailed account as to how and why it occurs, or what is meant by the use of this term in a particular context. Your writing should have clarity so that complex procedures or sequences of events can be understood, defining key terms where appropriate, and be substantiated with relevant research.
ExploreAdopt a questioning approach and consider a variety of different viewpoints. Where possible reconcile opposing views by presenting a final line of argument.
Give an account ofMeans give a detailed description of something. Not to be confused with ‘account for’ which asks you not only what, but why something happened.
IdentifyDetermine what are the key points to be addressed and implications thereof.
IllustrateA similar instruction to ‘explain’ whereby you are asked to show the workings of something, making use of definite examples and statistics if appropriate to add weight to your explanation.
InterpretDemonstrate your understanding of an issue or topic. This can be the use of particular terminology by an author, or what the findings from a piece of research suggest to you. In the latter instance, comment on any significant patterns and causal relationships.
JustifyMake a case by providing a body of evidence to support your ideas and points of view. In order to present a balanced argument, consider opinions which may run contrary to your own before stating your conclusion.
OutlineConvey the main points placing emphasis on global structures and interrelationships rather than minute detail.
ReviewLook thoroughly into a subject. This should be a critical assessment and not merely descriptive.
Show howPresent, in a logical order, and with reference to relevant evidence the stages and combination of factors that give rise to something.
StateTo specify in clear terms the key aspects pertaining to a topic without being overly descriptive. Refer to evidence and examples where appropriate.
SummariseGive a condensed version drawing out the main facts and omit superfluous information. Brief or general examples will normally suffice for this kind of answer.
To what extentEvokes a similar response to questions containing 'How far...'. This type of question calls for a thorough assessment of the evidence in presenting your argument. Explore alternative explanations where they exist.

References

Dhann, S., (2001) How to ... 'Answer assignment questions'. Accessed 12/09/11. http://www.education.ex.ac.uk/dll/studyskills/answering_questions.htm

The following resources have also been consulted in writing this guide:

Johnson, R., (1996) Essay instruction terms. Accessed 12/09/11. http://www.mantex.co.uk/samples/inst.htm

Student Study Support Unit Canterbury Christchurch College (no date) Common terms in essay questions. Accessed 22/02/08. http://www.wmin.ac.uk/page-2714

Taylor, A.M. and Turner, J., (2004) Key words used in examination questions and essay titles. Accessed 12/09/11 http://www.reading.ac.uk/internal/studyadvice/StudyResources/Essays/sta-planningessay.aspx#answering

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