What is Expository Writing?

I’m not sure I know, and I don’t think you do either.

Let’s look at some definitions of expository writing, all from .edu sites. First, a site that is, oddly enough, hosted at Stanford’s website but updated by people with umich.edu emails, “Information about Expository Writing“:

Exposition is a type of oral or written discourse that is used to explain, describe, give information or inform. The creator of an expository text can not assume that the reader or listener has prior knowledge or prior understanding of the topic that is being discussed. One important point to keep in mind for the author is to try to use words that clearly show what they are talking about rather then blatantly telling the reader what is being discussed. Since clarity requires strong organization, one of the most important mechanisms that can be used to improve our skills in exposition is to provide directions to improve the organization of the text.

The first sentence stops me with a bit of a “Huh?” (This will be a continuing pattern.) I suppose this definition is trying to carve out a space for exposition that is different than persuasion, but the more I think about, the less I buy it. When are we not explaining/informing? There’s lots of explaining in persuasive discourse. We could even make a case that there is a sort of “explaining” that happens in nondiscursive forms, like music and visual art.

But what makes this definition stand out is its focus on what all this explaining means for a writer: that you focus really, really hard on having clear organization. So exposition is all about clarity, which seems to say, “Do you want to make turns toward the creative, toward the beautiful, toward the purposefully roundabout, toward the non-Western? Well, this isn’t the place, buster!” (Am I being too harsh?)

Here’s how expository writing is defined at WikiEd, a College of Education endeavor at the U of Illinois Urbana-Champaign:

Expository writing is the process of writing to communicate information to an audience. It is often an explanation or a process, and tends to emphasize well-organized and concise information.

Again, my first reaction is kind of a dumbfounded silence. “Okay,” I should ask myself when writing, “am I communicating information? Is it for an audience? I guess it’s expository writing, and I ought to be well-organized and concise!”

Professor Marilyn Ivanovici posts a pdf handout on “The Elements of Effective Expository Writing,” listing 12 of them. Here we learn that

The purpose of expository writing is to explain something, that is, to provide readers with information worth knowing and thinking about.

And by implication, other forms of writing/communication are of the kind that aren’t necessarily worth thinking about….? (I’m being harsh, I’ve decided.)

Finally, there’s a chart of possible organizational structures you can use in your expository writing over at Marla DeSoto’s page at Glendale Community College. I find I like this better, if only because of the way the page design emphasizes that there isn’t a single, rigid, 5-paragraph essay design that will give you the best expository writing. We’re told that organization matters because “one of the most important mechanisms to improve skills in exposition is to improve the organization of the text.”

That leads me to Big Question #1: In what ways, exactly, is this emphasis on clarity and organizational perfection different from professional writing? The answer: expository writing instruction seems to focus on making students better at the imaginary academic essay genre, while professional writing seems to focus on making students better at real professional writing genres that they’ll encounter in “the workplace” (whatever that is). I didn’t see any emphasis on these pages on using bullets, headings, extraordinarily clear first sentences. So why are we so dedicated to keeping up this front of artful, essayistic indirection when we tell students over and over to be clear?

Which leads to Big Question #2: If we want our students to use artful, essayistic indirection, to be perfect little Montaignes, why not use examples and techniques from creative writing? There’s plenty of amazing work going on in the creative nonfiction and memoir world right now, and there’s a lot that can be learned from the creative writing workshop model that would help our students find a more engaging style, more natural and beautiful forms of organization, and so on.

But here’s the thing: let’s not present students with the claim that they have to somehow find a middle ground between these professional and creative writing poles, that they must write ¬†stunningly, beautifully, and still with absolute clarity. Right? Wouldn’t some genres/situations demand more or less of this, not both at the same time?

So in the end, I’m not saying I know what expository writing is. I think I’d rather say that nonfiction writers choose from a variety of techniques, depending on the particular rhetorical situation they’re in, and that those situations may demand more or less clarity, more or less pizazz.


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