Above all else, I want to write so clearly and accurately that others see things exactly the way I do.
Explaining is the task of working writers everywhere. To explain is to make some concept, event, or process clear to your reader, to expose or reveal it. (Another name for explanatory writing is expository writing.) In college, you may be asked to explain chemical processes by writing a laboratory report, literary events by writing a book report, political, sociological, or historical events in papers for those disciplines.
One of the distinguishing characteristics of much—but certainly not all—explanatory writing is objectivity. While it's virtually impossible for writers to achieve complete objectivity—to separate themselves from the ways they've learned to see the world—in explanatory writing, it's useful to try. Most of the time, to explain clearly requires writers to put themselves, along with their biases, in the background and their subject in the foreground, so that readers may see and understand it, as much as possible, for what it is.
Explanatory writing is defined not so much by its subject (which can be almost anything) as by the way the subject is treated. When you write to explain, you are answering one or more of these questions:
What is it? (define)
Where is it?
Where is it?
How is it related to other things? (compare/contrast)
How is it held together? (synthesize)
In college classes, explanation often takes the form of research essays and reports that inform rather than remember, reflect, argue, or interpret. The assignment may ask you to describe how something works or to explain the causes and effects of a particular phenomenon. To explain anything successfully, you need a limited and defined topic, a clear sense of who you are writing to, information about your topic that goes beyond common knowledge, and organized explanatory strategies. And you need to focus on the thing being explained rather than on your feelings and opinions about it.
When I teach first-year writing classes, I commonly ask students to join together in small groups to investigate a local issue and, together, write a report to the rest of us explaining its significance. In the following example, a group of six students wrote a collaborative paper investigating the water-treatment plant in the city of Burlington, Vermont. Here, they explain the nature of the pollution that periodically closes the beaches on Lake Champlain:
The sewage overflow usually takes place after heavy rains. The sewage and storm waters are handled by the same pipe, and the pipe can't handle both the sewage and the rain water. Then the overflow goes to the lake instead of the treatment plant. The real bummer is that the beaches are closed two to three days after.
This example is simple, clear, quite general, and effective for its intended audience. (By the way, the colloquial term bummer in the last line is a good indicator of the audience for whom the group is writing—other college students.)
Later in the same essay, the water-treatment group provides a more detailed explanation of the lake pollution:
Vermont has always been a casual, back to nature, "no worries" state. During the last few years the Burlington Sewage Treatment Plant has had problems containing large quantities of effluent that are deposited during and after a rain storm. Its effluent is rich in nitrates, phosphorus and bacteria and the introduction of unnatural levels of substances by the sewage plant is one of the lake's major sources of pollution (Miller 130).
Here, they start off casually, calling Vermont a "no worries state," but quickly get down to business, buttressing their own explanation with a reference (Miller 130) in case the reader wants to check sources. Notice that in both of these examples the writers mix informal with formal language to explain most clearly. In fact, the very best explanations usually use the writer's simplest, most direct, comfortable language. Notice, too, how explaining relies on defining and describing to achieve clarity.
When you write to explain, keep these three guidelines in mind: First, explanatory writing emphasizes the thing explained rather than the writer's beliefs and feelings. Second, explanatory writing focuses on the reader's need for information rather than the writer's desire for self-expression. Third, explanatory writing has a stated thesis, clear explanatory strategies, and a logical organizational structure.
To explain material delivered in lectures or found in textbooks, it's a good idea to do so in your own words—which shows you have digested and understood the ideas—but also to quote selectively from your sources for further support. In any case, when explaining material for specific courses, be sure to use the language and conventions of the discipline to which the course belongs.
Let's look more closely at the basic strategies of explanatory (expository) discourse, including the operations of defining, describing, comparing/contrasting, analyzing, and synthesizing, as well as the basic formats of reports, summaries, and abstracts.
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