Have you ever gotten stuck trying to finish a task? You can’t figure out what to do or how to finish it. You go to your favorite search engine online, ask your question, and read an answer. This universal experience shows how almost everyone needs written explanations to understand complex information or processes. This type of writing is called exposition.
Rhetorical modes are the different patterns or structures for organizing writing. These structures are related to the general purpose of your essay, such as to persuade, describe, or narrate. Exposition is a rhetorical mode whose purpose is to explain or inform. This rhetorical mode contains many diverse forms of writing. From recipes to album reviews to political explainers, exposition provides explanations and information about the world.
You may see "exposition" when discussing and analyzing narratives. Narrative is the rhetorical mode that tells stories. In narratives, exposition is the background information needed to explain the plot and characters of the story. There are three parts to an exposition in a narrative: the setting, characters, and background.
An example of exposition in a narrative would be the information provided at the beginning of a fairytale. For example, a retelling of "Cinderella" would have this exposition at the beginning: "Once upon a time, in a faraway kingdom, there lived a girl named Cinderella, who was the stepdaughter and servant of an evil stepmother." This exposition introduces the characters (Cinderella and her stepmother), the setting (a faraway kingdom), and provides the background information (Cinderella is a servant to her stepmother).
Exposition as a rhetorical mode is a very different type of writing. For example, a recipe or an album review would be an example of exposition as a rhetorical mode. While both explain information, there is a difference you should recognize between the meanings of "exposition." Know that exposition in narrative refers to a story's background information, while exposition as a rhetorical mode refers to nonfiction writing that explains or informs.
Importance of Exposition
Exposition is one of the most common and essential rhetorical modes. At some point, everyone needs information explained to them. You are reading a piece of exposition on exposition right now! The world is a complicated place, and exposition as a rhetorical mode can help people make sense of it. Exposition can also assist people when they need to know how to perform new activities or tasks. For example, when you are a new driver, you read about proper driving procedures, such as merging into traffic.
Exposition serves an essential purpose in helping people learn and use further information.
People learn valuable information from exposition, such as computer manuals
Several forms of writing make up exposition. The most common forms of expository writing include:
Cause and effect
Compare and contrast
Cause and Effect
Cause and effect writing examines the roots of a problem and its results. A cause is the root of an event or problem, and an effect is what results from it. Implementing cause and effect in an essay aims to trace the origins of a problem and think about its effects. For example, you could write a cause-and-effect essay exploring the roots of Instagram and how it has affected teenagers' self-esteem. Cause and effect essays overlap with argumentative essays because the effects of an event or problem are often debatable. If you were writing about the impact of Instagram on teenagers, you could debate whether teens' decreased attention spans have their roots in Instagram or other factors.
Classification involves taking broad topics and breaking them down into smaller, more specific topics. The purpose is to help make information understandable by splitting it into different parts. Classification is a common form of exposition. In fact, you are reading a piece of writing based on classification right now! You use classification all the time in your daily life. You break down the music you like into different genres and the material you learn in school into multiple subjects. To write a strong classification essay, you need to understand your topic well to break it down into smaller topics.
Compare and Contrast
A compare and contrast essay examines the similarities and differences between items or topics. Comparison explores their similarities, while contrast identifies the different elements. A compare-and-contrast paper analyzes these two subjects' similarities and differences. An essay can contain both comparison and contrast or only one of the two. In an essay focusing on comparison, you will want to select two or more seemingly different subjects and identify their similarities. Concentrating on contrasts in an essay will lead to exploring the minor differences between two similar topics.
Definition focuses on explaining the extended meaning of a word or term. When you think of definition, you may think that this type of writing states dictionary definitions of words. However, explaining and incorporating definitions into essays is trickier than you might assume. Definition focuses on terms that have debatable meanings. You can discuss the meaning of words, especially if they describe abstract concepts.
For example, people will have different opinions about the meaning of "American democracy." Experts will have varying ideas about what American democracy should look like and will have different definitions of it. Further, people's morality or background can influence their definition of a word. For example, a native citizen and an immigrant of the country will have different definitions of the word "homeland." In a definition essay, you will want to focus on defining words associated with concepts or ideas that are abstract.
Evaluation is writing which makes an informed judgment about a subject. You have encountered evaluation frequently in reviews for movies, music, apps, or games. While evaluation is your opinion on the subject, you should be knowledgeable about the subject and evaluate it fairly. In an evaluation essay, you should also develop evaluative criteria.
Evaluative criteria: standards used to make a judgment about a subject.
For example, there are different criteria you could use to evaluate a movie. You could judge the film based on its technical components, entertainment value, loyalty to the source material, or adherence to a particular political viewpoint. Before writing your evaluation of a subject, fully understand the criteria you will use to create a more informed and fair judgment.
Process analysis breaks down and explains various processes. You can explain how to do something or how something works. In either type of process analysis, you will clearly break down the steps of a process and explain them to a reader. The purpose of process analysis is to provide clear instructions. People use these instructions daily to perform tasks, especially those that are new to them. Think of online how-to articles or instructions you receive in class.
Good process analyses have clear steps which are easy to understand and follow. Writing a solid process analysis requires you to thoroughly know your topic to write each and every step needed to complete the process or explain exactly how something works. To help you think about clear steps, recall the frustrating directions you have read for school or online. Some can be vague or missing key pieces of information. In a good process analysis, the written steps should be clear enough that anyone can follow them.
Examples of Exposition
These different types of exposition are common in nonfiction writing.
These forms help to present information the author wants to explain. For example, compare and contrast is a common form to inform the audience about the similarities and differences between a topic. In "Two Ways to Belong in America," Bharti Mukherjee compares her immigration experience in Canada and the United States with her sister's. Mukherjee became a naturalized citizen in the United States after Canada made stricter immigration laws. Her sister legally works in the United States as a non-citizen and may have to leave the country after the United States considers stricter laws. Mukherjee compares their experiences with leaving a country to reveal this insight:
"I felt then the same sense of betrayal that Mira feels now. I will never forget the pain of that sudden turning, and the casual racist outbursts the Green Paper elicited. That sense of betrayal had its desired effect and drove me, and thousands like me, from the country."1
The purpose of Mukherjee's comparing her and her sister's experiences is to reveal the difficulty of the immigrant experience, especially when policies do not view their contributions to their new country as equal to those of citizens. By structuring the entire essay around comparing and contrasting their two experiences, Mukherjee can provide insight into the unfairness of this system.
Comparison between personal experiences is common in personal essays.
Essays can also incorporate multiple forms of exposition. Lars Eigner's classic essay "On Dumpster Diving" contains various forms of exposition to explain his dumpster diving experiences. Eigner uses definition exposition at the beginning of his essay by defining terms like "dumpster diving" and "scavenging" to the readers. Below, he defines "scavenging," which he describes in contrast to the average person's consumption.
"I like the frankness of the word 'scavenging,' which I can hardly think of without picturing a big black snail on an aquarium wall. I live from the refuse of others. I am a scavenger. I think it a sound and honorable niche, although if I could I would naturally prefer to live the comfortable consumer life, perhaps — and only perhaps — as a slightly less wasteful consumer owing to what I have learned as a scavenger."2
Eigner continues his essay with classification exposition by classifying the different food he encountered during his dives and whether they were good. He then implements process analysis exposition by describing how to perform a dive.
"By far the best way to go through a Dumpster is to lower yourself into it. Most of the good stuff tends to settle at the bottom because it is usually weightier than the rubbish. My more athletic companions have often demonstrated to me that they can extract much good material from a Dumpster I have already been over. To those psychologically or physically unprepared to enter a Dumpster, I recommend a stout stick, preferably with some barb or hook at one end. The hook can be used to grab plastic garbage bags. When I find canned goods or other objects loose at the bottom of a Dumpster I usually can roll them into a small bag that I can then hoist up."2
The inclusion of these different forms of exposition serves several purposes. Eigner includes his definitions and classifications of the various food items to demonstrate how wasteful people can be. Outlining the process of dumpster diving also seeks to destigmatize it. Incorporating these different forms together gets the reader to consider the amount of waste they produce and potential ways they can reduce it.
You can find exposition in all types of writing, but authors frequently use it when making persuasive arguments. Which kind of exposition do you think would best support an argument?
You may need to write an exposition essay in high school or college. You may have to compare and contrast two pieces of literature, explore the causes and effects of a historical event, or classify observations you made in physics. These tips will help you write an exposition essay.
Know your purpose for writing. Is your essay based on comparing two subjects? Explaining a process? Knowing your purpose will help you understand what type of exposition you will use in your essay. Understanding whether you will define a concept or explain cause and effect will assist you in planning your essay.
Have a strong understanding of your topic. You will need insight on your topic to write comparisons or explain processes. Ensure you strongly understand your topic to find minor differences or break down the material. Review your topic and research any areas that you struggle to understand.
Select forms of exposition that support your purpose. Like the essay "On Dumpster Diving," you may need to use multiple forms of exposition in your essay. You can determine which forms work best based on your purpose and topic. For example, in an essay for a lab report, you may classify the results of an experiment into categories and then compare and contrast them.
Exposition - Key Takeaways
- Exposition is the rhetorical mode whose purpose is to explain or inform.
- In narratives, exposition refers to the background information found within a narrative, which includes the setting, characters, and background.
- Exposition is an important form of writing that explains important information and processes to others.
- There are several common forms of exposition: cause and effect, classification, compare/contrast, definition, evaluation, and process analysis.
- To write expositions, you need to know your purpose for writing, have a strong understanding of your topic, and then select forms of exposition that support your purpose.
- Bharti Mukherjee, "Two Ways to Belong in America," 1996.
- Lars Eigner, "On Dumpster Diving," 1992.