Effective Ways To Prewrite Expository Essays

I’m a traveler. During my journeys, I have met myriad travelers, each with different ways of traveling.

One of the most interesting differences I’ve noticed has been the various ways in which travelers prepare for a trip. Interestingly, it mirrors the different prewriting strategies writers use to prepare for an essay.

On one end of the spectrum, there is what I call “The Hippie.” This traveler doesn’t plan anything. He shows up at the bus station and asks for the next bus out, regardless of where it is heading.

There are many people who do the same thing when writing an essay, jumping in without any plan.

On the other end of the spectrum, there is what I affectionately call “My Mom.” Now, when “My Mom” travels, everything is planned downed to the minute. This traveler knows where she will eat, sleep, and pee before the wheels have even begun rolling in the direction of her destination.

Similarly, there are writers who plan every dotted “i” and crossed “t,” to use an old expression, before actually sitting down to write their essays.

Obviously, these travelers/writers are quite different in regards to their planning habits. Just as there are many ways to prepare for a trip, there are many strategies for preparing for your next essay that fall somewhere between the above extremes.

Let’s take a look at 6 prewriting strategies to get your essay rolling.

What Is Prewriting and Why Do I Need to Do It?

First, what is prewriting exactly? In this handout from Duke, prewriting is defined as “a blanket term for a wide range of techniques to start thinking about your paper before you begin the formal process of writing a draft.”

Pretty standard, self-explanatory stuff there. Prewriting is all the work you do on your essay before actually writing it. Essentially, the prewriting process begins the moment you read your assignment.

All of the thought and work you put into your subject–including your research, your outlining, and your notes on napkins–are part of the prewriting process. This process takes time, but it is worthwhile.

Although traveling like “The Hippie” can be exciting and freeing, any veteran traveler will tell you it isn’t the best way to travel. If you travel without any plan whatsoever, you will end up looking back at the end of your trip and realizing you missed out on something exciting that was nearby, because you didn’t even know it was there.

Similarly, writing like “The Hippie” is less than ideal. Without any prewriting, there’s a good chance you will look back at your finished draft and realize you missed something important. Think of it like traveling without a map. You might get to your destination eventually, but you’re probably going to take an unconventional and inefficient path.

Just jumping right in can be overwhelming, too. The idea with prewriting is to get your essay rolling in the right direction in a manageable way. If done correctly, it can give you the chance to get your ideas straight and think about what style, strategy, and form your essay will follow. This takes a lot of stress off of you when it comes time to actually sit down to write.

Now, I’m not arguing for writing like “My Mom” either,  but a small amount of structured prewriting time can go a long way towards making your essay more well-rounded and complete.

Our goal will be to identify some healthy and productive prewriting strategies that can help to get your essay rolling in the right direction, toward a finished product that you can be proud of.

Note that just as there are varied types of travelers, all writers are different too. The prewriting strategy that works best for you might not work so well for another writer. Identifying the best prewriting strategy for your learning and writing styles takes time and practice.

Below is a list of some of the most common approaches.

Prewriting Strategy 1: Brainstorming or Listing

There is a good chance that your brain is swimming with thoughts, ideas, questions, and answers related to your topic. Brainstorming gives you the chance to extract as many of these ideas as possible.

Take a few blank pieces of paper. At the top of one, write down your focus. This could be the writing prompt, a sentence, an idea, or simply a word related to your essay.

Once you have this in front of you, start jotting down all of the words and phrases that pop into your head. Don’t write in complete sentences. Don’t worry about grammar or spelling. Keep going for ten minutes.

When you are finished, take a look at your list and see which ideas stand out to you. Which ones grab your attention? Which ones are worth focusing and expanding upon?

The KU Writing Center suggests that you group your items in a way that makes sense to you and then label each group. This gives you points of interest to focus on in your paper. Keep these points of interest handy, because we can use them with the next strategy.

Prewriting Strategy 2: Freewriting

Freewriting takes the general idea behind brainstorming a step further. Instead of just writing words or phrases, with freewriting, you will write full sentences.

Again, take a blank piece of paper and set a timer for 10 minutes. Start by writing down a sentence related to your paper, and then DON’T STOP. Whatever comes to mind related to your subject, write it down, disregarding anything related to grammar.

The idea is to keep your pen moving, writing sentences nonstop to see what comes out. If you get stuck, you can rewrite the previous sentence. Just keep writing. The point isn’t to draft writing that will be turned in to your professor. Instead, you’re hoping to find a few sentences buried in your freewriting that can help focus your ideas.

Now, remember those points of interest that you came up with while brainstorming? You can use each one as the first sentence in separate freewriting activities, giving yourself a chance to expand them into sentences.

Prewriting Strategy 3: Mapping or Clustering

Are you a visual learner? Can you better understand a subject when you can see it? Then, why not draw a picture of your essay?

“Mapping” or “Clustering” has long been one of the best prewriting strategies for making a paper more manageable. And, now that you have lots of keywords and phrases from the last two strategies, you are ready to give it a try.

The idea is to take the most important word or phrase from you essay and write it in the middle of your paper with a circle around it. Then, think of the key points related to that subject. Write each of these in circles that surround the central topic and connect to it by lines.

Check out this clustering example from Santa Barbara City College to see what I mean.

As you can see, the more you think about each connected point, the more your map will grow. Eventually, you will run out of related ideas. You can then take a step back and look at your web of ideas.

Check out this online mind mapping tool, if you prefer to work from your computer. Oh, and here is another cool free online mind mapping tool. Mind mapping, in general, can be a great tool for finding the main ideas of your paper, which can then be developed in the next strategy.

Prewriting Strategy 4: Journalist’s Questions

You now have a better grasp of the main ideas in your paper. However, you need to make sure that you haven’t missed something along the way.

Journalists ask certain questions every time they write a story:

  • Who?
  • What?
  • Where?
  • When?
  • Why?
  • How?

You can ask yourself these same questions in relation to your essay topic in order to make sure you have covered all bases and also to help you focus your topic.

Depending on the topic of your essay, you might have a lot to say about Who? and very little to say about What? However, in your next essay, it may very well be the opposite. Don’t worry. Let the topic guide your answers to the questions, which will help you to hone in on the most important aspects you will need to cover.

Prewriting Strategy 5: Outlining

Once, you feel like you have a strong grasp on the aspects of your essay that you will focus on, and you’ve used some great prewriting strategies to explore them, you can move on to forming the skeleton of your essay, known as an outline.

The outline will help you to organize your information in a structure that will work for your paper. This is the moment in the process when you start thinking about your thesis statement, so you can organize an introduction, body, and conclusion to your essay that works best for your main idea.

We’ve already created several great resources related to outlines on this blog, including posts on 5-paragraph essay outlines, argumentative essay outlines, and expository essay outlines.

Even if your essay doesn’t fall neatly into one of these categories, the information provided will help you to get your essay outline started.

Prewriting Strategy 6: Critical Reading

The last prewriting strategy I want to talk about is critical reading. Once a preliminary thesis has been developed in your outline, it is important to keep critical reading in mind when researching your subject.

Don’t mindlessly read and take notes–highlighting everything in your source is going to make things more difficult later in the writing process.

Instead, focus on your thesis and the areas of your sources that relate to it. York University describes critical reading as talking directly to the author in your mind. Let that author guide your thoughts and notes while reading about your subject.

Final Thoughts on Prewriting Strategies

While taking a look at the above list of prewriting strategies, did any particular one jump out at you? If so, give it a try. If it doesn’t work out the way you hoped, amend it to fit your needs or try another strategy. Eventually you will find a prewriting routine that fits your needs and leads to a beautifully well-rounded essay.

An interesting way to help with this process is to understand your personality type, as it can affect your writing. Check out this link from Villanova. You can take a personality test and then see specific writing characteristics related to your personality, as well as tips to keep in mind when writing. This information can help when formulating the best prewriting strategy for you.

However, remember to be flexible. What works for one essay might not work for another. Keep experimenting with strategies. And, don’t forget to do some “postwriting” as well. And by that I mean, make sure you have your essay edited!

Psst... 98% of Kibin users report better grades! Get inspiration from over 500,000 example essays.

Tips on Writing an Expository Essay

The purpose of the expository essay is to explain a topic in a logical and straightforward manner. Without bells and whistles, expository essays present a fair and balanced analysis of a subject based on facts—with no references to the writer’s opinions or emotions.

A typical expository writing prompt will use the words “explain” or “define,” such as in, “Write an essay explaining how the computer has changed the lives of students.” Notice there is no instruction to form an opinion or argument on whether or not computers have changed students’ lives. The prompt asks the writer to “explain,” plain and simple. However, that doesn’t mean expository essay writing is easy.

The Five-Step Writing Process for Expository Essays
Expository writing is a life skill. More than any other type of writing, expository writing is a daily requirement of most careers. Understanding and following the proven steps of the writing process helps all writers, including students, master the expository essay.

Expository Essay Structure
Usually, the expository essay is composed of five paragraphs. The introductory paragraph contains the thesis or main idea. The next three paragraphs, or body of the essay, provide details in support of the thesis. The concluding paragraph restates the main idea and ties together the major points of essay.

Here are expository essay tips for each part of the essay structure and writing process:

1. Prewriting for the Expository Essay
In the prewriting phase of writing an expository essay, students should take time to brainstorm about the topic and main idea. Next, do research and take notes. Create an outline showing the information to be presented in each paragraph, organized in a logical sequence.

2. Drafting the Expository Essay
When creating the initial draft of an expository essay, consider the following suggestions:

  • The most important sentence in the introductory paragraph is the topic sentence, which states the thesis or main idea of the essay. The thesis should be clearly stated without giving an opinion or taking a position. A good thesis is well defined, with a manageable scope that can be adequately addressed within a five-paragraph essay.
  • Each of the three body paragraphs should cover a separate point that develops the essay’s thesis. The sentences of each paragraph should offer facts and examples in support of the paragraph’s topic.
  • The concluding paragraph should reinforce the thesis and the main supporting ideas. Do not introduce new material in the conclusion.
  • Since an expository essay discusses an event, situation, or the views of others, and not a personal experience, students should write in the third person (“he,” “she,” or “it”), and avoid “I” or “you” sentences.

3. Revising the Expository Essay
In the revision phase, students review, modify, and reorganize their work with the goal of making it the best it can be. Keep these considerations in mind:

  • Does the essay give an unbiased analysis that unfolds logically, using relevant facts and examples?
  • Has the information been clearly and effectively communicated to the reader?
  • Watch out for “paragraph sprawl,” which occurs when the writer loses focus and veers from the topic by introducing unnecessary details.
  • Is the sentence structure varied? Is the word choice precise?
  • Do the transitions between sentences and paragraphs help the reader’s understanding?
  • Does the concluding paragraph communicate the value and meaning of the thesis and key supporting ideas?

If the essay is still missing the mark, take another look at the topic sentence. A solid thesis statement leads to a solid essay. Once the thesis works, the rest of the essay falls into place more easily.

4. Editing the Expository Essay
Next, proofread and correct errors in grammar and mechanics, and edit to improve style and clarity. While an expository essay should be clear and concise, it can also be lively and engaging. Having a friend read the essay helps writers edit with a fresh perspective.

5. Publishing the Expository Essay
Sharing an expository essay with a teacher, parent, or other reader can be both exciting and intimidating. Remember, there isn’t a writer on earth who isn’t sensitive about his or her own work. The important thing is to learn from the experience and use the feedback to make the next essay better.

Essay Variations
Essay writing is a huge part of a education today. Most students must learn to write various kinds of essays during their academic careers, including different types of expository essay writing:

  • Definition essays explain the meaning of a word, term, or concept. The topic can be a concrete subject such as an animal or tree, or it can be an abstract term, such as freedom or love. This type of essay should discuss the word’s denotation (literal or dictionary definition), as well as its connotation or the associations that a word usually brings to mind.
  • Classification essays break down a broad subject or idea into categories and groups. The writer organizes the essay by starting with the most general category and then defines and gives examples of each specific classification.
  • Compare and contrast essays describe the similarities and differences between two or more people, places, or things. Comparison tells how things are alike and contrast shows how they are different.
  • Cause and effect essays explain how things affect each other and depend on each other. The writer identifies a clear relationship between two subjects, focusing on why things happen (causes) and/or what happens as a result (effects).
  • “How to” essays, sometimes called process essays, explain a procedure, step-by-step process, or how to do something with the goal of instructing the reader.


Time4Writing Teaches Expository Essay Writing
Time4Writing essay writing courses offer a highly effective way to learn how to write the types of essays required for school, standardized tests, and college applications. A unique online writing program for elementary, middle school, and high school students, Time4Writing breaks down the writing process into manageable chunks, easily digested by young writers. Students steadily build writing skills and confidence, guided by one-on-one instruction with a dedicated, certified teacher. Our middle school Welcome to the Essay and Advanced Essay courses teach students the fundamentals of writing essays, including the expository essay. The high school Exciting Essay Writing course focuses in depth on the essay writing process with preparation for college as the goal. The courses also cover how to interpret essay writing prompts in testing situations. Read what parents are saying about their children’s writing progress in Time4Writing courses.

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