By HOLLY EPSTEIN OJALVO (New York Times July 2010)
Have you been knocking your head against the proverbial wall trying to teach – or learn – expository writing skills? New York Times models can help writers learn how to write an expository essay that is compelling, convincing and authoritative as well as engaging to read – not to mention authentic. Try a fresh approach with these 10 tips.
1. Ditch the five-paragraph essay and embrace authentic essay structure. New York Times news and feature articles are excellent models for structure, including transitions and organization. Look at the guide to forms of Times news coverage to get started, and then deconstruct some articles to get a feel for how they are organized.
Classic news stories like this one about conflicts over rebuilding ground zero and this one on how the case of the Russian spies is being resolved are written in the “inverted pyramid” format, starting with the most important information – the first paragraph or two answers the questions “Who?” “What?” “Where?” “When?” Why?” and “How?” – and proceeding with the most important details, filling in the less important information as the article proceeds. This can be a useful structure for, say, newspaper articles based on the events in a play or novel, or relatively short research reports.
Feature stories pull the reader in with an engaging introduction and develop from there to explain a topic, issue or trend. Examples of this structure: this article on gauging the national mood by tracking popular songs, blog posts and the like, and Rob Walker’s “Consumed” column on the blankets-with-sleeves fad.
A sub-genre of the feature, the personality profile, is also a useful expository writing model, as we discuss in our lesson on Dickens, which suggests using a profile of Bernie Madoff as a model for writing a literary character profile, and this lesson on the literature Nobelist Naguib Mahfouz.
To take the idea of using newspaper story structures further, try this lesson on comparing classic storylines with news reports.
2. Two traditional essay writing bugaboos are introductions and conclusions (or “ledes” and “kickers”). The Times is full of creative ways to open and end a narrative, and these can help developing writers learn to avoid clichéd openings and repetitive endings. Here are some of the approaches Times writers take to begin and end their stories, together with examples of each one:
- Narrative lede: Telling a story that illustrates or encapsulates the issue at hand, like this story about the dangers associated with riding in a taxi when the cabby is using a phone, this one about fans paying homage to Michael Jackson and Natalie Angier’s science piece on squirrels
- Descriptive lede: Describing an element that is key to the story, like this description of a high-end coffee machinein a feature on the topic of fancy coffee makers
- Question lede: posing a rhetorical question that leads directly into the rest of the essay, like this article about popular baby names
- Frame: Bringing the essay full circle by starting and ending with elements of the same story, like this article on Cuban doctorsunable to practice in the U.S.
- Quote kicker: Ending with a quote that sums up the essence of the essay, like this one on raising chickens
- Future action kicker: Ending with a look toward what may or will happen in the future, as in this article on fake art in Vietnam
Looking for more inspiration? Read John Noble Wilford’s retrospective article about covering the 1969 moon landing, focusing on the section “Moonfall Eve,” in which he recounts trying to figure out how to start his article. The upshot: Simple is often best.
3. Informing and explaining – how things work or how to do something – is part of journalism’s bread and butter. Good Times models for information/explanation essays include articles on how dark energy works, why and how Twitter can be useful, how to make a soufflé and how to avoid heatstroke. To find more examples, good starting places are the recipes in the Dining section, the Science and Health sections, and many Technology section features, including posts on Gadgetwise and Pogue’s Posts.
One specific type of explanation essay is analysis – an examination of why and how an issue is significant. If you’re looking for good models, The Times runs many pieces under the rubric “news analysis,” such as this article on the significance of steroid use in baseball and this one on President Obama’s remarks on the arrest of Henry Louis Gates. Read these, or other articles marked “news analysis,” and then try writing your own analysis of an event – perhaps something that happened at school, or perhaps something that happened in a piece of literature or in history.
4. In addition to information and explanation, there are a few other key expository patterns. Here are the most common ones, together with a Times models of each one, each paired with a related (PDF) handout:
- Comparison – Technology article on Bing vs. Google; Venn diagram
- Cause and effect – Health article on “chemo brain”; Cause and Effect Organizer
- Problem and solution – Op-Ed on how schools should handle flu outbreaks; Problem-Solution Organizer
- Extended definition – The On Language column, such as this column on the use of “associate”, “model” and even “the” and the Times Health Guide, a library of information on numerous health conditions; Vocabulary Log
For more fun with definitions, see the Schott’s Vocab blog.
5. Whether you’re writing a descriptive piece or incorporating description into a larger expository essay, specific details are vital, as in this piece on a city mural and this one about Michael Jackson’s signature dance moves.
Of course, one of the best places to find colorful descriptions is the Times’ Sports pages, as in this article about a tennis match played by Rafael Nadal. Use our Play-by-Play Sports Descriptions sheet (PDF) and our lesson Getting in the Game: Modeling Descriptive Writing on Sports Reporting to get a closer look at descriptive phrases in this or other sports articles.
6. “I’ve said all I have to say.” “How can I possibly write three pages on this topic?” “What do you mean, develop my ideas?” Essay writers often struggle with adequate development. Times features are perfect examples of how to fully develop ideas. For example, you might read “Drivers and Legislators Dismiss Cellphone Risks” or Michael Pollan’s polemic on cooking shows and the decline of home cooking in the Sunday Magazine. Then create a “reverse outline” to reveal how the writer developed the piece.
7. Like development, smoothly incorporating supporting material and evidence – including introducing and integrating quotations – can be a challenge for young writers. Add the requirement to follow MLA or APA style for citations, and for many students the challenge is insurmountable. Part of the problem may be that most students see few articles or other texts with academic citations in their daily lives. Using The Times for models can help.
You might suspend traditional academic style requirements, and instead try newspaper-style attribution or even the Web protocol of linking to the source of information – such as this article on digital curriculum materials, which, among many, many others, shows both approaches. Other articles, like this one about government recommendations to schools regarding swine flu, are good examples of how to integrate both partial and full quotations, as well as how to include paraphrases.
8. Subject-verb and noun-pronoun agreement can trouble even established writers at the newspaper of record itself, as the After Deadline blog has “Watching Whales, Watching Us”, a Sunday Magazine article in which the reporter included personal experience alongside research, and “Finally, the Spleen Gets Some Respect”, Natalie Angier’s scientific report on the spleen, in which she characterizes herself as splenetic