Are You Teaching Expository Writing Backwards?

Are You Teaching Expository Writing Backwards?

So, I’ve noticed a basic problem regarding expository writing. This problem happens at all levels of writing instruction, from middle school to university. It’s no one’s fault and it’s self-perpetuating. The culprit could be human nature. Or the Prussian model of education. Or the tendency in “common sense” thinking to approach things like a positivist. Who knows.

But we can fix this problem if we spread a simple idea. An idea that, I think, is revolutionary in its own quiet way.

Expository writing should first be written backwards. Then rewritten forwards.

Here’s what I mean.

Up the Airy Mountain, Down the Rushy Glen

Let’s presume that thinking is linear. It starts somewhere, and ends up somewhere else. Given that premise, there’s two directions thinking could go.

Synthetic thinking starts with small details, or an open-ended question. As thoughts continue to develop, the main idea is clarified (or discovered) at the end of the process.

Up the airy mountain

Contrariwise, analytical thinking starts with a “given:” a major premise or generalization. It then proceeds to break down the main idea into its components and deal with each separately.

Down the rushy glen

In other words, there are basically two directions you can go when you are developing your ideas. Or to quote the creepy tinker in Willy Wonka, you either go “up the airy mountain, or down the rushy glen.”

In other news, I just learned that creepy tinker was quoting obscure Victorian poet William Allingham. Who knew?

Process vs. Product

Anyway, expository writing is usually presented most effectively in an analytic format — the main idea first, the support afterward. But here’s the problem: this means we usually ask students to write the paragraph or essay or research paper in that order.

Expository writing lesson

Ever try to break down the writing process to make it more manageable for your students? Assign it as a series of discrete tasks? Good, good. This approach has its merits.

Ever ask your students to write the thesis first? Not so good. Come on, raise your hand. Mine’s up. I’m guilty.

When we give those instructions–come up with a thesis statement first and submit it for approval–here’s what happens. The student has to do all the think-work to arrive at that thesis, but in the foggy realms of thought. They stare at a blank page in despair. They ask for help; they get their tutor or their mom to ideate for them. It’s self-defeating.


But, as Peter Elbow and many other composition theorists have said, writing is thinking.

Let’s flip the conditions. Assign the student to freewrite, to woolgather on paper. To ratiocinate in question and answer form in a Google Doc. To write a summary of what they know, then write down what bothers them about it.


Then ask them for a short-list of potential thesis statements. Assure them they don’t need to commit to any yet. A student doing their think-work on paper has a much better chance of arriving at a thesis on their own.

See where this is going? Even though an expository essay is, as a final product, a top-down form, the method to get to that product is a bottom-up process.

Writer-oriented vs. Reader-oriented

An expository first draft ought to be writer-oriented: work out what you know and how to explain it. Wander, get side-tracked, summarize, second-guess. Write to think.

Then the second draft can be reader-oriented: don’t waste the reader’s time, get to the point, order your supporting points according to importance or chronology or some other self-evident scheme. All the structural features we associate with expository writing.

Here’s a crazy idea: the value in teaching expository writing lies solely in the exercise of translating writer-oriented writing to reader-oriented writing. Knowing the difference and how to move between the two–that’s a way more important skill that supporting a thesis with three points.

Think synthetically, write analytically

When we ask for students to write an essay’s paragraphs in the order that they will appear on the page, we are in fact feeding the false “common sense” notion that thinking and expository writing happen in the same order.

They don’t. Not usually, in my experience. At least not until you’ve mastered and internalized the form. But that’s a dubious goal. I tutored a student once who could spit out an expository essay on any prompt in forty minutes. Her trick was this: she had a kind of template-essay in her head, down to the opening hooks and quotes from The Great Gatsby she could fit to any topic.

But ask her to write an essay without quoting The Great Gatsby, and she was stuck, stuck, stuck.


Let me restate the problem.

We think synthetically. Writing (the activity) is thinking, and therefore synthetic. Expository writing (the product) is analytic.

Maybe the culprit, in the end, is the English language. It lets us use the same word, “writing,” as a verb and a noun. This disguises the fundamental opposition between writing the process and writing the product. One is synthetic, one is analytic.

Synthetic Forms

Well, expository writing is analytic, anyway. Can writing (the product) be synthetic, too?

Yes. Literary writing, like a poem or discursive essay, is often a synthetically-ordered product. Details of human experience first, insight or conclusion at the end.

Arguments are often presented this way too–nothing puts up a reader’s rhetorical defenses like a bald statement of opinion in the first paragraph. “Oho, convince me, will you? I think not!” Whereas an argumentative essay that uses narrative or other persuasive tactics first, and buries the lede…way more convincing.

Literary forms are synthetic. Transactional forms are analytic.

There’s a lot of lesson ideas you could spin out, from that premise. For example, assign your students to rewrite a Petrarchan sonnet as an expository essay. See if they can figure out that they need to reverse the order of the ideas. Dang, that’s a solid lesson. Maybe I’ll teach that one next fall.

Sonnet to essay

Try This at Home

If nothing else, share the idea with your students that thinking can go in two directions. Bottom-up, or top-down.

Like I said, it’s a simple idea. For expository writing, draft synthetically, re-write analytically. But this simple idea has the potential to revolutionize your approach to writing instruction. It’s revolutionized mine. Now, every year, no matter what grade level I’m teaching, I teach these terms: synthetic and analytic. I come back to the concept again and again in class and in tutoring sessions.

Try it!

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One Reply to “Are You Teaching Expository Writing Backwards?”

  1. Peter. Thank you for this offering. I continue to be in awe of your collaborative narrative voice. The visuals are very helpful. YES! I would like more! I found it very helpful to think more clearly about reader-oriented writing vs. writer-oriented writing and the word WRITING as both a noun and a verb. Thank you for the explanation of synthetic and analytic. I do not know how I made it to this decade without those words in my working vocabulary. At this time of year I am not always keen to think about next year, but this blog post gave me the SPARK! THANK YOU!

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