Occasions for Exploratory Essays

The exact nature of an exploratory essay can't be known in advance. It emerges gradually from decisions and discoveries made along the way. Individual writers go in different directions, depending on their interests and their specific writing contexts. However you proceed, the strategies presented here will help you use your writing process to explore unfamiliar, perhaps intimidating subject areas.

Consider two different ways of looking at writing. The first sees writing as transcribing existing information, thereby giving it order and permanence so it can be examined and understood by others. In the second, writing is a way of coming to know what's unfamiliar and of participating in a continually evolving conversation with readers, a conversation which constantly reshapes and redefines human experience.

The first view applies best to simple, straightforward tasks such as writing down a recipe for a friend or writing a letter of recommendation for a former employee. Yet even here there's room for innovation, discovery, growth. And the discovery factor increases exponentially as writing contexts grow more complex. In a sense, then, almost every essay is at least partly exploratory.

The following discussion shows you how to ease into your writing process while still in a state of uncertainty, and to use your uncertainty as a source of inspiration and motivation for the ongoing process of making meaning through writing.

For the sake of clarity, the process is presented in stages, but these stages don't always have clear-cut beginnings and endings. Sometimes they overlap and blend into each other. Also, in practice, they don't always proceed in a neat linear fashion. As you explore, feel free to "leap ahead" to a later stage or "circle back" to an earlier one.

Immersion and Interaction

During the earliest stages you need to develop an authentic personal involvement with your subject. You need to get inside the subject and get the subject inside of you. Let go of preconceived notions about proper or expected ways to respond. Instead, connect the subject with your own world of experience and understanding. Identify issues that matter to you personally. This is a good time to freewrite. If you've been reading about your subject, you might pick a notable paragraph or sentence, and write to the author, telling how the passage affects you. Try out some subjective personal responses such as "This reminds me of . . ." or "This makes me feel . . ." or "I don't understand how . . .."

If your subject isn't drawn from readings, try other ways of getting involved. For instance, you could write a detailed description of a scene from a film and then react to it. You could write to the film's director or to one of the characters. If your subject is drawn from personal experience, you might recount significant incidents relating to the subject, or describe or write to some of the people involved. You might brainstorm a list of questions.

In any case, your goal is not to establish understanding of the subject or even to choose a specific topic to write on. You need to immerse yourself in the material in a way that has personal significance--to possess the subject, and let the subject possess you.

The result may be quite chaotic. Sometimes a dominant pattern emerges, but more often a variety of perspectives comes to the surface, suggesting multiple opportunities for further investigation and exploration.


8.1 List five possible areas you could use as subjects for an exploratory essay. For now, these can be broad and unfocused. Look for issues, questions, and problems that spark your curiosity and interest.

8.2 Choose one of the subjects you listed in Activity 8.1 and probe it using the techniques in the discussion above or the discovery aids discussed in Discovering What to Write . Try out a few techniques. For instance, you might use the Journalist's Questions to compose a questioning letter to the director of a film you've recently seen. Then you could freewrite a letter about the film to a friend. After that, you might imagine you are one of the film's characters and write a letter explaining your actions. You'll be looking at the subject from a variety of perspectives and trying to locate your sources of interest. You may or may not see any dominant pattern at this point.

Focus and Commitment

Precisely because the first stage tends to produce an unsystematic jumble of ideas and impressions that overlap and intersect in complementary or contradictory ways, it becomes necessary to start sorting things out. You might look for patterns in your earlier responses. Try to separate major concerns from minor ones, central issues from peripheral ones. Consider which of the many points you've raised call for further discussion and more sustained examination.

Try sorting your ideas into groups and then ranking each group according to its level of interest. You're not looking for answers so much as questions, not solutions but problems. You're a long way from needing a thesis. In fact, at this early stage, a thesis may be more hindrance than help, as it can create a false sense of certainty and prematurely shut down further inquiry .

If you have difficulty finding a single focus, try asking leading questions:

The goal, finally, is to focus your exploration and make a commitment to pursue your topic as the writing project evolves.


8.3 Write a short, one paragraph description of the central issue, question, or problem you want to explore. Include any subpoints or related issues that you think might be included in your final paper. If you want, tell why this issue is important to you. Share your paragraph with a partner.

Trying on Ideas

By now, your project should be well underway. You've got a subject that genuinely interests you, and you've found a focus to guide your explorations. Now you need to begin systematically probing and exploring. The discovery techniques discussed in What to Write should be helpful at this point. If you feel a need for some basic structure, try the suggestions in Organizing Your Writing . Try to find a comfortable balance between generating new ideas and fitting those ideas into an overall pattern. Branching trees and cluster maps can be helpful ways of identifying major divisions and understanding how parts relate to the whole and to each other. If you need more information, you may want to research topic in the library or conduct some interviews or surveys. This is also a good time for more freewriting, focused now on specific subtopics identified in your organizational plan.

Imagine yourself exploring the problem of unconscious sexism in your workplace. You may be asking where these attitudes come from, who holds them, how the expression of sexism has changed over time, how this sexism manifests itself now, how it affects men, women, the overall atmosphere at work, the quality of work produced, how these attitudes can be exposed and overcome. You may be freewriting about your own experiences, interviewing co-workers and supervisors, researching literature on the causes and effects of discrimination.

You'll almost certainly sense a need for order and system to your inquiry. You may need to do some further clustering, make an informal outline, or simply list important subpoints. Probably also, you'll be looking for some sort of closure, some destination, some end to your exploring. You may not be ready to formulate this into a clear thesis, but will likely be moving in that direction.

Rather than settling on a thesis immediately, you might try out a few different possibilities so their strengths and weaknesses can be examined.

As such questions are answered, you should feel an emerging sense of certainty and satisfaction, a tentative recognition of closure.

To be sure, much work remains ahead, but if you shuttle back and forth between exploring and structuring, you should start to see a thesis emerging, and your should begin to see how that thesis can serve as an organizational and conceptual center for your essay.


8.4 During these probing and drafting stages, share your work to date with a partner. What you share will be rough and unfinished. You may have to do more than show your work; you may have to explain what you're trying to do and how you're going about it.

Revising for Readers

Up to this point, most of your writing has been informal, maybe somewhat personal. If you've produced a draft at all, it's probably quite rough and will need revision on both global and local levels . As you produce a working draft, clusters, scratch outlines, pyramid charts, and other organizational aids can help suggest major divisions and even where to place subpoints within those divisions, but unless you've identified an audience from the start, you may not have thought much about how readers will react to your writing.

Have you looked closely at the whole writing context and considered the amounts and kinds of information your readers want or need. Have you thought about how to arrange your major points, including your thesis. Should it come at the beginning or the end? Should it be directly stated or implied? Have you established a consistent style in terms of tone, voice, and degree of formality. This is where cutting and pasting, substituting and rewriting, begins in earnest.


8.5 Once you've produced a working draft, exchange it with a partner or with members of your discussion group. Role playing can be helpful here. Other group members, or even the writer, if the paper is being read aloud by someone else, can anticipate possible audience responses, reacting to both style and substance.

8.6 Consider the following model as a pattern for working through and organizing an exploratory essay. Then answer the questions that follow.

Freewrite on the following questions. First do Question 1 and discuss it with a partner. Then do Question 2.

1. Does this chart make any sense to you? Can you see any way you could use any of this in your present essay or in future papers? Would you need to modify it? How? Does it at all resemble the ways you have previously been taught to think about organizing your writing?

2. Write a brief summary of the structural design of your current essay. What are the main parts? How are they related? Why are they presented in the order you have chosen? What is your writing strategy for each part of the essay? How does your writing strategy relate to your conceptual flow?