Chapter 4: What Are You Writing, to Whom, and How?

4.3 Illustration

Learning Objectives

  • Determine the purpose and structure of the illustration essay
  • Understand how to write an illustration essay

The Purpose of Illustration in Writing

To illustrate means to show or demonstrate something clearly. An effective illustration essay clearly demonstrates and supports a point through the use of evidence.

As you learned in Chapter 3: Putting Ideas into Your Own Words and Paragraphs, the controlling idea of an essay is called a thesis. A writer can use different types of evidence to support his or her thesis. Using scientific studies, experts in a particular field, statistics, historical events, current events, analogies, and personal anecdotes are all ways in which a writer can illustrate a thesis. Ultimately, you want the evidence to help the reader “see” your point, as one would see a good illustration in a magazine or on a website. The stronger your evidence is, the more clearly the reader will consider your point.

Using evidence effectively can be challenging, though. The evidence you choose will usually depend on your subject and who your reader is (your audience). When writing an illustration essay, keep in mind the following:

  • Use evidence that is appropriate to your topic as well as to your audience.
  • Assess how much evidence you need to adequately explain your point depending on the complexity of the subject and the knowledge your audience has of the subject.

For example, if you were writing about a new kind of communication software and your audience was a group of English major undergrads, you might want to use an analogy or a personal story to illustrate how the software worked. You might also choose to add a few more pieces of evidence to make sure the audience understands your point. However, if you were writing about the same subject and your audience was information technology (IT) specialists, you would likely use more technical evidence because they would be familiar with the subject. Keeping in mind your subject in relation to your audience will increase your chances of effectively illustrating your point.

Tip: You never want to insult your readers’ intelligence by over explaining concepts they may already be familiar with, but it may be necessary to clearly articulate your point. When in doubt, add an extra example to illustrate your idea.

The Structure of an Illustration Essay

The controlling idea, or thesis, belongs at the beginning of the essay. Evidence is then presented in the essay’s body sections/paragraphs to support the thesis. You can start supporting your main point with your strongest evidence first, or you can start with evidence of lesser importance and have the essay build to increasingly stronger evidence. You will learn about this type of organization—order of importance—in Chapter 5: Putting the Pieces Together with a Thesis.

The time transition words listed in Section 4.2 Narration, Transition Words and Phrases for Expressing Time are also helpful in ordering the presentation of evidence. Words like first, second, third, currently, next, and finally all help orient the reader and sequence evidence clearly. Because an illustration essay uses so many examples, it is also helpful to have a list of words and phrases to present each piece of evidence; see the list below.

Phrases of Illustration

  • case in point
  • for example
  • for instance
  • in particular
  • in this case
  • one example
  • another example
  • specifically
  • to illustrate
Tip: Vary the phrases of illustration you use. Do not rely on just one. Variety in choice of words and phrasing is critical when trying to keep readers engaged in your writing and your ideas.

Writing at Work

In the workplace, it is often helpful to keep the phrases of illustration in mind and incorporate them whenever you can. Whether you are writing directives that colleagues will have to follow or requesting a new product or service from another company, making a conscious effort to incorporate a phrase of illustration will force you to provide examples of what you mean.

Writing an Illustration Essay

First, choose a topic you are interested in. Then create an interesting introduction to engage the reader. The main point, or thesis, should be stated at the end of the introduction. Gather evidence that is appropriate to both your subject and your audience. You can order the evidence in terms of importance, either from least important to most important or from most important to least important. Be sure to fully explain all your examples using strong, clear supporting details. See Appendix 1: Readings: Examples of Essays to read a sample illustration essay.

Self-Practice Exercise 4.2

H5P: Illustration Writing Practice

Thesis Statement

Choose a topic from this list (or choose something you might prefer to write about more!) and think about what you might like to illustrate about this topic:

  • Cooking
  • Baseball
  • Work hours
  • Exercise
  • Traffic

Draft a thesis for your illustration essay. A thesis for an illustration-style expository essay about raising children, for example, would need to make a claim (state an opinion) and suggest how the illustrations will help to support that claim. It might be something like, “Overly permissive or unregulated parenting is troubling for children and their caregivers, as several infamous examples can attest.” The claim is clear here — our author opposes permissive parenting. This essay would then go on to illustrate examples that support the argument that permissive parenting is bad for children.

Take a run at drafting your own thesis statement.

Supporting Details

  • What examples will you use to illustrate this claim for your reader? Try to identify at least three.
  • Consider your options for organizing your illustration-style expository essay. How will you order your points?

Key Takeaways

  • An illustration essay clearly explains a main point using evidence.
  • When choosing evidence, always gauge whether the evidence is appropriate for the subject as well as the audience.
  • Organize the evidence in terms of importance, either from least important to most important or from most important to least important.
  • Use time transitions to order evidence.
  • Use phrases of illustration to call out examples.


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Writing for Success - 1st Canadian H5P Edition Copyright © 2021 by Tara Horkoff is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

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