Ch. 8—The Exploratory Essay
last revised 4/21/00

From the Allyn & Bacon Guide to Writing

In chapter 1, you learned that writers often begin the writing process by posing questions about problems.  In chapter 2 you learned about wallowing in complexity and looking more deeply at many sides of an issue, even if you don’t believe in them.  In chapter 6, you learned more about critically engaging in a “conversation” with another author (based on subject and rhetoric).  In chapter 7, you learned how to find a problematic or pivotal moment in your life and make it significant for yourself and for an audience.  In chapter 8 you learned that writers write about what really engages them, and, like the weasel in Annie Dillard’s essay, they hang onto it until they have explored all its facets as deeply as time and breath allows.

The Assignment:

Choose a question, problem, or issue that genuinely perplexes you much like you did for the chapter 1 problematizing essay.  At the beginning of your exploratory essay, explain why you are interested in this chosen problem and why you have been unable to reach a satisfactory answer.  Then write a first-person, chronologically organized, narrative account of your learning process as you investigate your question through library research, talking with others, and doing your own reflective thinking on-the-page and in your head.  You might also wish to interview people, if appropriate, and to draw on your own personal experiences, memories, and observations.  Your goal is to examine your question or problem from a variety of perspectives, assessing the strengths and weaknesses of different positions and points of view.  By the end of your essay, you may or may not have reached a satisfactory solution to your problem.  You will be rewarded for the quality of your exploration and thinking processes.  In other words, your goal is not to answer your question, but to report on the process of wrestling with it.  (167)

Length: 4-6 pages, double-spaced (about 1200-1800 words).

Due Date: End of week 16.

Subject-Matter Choices: The subject areas you can pose questions about and find problems within can come from almost anywhere, but I VERY VERY VERY STRONGLY suggest that you choose one of the problems or conflicts you have written about thus far.  Your first problematizing essay that you just revised, or the strong response essay, or even your autobiography can become part of your exploration.  Like the first essay we did (ch. 1), you don’t necessarily have to solve the problem—reaching closure too soon is BAD for your brain—but you must SHOW the reader your exploration process of the problem.  Like the chapter 1 essay, on this essay you must “actively engage with your problem and demonstrate why it is problematic” (168).

Rhetorical Choices:  Often the audience you choose to write for will determine your purpose, genre, style and structure (see chapter 4 for more information).  Who do you think you are writing for?  How will you appeal to them?  How will you make your essay mean something to them?   How will you avoid alienating or boring them?  In this essay your structure should be an easy choice—the chronological, narrative account of your exploration process.  Being a narrative, you will probably find a somewhat opened-form approach is easiest for this kind of essay because you are going to tell a story about your exploration process that leads you to some significant conclusion.  In other words, you will be writing thesis-seeking prose rather than top-down thesis-based prose (15).  This essay can be much like a detective story, where the killers (or decisions) are not known until the end (190).  In the sample essay on women in combat, the author essentially tells the story of his exploration of the topic which contain a number of mini-strong responses to two or three main research essays he read (191).  As we read HIS essay, we wonder what he will end up deciding—this is how he thickens, or gives tension, to his plot (490).  Rhetorically, he also uses a number of expert moves in his paragraphs (see ch. 18, lesson 4: summary/however move; parallel parts move).

Suggested Writing and Research Process:  Keep in mind that writing and research are both recursive (both involve circular, flexible processes). 

If I were doing this assignment, I might begin by reading the drafting advice on pages 186-188 for more ideas.  I would then read over my previous essays to see which one contains a problem I most want to explore via research, discussion, and additional writing.  I would then begin what our text calls the Research Log—in my journal or on pages like the one attached (the double-entry or dialectic journal).  This is where I will keep a chronologically organized record of my reactions to what I previously wrote, all my reading notes, interview notes, conversation or discussion notes (186).  In this log or journal, I will also include thoughtful explorations (strong responses) of how each “source” or new perspective influences me—this part of the process is VERY important!

I would begin strongly responding to some of my own, previous writing in my “dialectic” journal to get my juices going.  I would then begin to do some initial Internet browsing to see what I could find about my topic.  For instance, maybe I’ll go to to look up articles I can begin to read and forums I can join in on that are talking about my dilemma.  After reading through some of these things (and keeping careful notes about where I found them), I would record the things that triggered me most in my journal and make some strong responses to them.   I would then do a full Internet search using key words and a search engine like, taking time to browse and find the best, most interesting, most informative, and most vitriolic pages.  I would then read some of these sites (print hard copies, then highlight and annotate with and against the grain), then write the hot spots in my journal and make strong responses.  At this point I would be careful to record how my ideas are expanding, changing, or contracting based on my reading.  For additional help on reading research critically, see ch. 22 (540-546).

I would then discuss my ideas thus far with my classmates in groups (187): why am I interested in this problem or how did I come to be interested in it; how is this topic really problematic; how is this problem significant?  Ask your group to give you suggestions.  After this, I would again record hot spots from the discussion, then any impressions, changes, and new thought processes I might have had as I engaged with my peers.  I would then freewrite more extensively about the above questions and my explorations thus far as a way to help me focus on my main dilemma (188).  I would ask: what is MY real dilemma in all this?

I would then do some additional research on the Pioneer InfoTrac system (at this time this can only be used on campus) by going to our library page of periodical databases at  Once there, I would find InfoTrac and click until I can see the Expanded Academic database.  I would click into that, then use search words to find full-text articles on my dilemma.  Again, as I find articles I like, I will print them, then highlight and annotate them with and against the grain.  I would then jot down hot spots and make more strong responses in my journal, keeping my main dilemma in mind.

I would, of course, read the sample essays in chapter 8 (pages 171-185; 190-191) to get ideas about audience and paragraphing.  I would also closely look over the generic structure on page 190, then begin freewriting/drafting in a similar way.  I would be sure to use MLA documentation including a Works Cited page and parentheticals (see ch. 6 and ch. 22: 551-570).  I would have 2-3 peers review my essay, revise it, and then I would let it incubate (let it sit without looking at it so I can see it from a fresh perspective).  I would send it to the OWL, and revise it again.  Finally I would edit its surface errors using advice from our text’s handbooks and the OWL.

Points Available: You can get up to 100 points on this essay.  You can get up to 30 points for good highlighting and annotating of your research.  You can get up to 30 points for a good research log (or dialectic journal—this is beyond the usual journal entries).