How to Write an Exploratory Essay With Sample Papers

Exploratory essays don't take a position. Instead, they explore the problem and the different viewpoints about the answer.

How are Exploratory Essays Unique?

Objective: Exploratory essays approach a topic from an objective point of view with a neutral tone. Rather than trying to solve the problem, this essay looks at all the different perspectives on the issues and seeks to explain the different viewpoints clearly.

Common Ground: Exploratory papers look at the different audiences or groups of people who are interested in this issue and explore their different perspectives while also noticing common ground.

Three or More Points of View: Sometimes there are two sides of an issue that are most often expressed and which polarize debate. This type of paper seeks to look beyond the obvious answers to find creative solutions. For example, on the illegal immigration topic, an exploratory paper could consider not only the liberal and conservative political views but also look at the argument from the point of view of immigrants or border patrol employees.

Health Topics

How beneficial is weightlifting to a healthy life?  Do protein drinks help people build muscles?  How much exercise do you really need to do?
How beneficial is weightlifting to a healthy life? Do protein drinks help people build muscles? How much exercise do you really need to do? | Source

What are the Basic Features of an Exploratory Essay?

1. Define and describe the issue and present the arguable question (introduction).

2. Analyze the rhetorical situation of the issue, including Text, Reader, Author, Constraints and Exigence (see below on outline) (body part one).

3. Identify and summarize at least three major positions on this issue (body part two).

4. Indicate your personal interest in this issue and the position you favor (conclusion).

5. Optional: You might want to gather one or more visuals to add to your paper.

What Makes a Good Topic?

Exploratory Papers need to have an arguable question, which means it is a question that is:

  1. Not solved.
  2. Not a fact you could easily check the answer to.
  3. Something people have different views about (try to find at least three).
  4. Interesting to people right now.
  5. Linked to an enduring issue.

Essays About Military Topics

Does military discipline need to be strict to work?  Does service in the military make a man or woman a better citizen?  What can be done to eliminate sexual harassment in the military?
Does military discipline need to be strict to work? Does service in the military make a man or woman a better citizen? What can be done to eliminate sexual harassment in the military? | Source

What are Enduring Issues?

Current Issues
Enduring Issues
How much tax should people pay?
Where should government get money?
Good, stable government which meets needs of people.
Should technology be used in the classroom?
How can we best educate students?
Well educated next generation.
Should sex offenders be restricted from social media?
Who is responsible for protecting citizens from crime?
Safety from violence.
Enduring issues are ones which people continue to care about over time. Enduring issues concern claims of fact, definition, value, cause and polity. They concern our need for good government, quality of life, social justice and personal rights. Ide

College Exploratory Essay Topics

What makes a person ready to leave for college?   How should college students decide a major?
What makes a person ready to leave for college? How should college students decide a major? | Source

Introduction for Exploratory Essay

There are three things you need to do in the introduction:

  1. Grab the reader's interest in the arguable issue. Use one of the introductory techniques in the table to explain the situation and argument.
  2. Make sure the reader understands the issue and why it is important (some issues need lots of explanation and description, but others are so well known you don't need to explain).
  3. Tell the arguable question (usually at the end of the introduction).

Introduction Ideas

  • Re-tell a real story
  • Give statistics
  • Depict a made-up scenario
  • Vividly describe a scene or situation
  • Explain a typical situation
  • Have a real or imagined conversation about the issue
  • Talk about what makes this argument important now
  • Use an intriguing statement or quote
  • Give history of this idea or argument
  • Make a list of problems
  • Give several examples of this problem
  • Ask a series of questions
  • Use a frame (use part of story to open, then finish story in conclusion)
  • Use interview questions and answers

Body of Exploratory Essay: Two Parts

The body of this type of essay has two parts. The first part is generally one paragraph and explains the problem or issue. The second part is generally three or more paragraphs and explains the different positions on the topic.

Part One: Explain the Rhetorical Situation:

  • Text: What sort of writing is being done on this subject? Is it a question being discussed by the news? By advocacy groups? Politicians? Is there academic study being done?
  • Reader: Who are the audiences interested in this question? What are the different positions they hold? Why are the readers interested in this question?
  • Author: Who are the people writing on this question? What common ground is there between the authors and readers (audiences)?
  • Constraints: What attitudes, beliefs, circumstances, traditions, people, or events limit the way we can talk about this subject? Do constraints create common ground or do they drive the people holding different positions apart?
  • Exigence: (Context of debate on issue) What events or circumstances make us interested in this question now? What is the history of this issue and question? How has interest in this question changed over time? What enduring values (big life issues) does this debate relate to?

Part Two: Positions on This Issue.

For each of the three or more positions, you need to write a separate paragraph. In each paragraph:

  • Explain the position.
  • Tell why people believe that position.
  • Give the best arguments for that position.
  • Explain how those arguments are supported.

Sample Starting Sentences for Position Paragraphs

Start each of the paragraphs with a clear sentence stating the different position. Here are examples of how to begin each paragraph:

Position 1: Many people believe…

What is this point of view? Which articles can you use for this point of view? What part of the article is helpful?

Position 2: Other people would contend…

What is this point of view? Which articles can you use for this point of view? What part of the article is helpful?

Position 3: Another way to look at this question is….

What is this point of view? Which articles can you use for this point of view? What part of the article is helpful?


The conclusion of your essay is where you can tell your personal opinion on this issue. You can also explain why you are interested in this particular topic. Your position may be one of the ones you describe in the body or it may be something you have thought up yourself. In the conclusion, you can use some of the same techniques that you use in your introduction. Here are some other ideas:

  1. Maybe finish the frame story.
  2. Add the final evidence you find most convincing.
  3. Tell the reader your own conclusions and point of view.
  4. If you aren't sure what you think, then say that and explain what you think are the most important points to consider.
  5. Challenge the reader to decide.
  6. Outline the main things we need to think about when we make a decision about this question—what is important and what is not.

Medical Topics

 How can expensive emergency room visits be avoided?  What is affordable medical care?
How can expensive emergency room visits be avoided? What is affordable medical care? | Source

Peer Edit Outline

Test out your outline by getting in a small group. Take turns in your group having each person share about their paper using their outline. Then the group can respond to questions, comments, and suggestions. Some things to consider:

  1. Is the introduction interesting? Do you feel you understand the issue and the question?
  2. Do the question and the three positions match up? Is there a contrast in the positions? Are there other positions you think need to be considered?
  3. Is the context/constraints of the question clear?
  4. Is there other supporting evidence you can think of?
  5. Is the response interesting? Does the author respond to the ideas and connect them with their own thoughts and/or experiences? How can they do that better?
  6. Anything you think is missing or needs to be explained or expanded?

Steps in Writing an Exploratory Paper

  1. Prepare a basic outline of your main points using the Outline format.
  2. Re-read your articles and your Summary-Analysis-Response paper.
  3. Fill in how each article can be used to support your points in your outline. Be sure to include the source of that point in MLA form, which is author last name and page in parenthesis. Example: (Brown 31).
  4. Talk out your paper with a friend. Work with a friend or a small group. Explain your paper using your outline. Tell them your points and make sure they understand. Do they have any ideas on how to make your essay more interesting? Have them answer the questions on Peer Edit Outline below.
  5. Optional: you may want to gather some visuals to include in your essay.
  6. Write a draft. Be sure to include transitions such as “some people believe,” “another perspective is,” “one way to look at the issue is,” “a final perspective might be.” Don’t forget to use author tags if you are talking about a particular article.
  7. Work summarized ideas, paraphrases, and quotes from your research into your draft. In an exploratory paper, you mainly summarize or paraphrase in your own words the positions you describe. Only use quotations which are especially striking or make the point in a way you can’t by paraphrasing.
  8. Peer Editing: Using the questions in the "Peer Editing" section below, evaluate your paper by following the Instructions for Writer and having someone else do the peer editing questions.
  9. Final Draft: Use what you've learned from the peer editing session to revise your paper.

Exploratory Topic Poll

Which Exploratory Essay question is most interesting to you?

  • How does divorce affect children?
  • Is organic food really better for you?
  • Does using technology for education really help?
  • Why do opposites attract?
  • Can recycling really make a difference?
See results without voting

Exploratory Paper vs. Argument Paper

Argument Essays focus on proving one point of view: An argument or position essay seeks to come to a conclusion and convince the audience which side of the issue is correct. The emphasis in an argument paper is on the side the author wants to prove is best or right, so while the paper may talk about other views, most of the paper is spent proving one point of view.

Exploratory essays look at several points of view in a neutral way. Rather than trying to solve the problem, this sort of paper explores the different perspectives of the problem and seeks to understand the cultural and social context of the issue. It is the sort of paper you would write before writing a solution paper. An exploratory paper is common in businesses when they are attempting to find a solution to a problem and need to get all of the possible perspectives and information available.

Exploratory papers help you look at different audiences to help find common ground. This paper also explores the different audiences or groups of people who are concerned about this issue, giving their different viewpoints on the cause, effects, and solutions proposed. In order to do this paper, you may want to narrow the issue you are thinking about so that you can cover the idea more effectively.

Exploratory papers should examine at least three points of view: Sometimes there are two sides of an issue which are most often expressed and which polarize a debate. In an exploratory paper, you are asked to look beyond the obvious answers in order to find other points of view which can sometimes help in solving the problem. For example, in looking at the issue of illegal immigration, you can examine the conservative and liberal political views, but you can also look at the viewpoint of the illegal immigrants themselves, the viewpoint of the government that the illegal immigrants come from, and the viewpoints of the people who live on both sides of the border where illegal immigrants cross. You might also consider the viewpoint of the border patrol employees.

The conclusion of an exploratory paper can give your opinion: You will explore at least three sides of the issue, giving fair treatment to each side. However, in the conclusion of the paper, you will indicate your own position and why you are persuaded in that direction.

Exploratory Paper for Psychology

How important is it to research our ancestors?
How important is it to research our ancestors? | Source

Peer Editing Worksheet

Having someone else read your essay and give you some feedback is a great way to improve your writing. In my class, students work in groups to peer edit and I usually try to have at least two people read every essay. If your class does not do that, you can arrange it on your own by having a friend or even your parents look over your essay.

Here is the peer editing worksheet I use in my class. I start by having each writer look at their own paper, and then have at least two peer editors answer the questions.


I. Mark on your own paper:

  • Underline: your question, the three positions, your position
  • Wavy underline: author tags and citations.

II. Write (at top of draft or on a separate sheet of paper):

  • What is best about your paper.
  • Questions you have for the peer editor.
  • What you want them to help you with.

Peer Editor:

I. Read the paper and make marks on the draft about:

  • grammar and spelling errors
  • what you think is good
  • where they need more support
  • where they need better transitions
  • where they need references, citations or author tags (or any problems with ones they have)
  • where they need more explanation or description

II. On a separate sheet of paper write:

  1. Intro: was the issue both defined and described? Anything that needs to be added? Was the opening interesting? How could it be improved?
  2. Body: How well does the paper examine the rhetorical situation? (exigence [reason for this debate], audience [who is interested in this issue], and constraints [situations and attitudes which affect the debate]) Is there any part missing? How can it be improved? Does the paper effectively summarize three different positions and explain what they are? Who believes them? Why do they believe it? Does the paper give enough evidence for each position?
  3. Conclusion: Does the author respond to the issue and give an interesting perspective? Does the author need to add anything?

Exploratory Essay Uses

Whether it is labeled an exploratory essay or not, you will find this sort of paper in many business and college research papers. The basic point of this paper is to let you examine all the different viewpoints on an issue. Here are some examples of exploratory questions:

  • What caused the Civil War in the U.S.?
  • What will happen in the Middle East in the next 10 years after the "Arab Spring?"
  • How should the U.S. handle illegal immigration?
  • What should we do with embryos left over from in-vitro fertilization?

In a business, an employee might be asked to write an exploratory report about:

  • How do people perceive our product based on different types of advertising?
  • How do people use our product most often?
  • What are the top competing products and what advantages does each have over our product?
  • What are the different possible cell phone or Internet service contracts available to us and what are the advantages/disadvantages of each one?

By looking at three or more viewpoints, you can get a better understanding of the different audiences for an issue and better understand how a solution or compromise might be developed.

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Comments 8 comments

TL 11 months ago

Really Helpful!

kking 2 years ago

This is so helpful, thank you!

Epabaxter profile image

Epabaxter 3 years ago from Georgia

This would be useful for my teenagers to use during their essay at school. Thank you.

VirginiaLynne profile image

VirginiaLynne 4 years ago from United States Author

Aubria--thanks for your comment. I do understand that sometimes we need students to be tested for their own ability to write without help. I do that too. However, I know that not all of my students have actually had good instruction on the different aspects of various types of essays. Often the instructions in textbooks aren't as clear as they could be.

Aubria Ralph 4 years ago

I don't teach my students, I just expect them to write essays for me and if they sound like it I pass them, if not oh well.

beijing driver profile image

beijing driver 4 years ago from Beijing, China

Could I be your student?

VirginiaLynne profile image

VirginiaLynne 4 years ago from United States Author

Thanks so much kerlynb! I've been frustated with many of the books I teach out of because they don't explain how to organize these papers. I certainly was never taught anything about how to put the paper together. So after a few years of college teaching, I started analyzing the essays in my textbooks and also the best student essays and came up with my series of "How to write" papers. I've been amazed how many views they get each day. I'm so glad if I can help students!

kerlynb profile image

kerlynb 4 years ago from Philippines, Southeast Asia, Earth ^_^

Just where were you when I was in HS? This is so useful! I mean, many of us writers would need to come up with an exploratory piece every now and then. Have to vote this one up and useful :)

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    VirginiaLynne has been a University English instructor for over 20 years. She specializes at helping people write essays faster and easier.

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