Explanation writing is a text that explains something. It sounds obvious, but it’s a little more complicated than it might at first appear. An explanation is normally a response to a question. It’s written very clearly with the mind reader.

If you’re ever in the position of having to write an explanation, it’s worth considering this very carefully. ‘Rugby in New Zealand’ would not make a very good title for an explanation text. It would probably work well as a general information page, but no question needs to be answered. If you know you need to write an explanation, a far better title for this topic would be ‘Why is rugby popular in New Zealand?’ Straight away, you know what the purpose of the text is. You need to explain why rugby is popular in New Zealand. This question will be the driving force behind your explanation – the purpose and reason you’re writing it. Having this focus should also make it easier to know which research is relevant, making your text easier and quicker to write.

Types of Explanation

There are several types of explanation writing designed to suit different purposes. Though they all answer questions, these questions seek different kinds of solutions.

For example, the question ‘How does the water in the sea turn into the rain?’ asks for the step-by-step stages in which something happens. Therefore, your answer must be sequential, putting the water cycle events in order. This means you need to write a sequential explanation.

Now consider the question, ‘How did the First World War start?’ At first, it might seem that a simple sequential might also be sufficient here. But this question is a little more involved. It’s asking why something happened. It’s asking for a factual explanation of the causes of the First World War. Something led to something else, which led to something else, which caused the outbreak of war. So when you write your explanation text, you must make sure it’s clear how things lead from one to the other and what causes the various stages in the process. We call this a causal explanation.

Sometimes, when someone’s asking a question, they’re asking for a theory. Some questions we can’t ever possibly have an exact answer to. This is normally because there’s too much we don’t know, and there’s no way of getting the information. This is often the case with questions about historical events. Though we’re unable to know exactly what it was like to be there, and we’re no longer able to interview the people involved because they were alive

How can you tell which type of explanation you need to write?

Before you start writing your explanation, you need to work out which kind of explanation it needs to be. The best way to determine this is to look closely at the question you’re being asked. You’ll need to imagine the question if you’re not being asked a question.

What does the asker want from you? Are they asking you for a simple step-by-step account of how something happens? If so, you’ll need to write a sequential explanation. Do they want you to explain why you think something happened? If so, they want you to present a theory, so you’ll need to write a theoretical explanation. Do they want you to provide a factual account of how something led to something else? If so, you need to write a causal description.

How can I structure a piece of explanation writing?

It’s normally a good idea to start your explanation with a statement. This statement should make it clear exactly what you’re explaining. For example, it might be a definition and contain contextual information about the topic.

Once you’ve done that, you’ll need to write the sequence of your explanation. How does the thing work? Why did something happen? Why do you think the thing happened the way it did? This is the part where you explain everything. Make sure you write it clearly, so it’s easy to read and understand.

Wrap up your explanation with a concluding statement. This is the moment when you return to your main point. If you’re writing an argument, this is your last chance to convince your reader, so you want it to be powerful.

You’ll find more tips on how to teach children to structure their writing in Twinkl’s explanation writing unit plans.

Common features of explanation writing

Use these common features of explanation writing to make your text clear.

  • Language of cause and effect – phrases like ‘this leads to…’ and ‘this causes…’ can help make your writing flow. It’ll also make your sequence easier to follow.
  • Language of time – phrases like ‘after that, ‘then,’ and ‘next’ will make it easier to understand the exact order of events in your writing.
  • Language of condition – phrases like ‘if this happens, then it’s bound to lead to…’ will help you explain your theories.
  • Technical language – the more specific your subject and explanation appear the more convincing your writing will be. If the reader thinks your answer is directly relevant to them, they’ll pay close attention (a sneaky use of the language of condition, there).
  • Descriptions are also an important part of explanation writing. It would help if you described circumstances and situations to communicate cause and effect effectively.
  • The timeless present tense – though not the case with all explanations, particularly those written about history, many causes are written in the present tense. However, they don’t just refer to things happening here this second. Statements written in the timeless present tense refer to processes that are continuous or happening all the time. They can also mean ‘whenever one thing happens, this happens too.’

Before you write – some points to consider

So you think you’re ready to write an explanation? Before you leap in, it’s worth checking a few things to ensure you know what you’re doing.

  1. Identify the question you need to answer. Are you sure you need to write an explanation? Would a simple information page be more suitable? Is there a particular question being asked or an implied question you need to answer? If so, identify what that question is. As you write, continually check that your response delivers a satisfying answer.
  2. Identify what kind of explanation you need to write. Though the type of explanation doesn’t change its structure, it’ll greatly impact how you write it. For example, if someone’s looking for an explanation of how a light bulb works, they want straight facts. Therefore, your sequential description should contain no trace of your opinion or speculative theorizing. Just tell them how a lightbulb works. You must be more theoretical if they ask you how lightbulbs have impacted your life. Though there are very clear ways lightbulbs affect all of us, you’re also given room to be more speculative here. You’ll have to consult your perspective and think of reasons independently. The research/imagination/analysis ratio is different; therefore, the writing experience will change.
  3. Do you know the answer? Do you know the answer to the questions being asked? Do you have access to the information that will help you answer it?

Quick Tips

  1. Start strong. Write a clear statement and continually refer back to it to that you know your writing is focused.
  2. Proof-read. You don’t want your writing to be confusing or unconvincing because of a simple spelling error.
  3. Make sure your research is right. When writing about something technical or specialized in some way, you must check that your statements are correct. You don’t want to give the reader incorrect information.
  4. Use the language of cause and effect. Not only will this make your explanation easier to follow for the reader, but you might also find that giving it this sense of structure makes it easier to write.
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