Fast and Slow: How to Incorporate Exposition into Your Writing

Fast and Slow: How to Incorporate Exposition into Your Writing

It’s officially fall: the wind and traffic are picking up, the leaves’ edges are turning brown, and most noticeably, we’ve begun our early morning routines again, rushing our children off to school only to retreat slowly back into our nostalgia-ridden homes.


For me, the hardest part about starting fall is saying goodbye to summer. Summer, sweet summer, with its long days and open-ended agendas (better still: no agenda). So, before allowing myself to fall into fall’s rhythm, I make time to grieve summer’s end.


Speaking of time, it begins to play funny tricks on us at this time of year. As we settle into our routines, the days get shorter and the weeks suddenly seem to fly by. There’s a sense of forward movement in the air, and it’s easy to get caught in this motion. Whenever I catch myself anticipating the auburn-tinted landscape, I remind myself that the leaves are not yet crunching under my feet. I remember that transformation happens slowly, driven by an undercurrent that is always there, whether or not we notice it.


In this moment of changing tempo, I talk to my students about the two tenets of creative nonfiction: scene and exposition. Scene requires slowing down. To write scene means to bring an event back to life using image and sensory detail. Exposition speeds things back up. To write exposition is to provide background information and summarize events in a way that reveals perspective.


Generally speaking, writers have a hard time writing scene (more on that in a future post). Teachers often advise us to “Show, not tell.” Of course I see the value in slowing down and showing: I was once a student in a classroom, racing through my painful memories as fast as I could. But what about the value in telling? In writing, as in life, being able to speed up, summarize, and reflect is important to.


In graduate school, my mentor Julie Marie Wade spoke about lily pads. Lily pads look as if they’re floating effortlessly on the surface of the water, but they’re actually tethered to the ground by a stem. If scene is the flower of the lily pad, stem is the exposition. Without the lily pad, there would be no beauty. And yet, without the stem, there would be no lily pad. Conclusion: nature is wise and we need both.


Being able to write great exposition is important for any type of writing you tackle, but it’s especially relevant to the college essay. College admissions officers have a very short, easily distractible attention span. They read thousands of applications, sift through essay after essay. If your story isn’t tethered to something concrete, there’s a good chance they won’t see the beauty in it.


Great writing is like the changing seasons: it teaches us to be flexible about time, enabling us to move fast or slow. 

Here are a few concrete tips for incorporating exposition to your writing:


1.     Assume your reader knows nothing about you.


It’s common to assume that our readers know everything about us. This is because we write from our point of view, and quite naturally, we know everything about ourselves.


I always advise students to assume the reader knows absolutely nothing about them. Yes, the college admissions officer may have just read your application, but also, every application looks more or less the same, and they may easily confuse you with any of the other hundred applicants. The sooner you’re able ground the reader with key facts about yourself, the more accessible and enjoyable their experience will be.


Here are a few questions to ask yourself:


·      Have I included details about geographical location? Where am I in key points in the story?

·      Have I mentioned my age/school year grade at the time of important events?

·      Am I being precise about other people in my essay? For example, if family members play a role, have I been clear about their ages/birth order?


Finally, be mindful of the way you incorporate expository details. Don’t be random; be incisive. The more carefully you look at your sentences, the more clearly you’ll see where grounding details belong.


Yet another trick is to share your work with someone who doesn’t know you well. Ask them to point out any places in your writing where they felt lost or confused. Wherever your reader is lost, there’s an opportunity to ground your story.



2.     Use exposition to reveal your perspective.


As you get closer to the final draft of your essay, you’ve most likely gained perspective about yourself. Finding perspective is hard work (click here to read more on this subject), and sometimes, writers forget to showcase it.


I encourage students to reveal their perspective early on in their essay (somewhere in the first few paragraphs). Letting readers in on your point-of-view is an effective way of hooking them into your story. Once the reader knows that you know your truth, they’ll trust you. Make this pact with your reader early on. Reassure them that the journey they’re about to embark on is worthwhile. Remember, an essay with perspective is worthwhile to the reader.


Here are a few examples of expository statements with perspective:


“If you would’ve have asked me who I am three years ago, I would have told you a very different story.”


“Adopting my cat helped me discover things about myself I never knew.”


“When I was sixteen, I thought I had life figured out: then my little brother was born, and my whole world was turned upside down.”


Whether you’re in the process of falling into fall, or getting close to the final draft of your current writing journey, remember that you have the power to move fast and slow.