Section 25: From Annotated Bibliography to Exploratory Essay

Skills Focus: Organization Organizing an Exploratory Essay—Toward a Narrative of Intellectual Investigation

As we’ve discussed, the concept of an exploratory essay is that you start out unsure what you think about an issue and let your research lead you toward a provisional answer or at least a clearer understanding. People sometimes describe this type of assignment as writing to learn rather than writing to show what you know. The key is to start with a genuine question about an issue that truly perplexes you, and to maintain a sense of uncertainty that drives you to continue investigating.

While an exploratory essay doesn’t have a thesis, it does have a purpose: to present the information and ideas you’ve discovered in a helpful and logical way. Your aim is to make sense of the sources you’re presenting and help your readers understand the issue in greater depth.

The exploratory essay is all about research, and one way to approach the assignment is to start by creating an annotated bibliography (a bibliography that doesn’t simply list sources but summarizes and briefly critiques them).

But a good exploratory essay goes beyond summarizing sources in the manner of an annotated bibliography. Instead, it synthesizes information and ideas from different sources and organizes this material not by source but by idea (e.g. subtopic or aspect of the issue), incorporating source summaries into an overarching narrative of investigation that highlights key facets of the issue and explains similarities and differences between the sources you’ve consulted.

HW: Create a Working Outline for the Body of Your Exploratory Essay

Review your sources, noting key insights each offers as well as similarities and differences among the sources. Presumably, there’s considerable overlap among your sources, but any source worth citing should contribute something distinctive to your understanding of the issue because of its particular emphasis or perspective.
  1. List the sources you plan to cite, and for each source
    • Provide complete publication information, such as author, title, publication venue, date, url
    • Write a sentence to sum up the distinctive angle and emphasis of the source
    • Indicate specific source idea(s) you plan to discuss
    • For each key source idea you plan to discuss, write a sentence summing up the point—a sentence that could serve as a topic sentence for a ¶ introducing that source idea
  2. Organize your research into subtopics or ideas
    • Look over your source notes, and identify 3 or more subtopics you plan to discuss (3 or more approaches to your question or facets of the issue)
    • Each of these subtopics will correspond to a section of your essay
    • List your subtopics, and for each, note which source(s) you plan to cite in the section
  3. Email me your working outline