Lesson 1: What Is an Illustration Essay?
People can understand a concept when it is explained to them, but in order to fully comprehend something, people often need an example. An illustration essay operates on the principle that an argument must be supported with examples in order to be effective. An illustration (or example) is a thing that is characteristic of its kind or that exemplifies a general rule.
The purpose of illustrative writing is to show or demonstrate something in the clearest way possible by providing evidence to support a thesis. An illustration essay makes arguments by stating a generalization of some kind in the form of a thesis statement. The thesis is then supported by either a single illustration or by multiple illustrations. In this way, the essay moves from an idea in the form of a generalization to something more specific so that the reader can “see” for himself or herself how the generalization is determined.
What Is an Illustration?
There are three types of illustrations (sometimes referred to as examples) that can be used to support the thesis in an illustration essay:
- Precise illustrations: This type of illustration points to one specific case in which something occurred. The example used in the illustration does not have to be the only case, but it should highlight one instance thoroughly.
Benefits: This type of illustration carries the most authority and authenticity because it is a firsthand account and based on experience.
Limitations: A precise illustration is limited, however, by the fact that a firsthand experience is often subjective, meaning that it relies upon the perceptions of the person witnessing the experience.
Example A: In an argument about the ills of texting while driving, the writer might include an account of a girl who caused herself injury by causing a car accident because she was texting while driving.
Example B: In an argument about strong African-American women in history, the writer might include a description about the life of Sojourner Truth.
Example C: In an argument about how dogs remember their owners long after being separated from them, the writer might include the story of Buddy, who was returned to his owners in California in 2014 after being lost in the wildfires of 2007.
Types of Illustrations (Examples)
- Historical moments – events, happenings, important people, etc.
- Examples from professionals and field experts
- Personal accounts – narratives about an individual’s personal life experience (note: personal accounts cannot come from the writer)
- General illustrations: This type of illustration is generic, meaning that it can apply to the majority of situations but not all. A general illustration often asks the reader to generalize a given cause and effect in order to relate it to a larger outcome.
Benefits: General illustrations are often easy to relate to because they rely on general, lived experiences or common knowledge. They can also rely on logical conclusions, so they are easy to understand—even if the reader has never experienced the situation.
Limitations: On the other hand, general illustrations can run the risk of being too general. In other words, their lack of specificity may cause them to be fallacious, meaning prone to mistakes in logic and application. Because of the nature of generalization, these illustrations may not be applicable to every case.
Example A: In an argument about the ills of texting while driving, the writer might state that most young adults think that texting while driving is not only easy, but can be done safely.
Example B: In an argument about strong African-American women in history, the writer might include some of the accomplishments and contributions of African-American women since 1900.
Example C: In an argument about how dogs remember their owners long after being separated from them, the writer might state that an overwhelming majority of pets are returned to their owners.
Types of General Illustrations (Examples)
- Results from scientific studies
- Analogies – a comparison between things that helps with the understanding of the first item being compared (e.g., a description of how the heart works much like a pump works)
- Hypothetical illustrations: These illustrations are ones that are typically created by the writer. However, illustrations might also be borrowed from a professional, expert source. A hypothetical illustration suggests a scenario that is extremely likely based upon observed trends.
Benefits: When a trend is important to point to, these types of illustrations can be convenient. Often, they can be a passing example that drives home the point.
Limitations: This type of illustration is the weakest of the three because it can be easily flawed and accused of being fallacious because there is no true basis for it in reality. Further, often these types of illustrations are constructed from observation of patterns or trends, so the illustration may be a combination of observations or an assembly of several specific instances.
Example A: In an argument about the ills of texting while driving, the writer might discuss the latest laws against texting while driving, and the illustration would be a hypothetical situation in which a teenaged girl is pulled over for texting while driving. The writer might then refer to the girl as Jane, and describe what happens to Jane after she is pulled over.
Example B: In an argument about strong African-American women in history, the writer might describe how a young African-American could be inspired to follow in the footsteps of these historical figures. The illustration might create examples of how a female African-American youth can become involved within her own community by creating a hypothetical person who wants to affect her community, but is unsure how to go about it. Then the illustration can describe how she might do so.
Example C: In an argument about how dogs remember their owners long after being separated from them, the writer might describe how pets are returned to their owners using chip-scanning technology. The illustration might be one where the writer creates a hypothetical situation in which a dog who is lost but does not have a microchip or tag, and then describes the experiences of the dog as it is returned to its family.
- An illustration essay operates on the principle that an argument must be supported with examples in order to be effective.
- The purpose of an illustrative writing is to show or demonstrate something in the clearest way possible by providing evidence to support a thesis.
- An illustration (or example) is a thing that is characteristic of its kind or that exemplifies a general rule.
- A precise illustration is a type of illustration that points to one specific case in which something occurred.
- A general illustration is a type of illustration that is generic, meaning that it can apply to the majority of situations, but not all.
- A hypothetical illustration is an illustration that suggests a scenario that is extremely likely based upon observed trends.
Two Types of Illustration Essays
There are two types of illustration essays: single-example and multiple-example. Both structures operate in nearly the same way; the differences are (1) the way that the thesis statement is written and (2) the way that illustrations are used within the body paragraphs. Both essays feature an introduction with a thesis statement, at least three body paragraphs, and a conclusion that brings the essay to a close with a summary and a final thought about the topic.
Single-Example Illustration Essay
A single-example illustration essay develops body paragraphs that parse three or four aspects of one example. Sometimes a single-example essay is referred to as an extended-example essay because of the way that the essay examines one example in detail.
Thesis: Social networking has more negative effects than positive by draining people’s time, impacting job stability and opportunities, and diminishing face-to-face interactions.
- Aspect 1: Social networking can be a drain on a person’s time.
- Example of Aspect 1: According to Adler (2014), people spend more time on social networks than on any other kind of website or on any other activity on the Internet.
- Aspect 2: Social networking can impact job stability and opportunities.
- Example of Aspect 2: Stephanie Bon, an HR assistant at a bank, was terminated for posting her superior’s salary on Facebook: The “new CEO gets £4,000 an hour. I get £7. That’s fair” (Emerson, 2011, slide 4).
- Aspect 3: Social networking inhibits face-to-face interactions.
- Example of Aspect 3: According to the Center for the Digital Future (2012), “the percentage of Internet users who said they spend less face-to-face time with family in their household has grown dramatically, from a low of eight percent in 2000 to a peak of 34 percent in the two most recent surveys (p. 19),” which includes the 2012 survey.
Multiple-Example Illustration Essay
A multiple-example illustration essay develops body paragraphs around a central idea or theme, with each illustration depicting a different example.
Thesis: Spending too much time on Internet-enabled devices can harm interpersonal relationships.
- Point 1: Social networking can harm interpersonal relationships.
- Example 1 of Topic A: According to the Center for the Digital Future (2012), “the percentage of Internet users who said they spend less face-to-face time with family in their household has grown dramatically, from a low of eight percent in 2000 to a peak of 34 percent in the two most recent surveys (p. 19),” which includes the 2012 survey.
- Point 2: The presence of cell phones inhibits interpersonal communication.
- Example 2 of Topic A: According to a set of studies by Przybylski and Weinstein, “interacting in a neutral environment,without a cell phone nearby, seems to help foster closeness, connectedness, interpersonal trust, and perceptions of empathy—the building-blocks of relationships” (Lee Lin, 2012, para. 2).
- Point 3: The use of tablets, especially at a young age, could have adverse effects upon the development of interpersonal skills.
- Example 3 of Topic A: According to a study by Jenny Radesky and her team (as cited in Walters, 2015) at the developmental-behavioral pediatrics division of Boston University’s School of Medicine, it may be that using tablets to distract toddlers may severely limit their ability to self-regulate, leaving researchers to seriously question the ways that these media devices may inhibit the “development of sensorimotor and visual-motor skills” (para. 12).
- There are two types of illustration essays: single-example and multiple-example.
- A single-example (extended-example) illustration essay develops body paragraphs that parse three or four aspects of one example.
- A multiple-example illustration essay develops body paragraphs around a central idea or theme, with each illustration depicting a different example.
References for Examples
Adler, E. (2014). Social media engagement: The surprising facts about how much time people spend on the major social networks. Retrieved from http://www.businessinsider.com/social-media-engagement-statistics-2013-12
Center for the Digital Future. (2012). Special report: America at the digital turning point. Retrieved from http://www.worldinternetproject.net/_files/_Published/_oldis/789_cdf_10_year_digital_turning_point.pdf
Emerson, R. (2011). 13 controversial Facebook firings: Palace guards, doctors, teachers and more. Retrieved from http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2011/10/17/facebook-firings_n_1003789.html
Lee Lin, H. (2012). How your cell phone hurts your relationships. Retrieved from http://www.scientificamerican.com/article/how-your-cell-phone-hurts-your-relationships/
Walters, J. (2015). Tablets and smartphones my affect social and emotional development, scientists speculate. Retrieved from http://www.theguardian.com/technology/2015/feb/01/toddler-brains-research-smartphones-damage-social-development
Lesson 3: Choosing a Topic for the Illustration Essay
In Lessons 1 and 2 of this unit, we discussed some basic concepts of the illustration essay. Now that you have an idea about the type of essay you will be writing, we will spend the remaining lessons to develop the writing of the essay itself. In this lesson in particular, we will discuss the process of choosing a topic for your essay and a couple of strategies for developing that topic into three or four points. In the following lessons in Unit V, we will discuss ways to organize and develop your illustration essay.
Choosing a Topic
Choosing a topic that is good for you is extremely important and will aid in the success of your essay writing. You want to choose a topic in which you feel confident because it will be up to you to explicate the topic into illustrations. It is best to choose a topic that you have some familiarity with so that you can decipher at least three points that you want to make and support with illustrations.
Before choosing a topic, consider the areas in your life where you have some knowledge already: education, sports, technology, community, and business. Certainly, these are not all of the topic areas, but this is a good place to begin. Apart from considering categories, what are some other ways that you can choose a topic?
- Watch the news for current events: Sometimes just looking at the day’s headlines can launch you into a topic. For example, a local charity might be hosting an event in support of cancer survivors. You could write a paper about the need to support such survivors and include three illustrations of the ways that they can be supported through outreach events.
- Consider a historical view: Look to historical events for inspiration. Would you like to describe a certain time period or event? Perhaps you could even provide examples of three little-known facts about a famous person.
- Think about your day-to-day experiences: You could describe what you do for a living, what you love about action movies, or how to best decorate a cake. The possibilities are endless. Mainly, you want to make sure that you have a clear focus and that you are not relying on your personal experiences as evidence. In other words, you must be sure that you are including material from sources to help support your assertions.
Let’s look at some example topics as divided by category:
- What are the most helpful study habits?
- What are your recommendations for staying motivated when doing course work?
- Why did you choose online education?
- What are the benefits of online education?
- How can students avoid procrastination?
- How is a curveball thrown correctly?
- What makes a great football player? (This can be any kind of athlete.)
- What do you like about your favorite team?
- Describe how a coach might (or did) turn a season around.
- What makes a basketball team successful? (This can be any team sport.)
- Describe the negative (or positive) aspects of social networking.
- How are people dependent upon technology?
- In what ways has technology made people better (or worse) communicators?
- Describe the best uses for a particular technology (e.g., a tablet, smartphone, computer).
- Describe a tradition that only exists in a particular area (such as your own city or town). Some examples include parades, festivals, or holidays. What makes your hometown unique?
- Describe attributes of a favorite building, area, or city.
- What makes a great manager/leader?
- What makes fast food so successful?
- What makes a product successful?
- Describe the relationship between a customer or fan base and a product.