Problems are my bread and butter as a writer. In books and articles I identify problems of teaching, describe solutions, interpret results, and reach conclusions. I explain. I argue. I try to persuade. The big-tent name for writing that addresses problems is exposition. Most of my day-to-day writing is expository prose. It's my niche, and I'm not alone.
So far, one CTL alum has become a full-time writer of fiction. Among the others, an overwhelming number craft exposition every day. On the job they write reviews, press releases, advertising copy, blogs, lectures, submissions to academic journals, legal briefs, closing arguments, petitions, grant proposals, research reports, position papers, websites, ship's logs, lesson plans, curricula, progress reports, data analyses, business plans, recipes and menus, and articles and books about the environment. Their skills as writers are prized. I remember reading that the higher someone's salary, the more writing he or she does on the job. I believe it. Employers, clients, customers, and readers in general value writers who use precise language, present clear information, engage our interest, and help us untangle the problems of everyday living.
As an English teacher, I struggled with how to introduce exposition in genuine ways. It's easy and obvious to ask kids to write poems, narratives, and criticism—literary genres belong in an English class. It's harder to push out of the classroom into the world of problems and pull it back into the writing workshop in ways that feel purposeful and authentic—that bypass the bogus genres of reports and five-paragraph essays. And since my kids already know so much as writers about process, diction, specifics, tone, theme, leads and conclusions, titles, even paragraphing, I have to figure out how to build on this knowledge, so their expository prose will be as clear, coherent, enjoyable, and voiced as their poems, memoirs, short fiction, and letter-essays.
Letter-essays are a strong bridge into exposition in my workshop; from them, I launch a genre study of reviews. I tackle essays in the context of problems my students identify in their lives and the world. And I teach firsthand research and reportage in the form of advocacy journalism and profiles. Each of these is an authentic expository genre, each is similar enough to a genre I write that I can hand over lessons about it to my kids, and each can find a real audience.
Something happens with every piece of exposition my students produce. It goes public on CTL's book blog, Amazon.com, or other websites. Or it's published in Teen Ink magazine, a local newspaper, the school's newsletter or literary journal, a class magazine, or as part of a contest. It reaches an intended audience, and it gives readers something to think about.
I don't teach expository prose to prepare students for the essays on standardized tests. The version of exposition called for by these prompts is so odd and specific it's a genre unto itself and should be taught and practiced, in the week or two before the test, using the test maker's sample prompts and under test-taking conditions. It's not necessary to devote a school year to test prep. But teachers do need to familiarize students with the format and demands of the writing task—to help them tease out and name the features of the writing samples provided by the test maker, create a protocol for writing one that includes writing off-the-page, produce a couple under timed conditions, and analyze their results against the list of genre features they created.
I teach exposition so students will learn how to make writing work for them in the world—advocate for causes they believe in, seek answers to questions that baffle them, shed light, weigh in, and clear the way. To paraphrase Murray, problems make great subjects, especially for young writers. Expository genres teach them how to articulate ideas, gather evidence, send both out into the world, and try to have an influence there.