2.3 Illustration

[1]The Purpose of Illustration in Writing

To illustrate means to show or demonstrate something clearly. An effective illustration essay clearly demonstrates and supports a point through the use of evidence.

The controlling idea of an essay is called a thesis. A writer can use different types of evidence to support his or her thesis. Using scientific studies, experts in a particular field, statistics, historical events, current events, analogies, and personal anecdotes are all ways in which a writer can illustrate a thesis. Ultimately, you want the evidence to help the reader “see” your point, as one would see a good illustration in a magazine or on a website. The stronger your evidence is, the more clearly the reader will consider your point.


While anecodotes are technically considered to be a type of evidence, they are only highly effective when the person providing the anecodte has pre-established credibility (Example: Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. had pre-established credibility before his “I have a Dream” speech which allowed him to effectively utalize personal ancedotes throughout the speech) or the person’s credibility has been explained/provided before the ancedote is discussed (Example: Dr. Jefferson Inkley, lead cardiologist at the local hospital, claims that..”). That means, that while your topic may be important to you due to a personal experience, it is usually better to rely on the other types of evidence as you, most likely, do not have any pre-established credibility.

Using evidence effectively can be challenging, though. The evidence you choose will usually depend on your subject and who your reader is (your audience). When writing an illustration essay, keep in mind the following:

  • Use evidence that is appropriate to your topic as well as appropriate for your audience.
  • Assess how much evidence you need to adequately explain your point depending on the complexity of the subject and the knowledge of your audience regarding that subject.

For example, if you were writing about a new communication software and your audience was a group of English-major undergrads, you might want to use an analogy that utilizes more common items/ideas to illustrate how the software worked. You might also choose to add more pieces of evidence to make sure the audience understands your point. However, if you were writing about the same subject and your audience members were information technology (IT) specialists, you would likely use field-specific terminology and far fewer pieces of general evidence as they would be familiar with the subject.

Keeping in mind your subject in relation to your audience will increase your chances of effectively illustrating your point.


You never want to insult your readers’ intelligence by overexplaining concepts the audience members may already be familiar with which is why evalutating who makes up your intended audience is a key first step in deciding not only what to write, but how to write it.

Exercise 1

On a separate piece of paper, form a thesis based on each of the following topics. Then list the types of evidence that would best explain your point for each of the audiences listed below the topics.

  1. Topic: Combat and mental health

    Audience: family members of veterans, doctors

  2. Topic: Video games and teen violence

    Audience: parents, children

  3. Topic: Architecture and earthquakes

    Audience: engineers, local townspeople

The Structure of an Illustration Essay

The controlling idea, or thesis, belongs at the beginning of the essay. Oftentimes it is the last sentence of an introductory paragraph as it serves as the linking idea to the supporting evidence that will be presented in the essay’s body paragraphs. This evidence is presented to support the thesis. You can start supporting your main point with your strongest evidence first, or you can start with evidence of lesser importance and have the essay build to increasingly stronger evidence. Because an illustration essay uses so many examples, it is also helpful to have a list of words and phrases to present each piece of evidence. List 2.3.1 “Phrases of Illustration” provides several phrases for illustration.


List 2.3.1 Phrases of Illustration

  • case in point
  • for instance
  • in this case
  • specifically
  • for example
  • in particular
  • one example/another example
  • to illustrate


Vary the phrases of illustration you use. Do not rely on just one. Variety in choice of words and phrasing is critical when trying to keep readers engaged in your writing and your ideas.

Writing beyond College

In the workplace, it is often helpful to keep the phrases of illustration in mind as a way to incorporate them whenever you can. Whether you are writing out directives that colleagues will have to follow or requesting a new product or service from another company, making a conscious effort to incorporate a phrase of illustration will force you to provide examples of what you mean.

Exercise 2

On a separate sheet of paper, form a thesis based on one of the following topics. Then support that thesis with three pieces of evidence. Make sure to use a different phrase of illustration to introduce each piece of evidence you choose.

  1. Cooking
  2. Baseball
  3. Work hours
  4. Exercise
  5. Traffic

Practicing Peer Review 

Please share with a classmate and compare your answers. Discuss which pieces of evidence you felt need to be shifted or replaced and why. Indicate which thesis statement you perceive as the most effective and why.

Writing an Illustration Essay

First, decide on a topic that you feel interested in writing about. Then create an interesting introduction to engage the reader. The main point, or thesis, should be stated at the end of the introduction.

Gather evidence that is appropriate to both your subject and your audience. You can order the evidence in terms of importance, either from least important to most important or from most important to least important. Be sure to fully explain all of your examples using strong, clear supporting details.

Key Takeaways

  • An illustration essay clearly explains a main point using evidence.
  • When choosing evidence, always gauge whether the evidence is appropriate for the subject as well as the audience.
  • Organize the evidence in terms of importance, either from least important to most important or from most important to least important.
  • Use time transitions to order evidence.
  • Use phrases of illustration to call out examples.

  1. 2.3 (except where otherwise noted) was borrowed with edits and additions from Writing for Success which was adapted from a work produced and distributed under a Creative Commons license (CC BY-NC-SA) in 2011 by a publisher who has requested that they and the original author not receive attribution. This adapted edition is produced by the University of Minnesota Libraries Publishing.


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