Kirk Fontenot

Student Learning Outcomes

  • Characterize the purpose of the illustration/example essay
  • Determine the best structure for the illustration/example essay
  • Compose an illustration/example essay

Introduction to Illustration/Example

To illustrate means to show or demonstrate something clearly. An effective illustration essay clearly demonstrates and supports a point using examples and evidence. 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.

Illustration/example writing simply means using specific examples to illustrate your point. Every essay has a point called the thesis statement. The thesis statement is the point you’re trying to make, stated clearly in one sentence. The rest of the essay is all about proving that point using different types of evidence.

The key to illustration/example is to use specific examples. General statements don’t make much of an impact on our reader; in other words, they’re boring. No one wants to read a boring essay, so why would you want to write one?

When thinking of examples, don’t try to come up with examples that can apply to everyone and every situation; these are general (i.e., boring) examples. Instead, think of specific, personal, interesting, unique examples.

Here’s an example of general writing that we should avoid:

I was raised in South Louisiana, and I just don’t like the cooking up here. People here like their food too bland; I like to season the things that I eat. There are only a few local restaurants that season their food the way that I like. There are certain dishes that were my favorites back home that I won’t even touch now that I live here. I guess everyone has different tastes.

There’s nothing wrong with this writing grammatically, but it’s boring.

Compare this to more specific writing:

I was raised in South Louisiana, and I just don’t like the cooking since moving north. People in Shreveport like their food too bland; I like my food well-seasoned, even spicy. I like a kick! Only a few restaurants that promise Cajun cuisine, like Bistro Byronz and Shane’s, season their fried catfish or their seafood gumbo the way Dad does. Boiled crawfish was always my favorite as a kid, but I won’t even go to a crawfish boil in Shreveport; everyone complains that even mildly seasoned crawfish is “too hot.” South Louisiana Cajuns clearly have a higher tolerance for spiciness!

The second example is specific, personal, and more interesting. The writer names specific restaurants and specific foods.

Illustration/example is an important rhetorical mode because specific examples are always a great way to make an essay more interesting, no matter what the writing prompt. In fact, if a rough draft of an essay is ever too short, don’t ever add filler; instead, add specific examples to get to the right length.

To make an essay more interesting, we can add:

  • Hypothetical examples that we make up
  • Real-life specific examples from personal experience (when appropriate)
  • Interesting examples that we read about

In this module, you will develop your skills in illustration/example writing.

The Purpose of Illustration in Writing

To illustrate means to show or demonstrate something clearly. An effective illustration essay, also known as an example 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 their 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.

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.
  • Ask yourself: How much evidence do you need to adequately explain your point? Consider how complex your subject is and how much background your audience may already have.

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 or a personal story to illustrate how the software worked. You might also choose to add a few 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 more technical evidence because they would be familiar with the subject.

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

The Structure of an Illustration Essay

The controlling idea, or thesis, belongs at the beginning of the essay. Evidence is then presented in the essay’s body paragraphs 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. This type of organization is called “order of importance.”

Transition words are also helpful in ordering the presentation of evidence. Words like first, second, third, currently, next, and finally all help orient the reader and sequence evidence clearly. 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. Certain transitional words and phrases aid in keeping the reader oriented in the sequencing of a story. Some of these phrases are listed here:

Phrases of Illustration

case in point       for example

for instance         in particular

in this case          one example/another example

specifically 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 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.

Professional Illustration/Example Writing

In “April & Paris,” writer David Sedaris explores the unique impact of animals on the human psyche. Click on the link to view the essay “April & Paris” by David Sedaris or read it below.

April & Paris by David Sedaris

While watching TV one recent evening, I stumbled upon a nature program devoted to the subject of making nature programs. The cameraman’s job was to catch a bird of paradise in full display, so he dug himself a hole, covered it with branches, and sat inside it for three weeks. This was in New Guinea, where the people used to wear sexy loincloths but now stand around in T-shirts reading “I survived the 2002 IPC Corporate Challenge Weekend.” A villager might wear a pair of gym shorts and then add a fanny pack or a sun visor with the name of a riverboat casino stitched onto the brim. I suppose that these things came from a relief organization. Either that or a cruise ship went down and this was what had washed up onshore.

I’ll wager that quite a few sun visors found their way to Southeast Asia after the tsunami. One brutal news story after another, and it went on for weeks. The phone numbers of aid organizations would skitter across the bottom of the TV screen, and I recall thinking that if they wanted serious donations they ought to show a puppy. People I know, people who had never before contributed to charity, emptied their pockets when a cocker spaniel was shown standing on a rooftop after Hurricane Katrina hit, eight months later. “What choice did I have?” they asked. “That poor little thing looked into the camera and penetrated my very soul.”

The eyes of the stranded grandmother, I noted, were not half as piercing. There she was, clinging to a chimney with her bra strap showing, and all anyone did was wonder if she had a dog. “I’d hate to think there’s a Scotty in her house, maybe trapped on the first floor. What’s the number of that canine-rescue agency?”

Saying that this was everyone’s reaction is, of course, an exaggeration. There were cat people, too, and those whose hearts went out to the abandoned reptiles. The sight of an iguana sailing down the street on top of a refrigerator sent a herpetologist friend over the edge. “She seems to be saying, ‘Where’s my master?'” he speculated. “‘Here it is, time for our daily cuddle and I’m stuck on the S.S. Whirlpool!!'”

I’ve often heard that anthropomorphizing an animal is the worst injustice you can do to it. That said, I’m as guilty of it as anyone. In childhood stories, the snail might grab her purse and dash out the door to put money in the meter. The rabbit cries when the blue jay makes fun of her buckteeth. The mouse loves his sister but not that way. They’re just like us! we think.

Certain nature shows only add to this misconception, but that, to me, is why they’re so addictive. Take “Growing Up Camel,” a program my friend Ronnie and I watched one evening. It was set in a small, privately owned zoo somewhere in Massachusetts. The camel in question was named Patsy, and the narrator reminded us several times that she had been born on Super Bowl Sunday. While still an infant (the football stadium probably not even cleared yet), she was taken from her mother. Now she was practically grown, and the narrator announced a reunion: “Today Patsy has reached what may be the biggest milestone in her life—moving back in with her mom.”

In the next segment, the two were reintroduced, and the grumpy old mother chased her daughter around the pen. When the opportunity arose, she bit Patsy on the backside, and pretty hard, it seemed to me. This was the camels not getting along and it wasn’t too terribly different from the way they acted when they did get along.

When the next break approached, the narrator hooked us with “When we continue, a heartbreaking event that will change Patsy’s life forever.”

I’d have put my money on an amputated leg, but it turned out to be nothing that dramatic. What happened was that the mother got bone cancer and died. The veterinarian took it hard, but Patsy didn’t seem to care one way or another, and why would she, really? All her mom ever did was browbeat her and steal her food, so wasn’t she better off on her own?

The zookeepers worried that if Patsy were left alone she would forget how to be a camel, and so they imported some company, a male named Josh and his girlfriend, Josie, who were shipped in from Texas. The final shot was of the three of them, standing in the sunshine and serenely ignoring one another. Ronnie cleared her throat and said, “So that’s what became of the little camel who was born on Super Bowl Sunday.” She turned on the light and looked me in the face. “Are you crying?”

I told her I had an ash in my eye.

“Growing Up Camel” had its merits, but I think I prefer the more serious kind of nature show, the kind that follows its subject through the wild. This could be a forest, a puddle, or a human intestinal tract, it makes no difference. Show me a tiger or show me a tapeworm, and I’ll watch with equal intensity. In this sort of program we see the creature’s world reduced to its basic components: food, safety, and reproduction. It’s a constant chain of desperation and heartache, the gist being that life is hard, and then it ends violently. I know I should watch these things with an air of detachment, but time and again I forget myself. The show will run its course, and afterward I’ll lie on the sofa, shattered by the death of a doda or a guib, one of those four-letter antelope-type things which are forever turning up in my crossword puzzles.

Apart from leaving me spent and depressed, such programs remind me that I am rarely, if ever, alone. If there’s not an insect killing time on the ceiling, there’s surely a mite staring out from the bath towel, or a parasite resting on the banks of my bloodstream. I’m reminded, too, that, however repellent, each of these creatures is fascinating, and worthy of a miniseries.

This was a lesson I learned a few summers back, in Normandy. I was at my desk one afternoon writing a letter when I heard a faint buzzing sound, like a tiny car switching into a higher gear. Curious, I went to the window, and there, in a web, I saw what looked like an angry raisin. It was a trapped fly, and as I bent forward to get a closer look a spider rushed forth, and carried it screaming to a little woven encampment situated between the wall and the window casing. It was like watching someone you hate getting mugged: three seconds of hardcore violence, and when it was over you just wanted it to happen again.

It’s hard to recall having no working knowledge of the Tegenaria duellica, but that’s what I was back then—a greenhorn with a third-rate field guide. All I knew was that this was a spider, a big one, the shape of an unshelled peanut. In color it ranged from russet to dark brown, the shades alternating to form a mottled pattern on the abdomen. I later learned that the Tegenaria can live for up to two years, and that this was an adult female. At that moment, though, as I stood at the window with my mouth hanging open, all I recognized was a profound sense of wonder.

How had I spent so much time in that house and never realized what was going on around me? If the Tegenaria barked or went after my food, I might have picked up on them earlier, but, as it was, they were as quiet and unobtrusive as Amish farmers. Outside mating season, they pretty much stayed put, a far cry from the Carolina wolf spiders I grew up with. Those had been hunters rather than trappers. Big shaggy things the size of a baby’s hand, they roamed the basement of my parents’ house, and evoked from my sisters the prolonged, spine-tingling screams called for in movies when the mummy invades the delicate lady’s dressing room. “Kill it!” they’d yell, and then I’d hear a half-dozen shoes hitting the linoleum, followed by a world atlas or maybe a piano stool—whatever was heavy and close at hand.

I was put off by the wolf spiders as well, but never thought that they were out to get me. For starters, they didn’t seem that organized. Then, too, I figured they had their own lives to lead. This was an attitude I picked up from my father, who squashed nothing that was not directly related to him. “You girls,” he’d say, and no matter how big the thing was he’d scoot it onto a newspaper and release it outside. Come bedtime, I’d knock on my sisters’ door and predict that the spider was now crawling to the top of the house, where he’d take a short breather before heading down the chimney. “I read in the encyclopedia that this particular breed is known for its tracking ability, and that once they’ve pegged their victims almost nothing will stop them. Anyway, good night.”

My sisters would have been horrified by the house in Normandy, as would most people, probably. Even before I joined the American Arachnological Society, the place looked haunted, cobwebs sagging like campaign bunting from the rafters and curtain rods. If one was in my way, I’d knock it down. But that all changed when I discovered that first Tegenaria—April, I called her. After writing her name on an index card and taping it to the wall, I found my interest spreading to her neighbors. The window they lived in was like a tenement building, one household atop another, on either side of the frame. Above April was Marty, and then Curtis and Paula. Across the way were Linda, Russell, Big Chief Tommy, and a sexless little speck of a thing I decided to call Leslie. And this was just one window.

Seeing as I’d already broken the No. 1 rule of a good nature documentary —not to give names to your subjects—I went ahead and broke the next one, which was not to get involved in their lives. “Manipulating,” my boyfriend, Hugh, would call it, but, to my mind, that was a bit too mad scientist. Manipulating is cross-breeding, or setting up death matches with centipedes. What I was doing was simply called feeding.

No Tegenaria, or at least none that I’ve observed, wants anything to do with a dead insect, even a freshly dead one. A spider’s food needs to be alive and struggling, and because our house was overrun, and I had some time on my hands, I decided to help out. In my opinion, the best place to catch flies is against a windowpane. Something about the glass seems to confuse them, and they get even dopier when you come at them with an open jar. Once one was in, I’d screw on the lid and act like I was shaking a cocktail. The little body would slam against the sides, and, as Hugh went progressively Gandhi on me, I’d remind him that these were pests, disease carriers who feasted upon the dead, and then came indoors to dance on our silverware. “I mean, come on,” I said. “You can’t feel sorry for everything.”

The Tegenaria build what I soon learned to call “horizontal sheet webs”—dense trampoline-like structures that are most often triangular, and range in size from that of a folded handkerchief to that of a placemat. Once my prey was good and woozy, I’d unscrew the lid, and tip the jar toward the waiting spider. The fly would drop, and, after lying still for a moment or two, it would begin to twitch and rouse itself, a cartoon drunk coming to after a long night. “What the fuck…?” I imagined it saying. Then it would notice the wings and foreheads of earlier victims. “I’ve got to get out of here.” A whisper of footsteps off in the distance, and just as the fly tasted futility, the monster was upon it.

“And cut!” I would yell.

Watching this spectacle became addictive, and so, in turn, did catching flies. There were days when I’d throw a good three dozen of them to their deaths—this at the expense of everything else I was supposed to be doing. As the spiders moved from healthy to obese, their feet tore holes in their webs. Running became a chore, and I think their legs started chafing. By this point, there was no denying my emotional attachment. There were nights that first summer when I’d get out of bed at 3 A.M. and wander into my office with a flashlight. Everyone would be wide-awake, but it was always April that I singled out. If I thought about her a hundred times a day, it seemed only fair that she thought about me as well. My name, my face: I didn’t expect these things to register, but, in the way that a body feels the warmth of the sun, I fully imagined that she sensed my presence, and missed it when I was away.

“That’s all right,” I’d tell her. “It’s only me.” Often, I’d take out my magnifying glass and stare into the chaos that was her face.

Most people would have found it grotesque, but when you’re in love nothing is so abstract or horrible that it can’t be thought of as cute. It slayed me that she had eight eyes, and that none of them seemed to do her any good. They were more like decoration, really, a splay of beads crowded above her chelicerae. These were what she used to grip her prey, and if you looked at her the right way you could see them as a pair of enormous buckteeth. This made her appear goofy rather than scary, though I’d never have said so in her presence. For a Tegenaria, she was quite attractive, and I was glad to see that Principal Hodges shared my view. He was a freshly molted adult male who travelled from the other side of the room and spent six days inside her inner sanctum. Why Marty or Curtis or Big Chief Tommy didn’t mate with April is a mystery, and I put it on a list beside other nagging questions, such as “What was Jesus like as a teen-ager?” and “Why is it you never see a baby squirrel?”

As the summer progressed, so did the mysteries. Spiders relocated, both male and female, and I started noticing a lot of spare parts—a forsaken leg or palp lying in a web that used to belong to Paula or Philip or the Right Reverend Karen. Someone new would move in, and, as soon as I tacked up a fresh name card, he or she would vacate without notice. What had once seemed like a fine neighborhood quickly became a dangerous one, the tenants all thuggish and transitory. Maybe April was more respected than anyone else in her window unit. Maybe her enemies knew that she was being watched, but, for whatever reason, she was one of the few Tegenaria that managed to stay put and survive. In mid-September, Hugh and I returned to the city and, at the last minute, I decided to buy a plastic terrarium and to take her with me. The “April in Paris” business didn’t occur to me until we were on the train, and I held her container against the window, saying, “Look, the Eiffel Tower!”

Funny the details that slip your notice until it’s too late. The fact, for instance, that we don’t really have flies in Paris, at least not in our apartment. Back in Normandy, catching prey had been a breeze. I could do it barefoot and in my pajamas, but now I was forced to go outside and lurk around the trash cans in the Luxembourg Gardens. Someone would toss in a disposable diaper and I’d stand a few feet from the bin, and wait for the scent to be picked up. Then there’d be the sneak attack, the clattering jar, the little spell of cursing and foot stomping. Had the flies been gathered on a windowpane, I would have enjoyed the last laugh, but out in the open, and with an audience of French people noting my every failure, my beautiful hobby became a chore.

I’d been telling myself for months that April needed me, though of course she didn’t. An adequate amount of prey stumbled into her web and she caught it quite capably on her own—in Normandy, anyway. Now, though, trapped inside a terrarium in a fourth-floor apartment, she honestly did need me, and the responsibility weighed a ton. Tegenaria can go without eating for three months, but whenever I returned home empty-handed I could feel her little spider judgement seeping from the plastic box. The face that had once seemed goofy was now haughty and expectant. “Hmm,” I imagined her saying. “I guess I had you figured all wrong.”

In early October, the weather turned cool. Then the rains came and, overnight, every fly in Paris packed up and left town. April hadn’t eaten in more than a week when, just by chance, I happened upon a pet store and learned that it sold live crickets, blunt little black ones that looked like bolts with legs. I bought a chirping boxful and felt very proud of myself until the next morning, when I learned something that no nature show ever told me: crickets stink. They reek. Rather than dirty diapers or spoiled meat—something definite you can put your finger on—they smell like an inclination: cruelty, maybe, or hatred.

No amount of incense or air freshener could diminish the stench. Any attempt only made it worse, and it was this more than anything that led me back to Normandy. April and I took the train in late October, and I released her into her old home. I guess I thought that she would move back in, but in our absence her web had fallen to ruin. One corner had come unmoored and its ragged, fly-speckled edge drooped like a filthy petticoat onto the window ledge. “I’m pretty sure it can be fixed,” I told her, but before I could elaborate, or even say goodbye, she took off running. And I never saw her again.

There have been other Tegenaria since then, a new population every summer, and though I still feed them and monitor their comings and goings, it’s with a growing but not unpleasant distance, an understanding that spiders, unlike mammals, do only what they’re supposed to do. Whatever drives the likes of April is private and severe, and my attempts to humanize it only moved me further from its majesty. I still can’t resist the fly catching, but in terms of naming and relocating I’ve backed off considerably, though Hugh would say not enough.

I suppose there’s a place in everyone’s heart that’s reserved for another species. My own is covered in cobwebs rather than dog or cat hair, and, because of this, people assume it doesn’t exist. It does, though, and I felt it ache when Katrina hit. The TV was on, the grandmother signalled from her rooftop, and I found myself wondering, with something akin to panic, if there were any spiders in her house.

Discussion Questions (Part I & Part II)

Part I

  1. What is the author’s primary thesis or theme? In other words, what is the point Sedaris is making?
  2. List some specific examples provided by the author to illustrate the point.
  3. Does the essay use “multiple” examples (a series of brief examples to illustrate or assert the thesis) or “extended” examples (longer examples explained through multiple sentences or paragraphs)?

Part II

This essay also connects back to the previous chapter on definition. Remember, definition is a rhetorical mode that explains or defines an unfamiliar term in such a way that your audience can gain a clearer understanding.

Go back to the essay and look for the term “anthropomorphizing.”

  1. Based on context clues, what does the term mean?
  2. How does the writer’s use of specific examples contribute to the definition?
  3. List examples of denotation (the literal meaning) and connotation (the feeling or attitude) of the term.

Student Illustration/Example Writing

Letter to the City

To: Lakeview Department of Transportation

From: A Concerned Citizen

The intersection of Central Avenue and Lake Street is dangerous and demands immediate consideration for the installation of a controlling mechanism. I have lived in Lakeview my entire life, and during that time I have witnessed too many accidents and close calls at that intersection. I would like the Department of Transportation to answer this question: how many lives have to be lost on the corner of Central Avenue and Lake Street before a street light or stop sign is placed there?

Over the past twenty years, the population of Lakeview has increased dramatically. This population growth has put tremendous pressure on the city’s roadways, especially Central Avenue and its intersecting streets. At the intersection of Central Avenue and Lake Street it is easy to see how serious this problem is. For example, when I try to cross Central Avenue as a pedestrian, I frequently wait over ten minutes for the cars to clear, and even then I must rush to the median. I will then have to continue to wait until I can finally run to the other side of the street. On one hand, even as a physically fit adult, I can run only with significant effort and care. Expecting a senior citizen or a child to cross this street, on the other hand, is extremely dangerous and irresponsible. Does the city have any plans to do anything about this?

Recent data show that the intersection of Central Avenue and Lake Street has been especially dangerous. According to the city’s own statistics, three fatalities occurred at that intersection in the past year alone. Over the past five years, the intersection witnessed fourteen car accidents, five of which were fatal. These numbers officially qualify the intersection as the most fatal and dangerous in the entire state. It should go without saying that fatalities and accidents are not the clearest way of measuring the severity of this situation because for each accident that happens, countless other close calls never contribute to city data. I hope you will agree that these numbers alone are sufficient evidence that the intersection at Central Avenue and Lake Street is hazardous and demands immediate attention.

Nearly all accidents mentioned are caused by vehicles trying to cross Central Avenue while driving on Lake Street. I think the City of Lakeview should consider placing a traffic light there to control the traffic going both ways. While I do not have access to any resources or data that can show precisely how much a traffic light can improve the intersection, I think you will agree that a controlled busy intersection is much safer than an uncontrolled one. Therefore, at a minimum, the city must consider making the intersection a four-way stop.

Each day that goes by without attention to this issue is a lost opportunity to save lives and make the community a safer, more enjoyable place to live. Because the safety of citizens is the priority of every government, I can only expect that the Department of Transportation and the City of Lakeview will act on this matter immediately. For the safety and well-being of Lakeview citizens, please do not let bureaucracy or money impede this urgent project.


A Concerned Citizen

Discussion Questions

  1. What is the thesis of the essay? Where is it found?
  2. List one specific example that the writer cites to illustrate their point.
  3. Do the examples used in the essay successfully illustrate the point the writer is making?
  4. Point out (a) a personal example and (b) an example found through research in this essay.
  5. Describe a hypothetical example that you could add to the writer’s letter that would further illustrate the point.

Your Turn

Think back to a time when you won an argument by providing a specific example to prove your point. Use freewriting to describe that argument and the example you cited, then write a brief outline of an illustration/example essay. 

Key Terms

  • Illustration
  • Evidence
  • Thesis statement
  • Transition words


  • 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.

Reflective Response

Now that you have read the chapter and written an illustration/example essay, describe ways in which using specific examples can be valuable in personal, academic, and professional writing. 

Additional Chapter Sources

“April and Paris” by David Sedaris appeared in the March 24, 2008, issue of The New Yorker. All rights reserved.



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Illustration/Example Copyright © 2022 by Kirk Fontenot is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

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