Learning Objectives

  • Describe techniques for illustrating a point

Illustration is a rhetorical style that uses examples to support the thesis or main idea of a paragraph or essay. Don’t be confused by the word “illustration” as the use of pictures or media. Illustration is most often used at the paragraph level to help support a point, but you may also encounter illustration essays of various types in your college courses.

A diagram showing how three examples together can lead to the point.

Figure 1. More often than not, the style of illustration is used at the paragraph level of essay writing.

In an illustration essay or a paragraph that employs illustration, your focus is on using examples that are relevant and strong to your argument and appropriate for your audience.

NOTE: You may find that when you’re writing about your examples you wind up with very choppy paragraphs. To avoid this, combine examples that are related and relevant to one another.

The point of any illustration assignment is for the writer to assert an overall observation and back up that assertion with evidence-based examples. Like other rhetorical modes, it can be simply informative—providing a neutral presentation of information for readers to use to draw their own conclusions, or it can be argumentative—providing a stance or point of view on the topic. The key to organizing the overall essay is to decide on categories of main ideas that are needed to provide a comprehensive overview of the topic.

An Illustrative Thesis

The thesis statement for an illustration essay should convey the main point and suggest why further clarification or development of a deeper understanding of the topic is necessary or important.


  • The over-reliance on social media and texting has created an environment where people feel comfortable sharing critical feelings they would have previously kept to themselves.
  • Movies rely on excessive gore and violence to entertain audiences which may explain why book adaptations are more violent than the original text.
  • If money is no object, then a vacation to the Kanaapali Shores Beach Resort will satisfy a tourist’s paradise dream.

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.
  • 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 are writing about a new communication software and your audience is a group of English-major undergrads, you might want to use an analogy or a personal story to illustrate how the software works. However, if you are writing about the same subject and your audience members are information technology (IT) specialists, your personal experience is less likely to be an effective illustration. Instead, you need to use more technical evidence because your audience has more familiarity with and greater knowledge of the subject.

Keeping your subject matter in mind in relation to your audience will increase your chances of effectively illustrating your point. Be careful not to overexplain simple concepts that your readers are already familiar with—you don’t want to insult their intelligence! Instead of more explanation, consider using an example.

Organizing an Illustration

The organization of an illustration essay depends on the purpose of the essay and requires a clear rationale for why the examples apply as an illustration of a concept. When pulling in examples, you may rely on words or phrases such as: for example, for instance, in particular, to illustrate, or specifically. 

Typically in a single supporting paragraph, a writer uses a topic sentence to designate the main idea followed by primary and secondary support structure. In a full essay devoted to illustration, primary supports are the main ideas to support a topic sentence, and secondary supports are the examples and details to provide the concrete information to complete the writer’s point.

Illustration Essay Outline

Introduction and Thesis:

  • Purpose of Illustration: To demonstrate how a vacation at the Kanaapali Shores Beach Club Resort is enjoyable and affordable.

Primary support 1: The hotel amenities

  • Secondary supporting details: the room, the bed, the bathroom, the kitchenette, the view, the concierge services

Primary support 2: The restaurants

  • Secondary supporting details: the variety of food, the quality of food, the service, the ambiance

Primary support 3: The beach and activities

  • Secondary supporting details: the beauty of the sand, sky, and water; sunbathing, snorkeling, windsurfing

Primary support 4: The cost

  • Secondary supporting details: the price of the room per night, the prices of meals, the price of activities/entertainment


SAMPLE Illustration Essay

Now that you have had the chance to learn about illustration essays, it’s time to see one in practice. Here you’ll see a traditional or typical sample illustration essay from a beginning writing class. In this assignment, the student was asked to write an essay using illustration to make his points, to follow APA guidelines, and to use at least two sources.

Try It