School buses come in a lot of colors, not just yellow. This is an interesting and very possibly true statement, but some illustration would help solidify the idea in the mind of the reader. Why? Because an illustration is another way of saying an example, and examples give details and help explain a claim. Illustration can help to prove that a statement is true or merely enrich and clarify someone's position.

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Table of contents

    Definition and Purpose of Illustration

    Illustration is a basic rhetorical mode that adds detail to a claim or thought. The reason it is so common in rhetoric is because rarely does a statement provide all the necessary context needed to interpret it. Illustrations provide that context.

    A rhetorical mode is a way to organize speech or writing. A basic rhetorical mode is one that doesn't require taking an intimate look at the subject. You can illustrate something without having to know it through and through, and so it's a basic rhetorical mode. Complex rhetorical modes, on the other hand, do require an in-depth knowledge of the subject. Some examples of complex rhetorical modes include cause and effect, process analysis, and description.

    Illustration is another way of saying "example" because you can use an object or idea to illustrate—or provide an example of—another object or idea. An illustration can be used to either clarify a thought or to support a stance.

    Illustration Used to Clarify a Thought

    The following statement would be enhanced by an illustration.

    Walking around empty malls is an almost otherworldly experience, like living in a memory.

    In this example, an illustration would be helpful to enrich the idea. If the writer provided a first-hand account of their experiences in a mall, for example, it would provide helpful emotional context that might further engage the reader. The writer could also provide images of empty malls, which would both help to illustrate “empty malls” and also to engage the reader’s own sense of mystery or nostalgia.

    Illustration, Definition of Illustration, Empty Mall, StudySmarterFig. 1 - Empty Mercury Mall. This is a literal illustration that exemplifies the statement above.

    Statements that would benefit from illustration beg for a story to be told. They have a way of making a reader ask for more.

    Illustration Used to Support a Stance

    Here's something that could also use an illustration:

    Butterflies aren’t as common around here as they used to be.

    In this example, an illustration would be helpful to prove a point. Examples would be great, including first-hand accounts or even secondhand accounts. Obviously, verifiable evidence would also add helpful detail.

    Verifiable evidence means documented proof by which something can be validated. Verifiable evidence is the gold standard for details in essays because these details illustrate an empirical picture of a situation. In our example, our situation is a lack of butterflies in the area.

    Synonyms for Illustration

    As previously mentioned, a synonym for illustration in the rhetorical sense is example. Some other ideas related to illustration are description, evidence, and anecdotes. A writer may use all three of these devices to explain an idea to their audience.


    A description is similar to illustration, but it is more about detailing things in terms of a story, such as how things look and smell.

    A description narrows the mental distance between you and the subject described.


    Evidence is a kind of illustration used in argumentation to provide support for an argument.

    Evidence supports an argument with facts.


    An anecdote is a method to illustrate what happened. Because it is a story, it is a kind of description, rich with sensory details.

    An anecdote is a short, informal, and descriptive personal story.

    Types of Illustration in Writing

    Nearly everything that an illustration accomplishes can be considered an example. This is why the terms are sometimes used interchangeably. Here are some of the ways a writer might illustrate their ideas.

    Illustration Using Common Examples

    Common examples exist in the “public consciousness.” Things like famous events, historical figures, or movies fall under the public consciousness category.

    It was the weirdest thing. I was walking, and I swear I saw the snowman in Sandy’s yard wave to me. It was like Frosty the Snowman or something.

    This common example helps to illustrate the surreal, even magical experience that the writer experienced. The thought (which is their experience of seeing the snowman) is enriched by a common and recognizable illustration (Frosty the Snowman) that likens the writer’s experience to a magical experience the reader probably knows.

    This type of illustration is good for telling a story, or quickly providing amusement or context to an argument, but it is not a strong form of illustration in formal arguments.

    Illustration Using First-Hand Evidence

    First-hand evidence is something that someone witnessed themselves.

    This mall used to be the most happening place in town. When I was a young man, Gerald Ford came through here and gave a speech after cutting the red tape at its grand opening.

    This example of a firsthand account is close to becoming an anecdote. An anecdote is a short, usually personal story that describes an event. It will often capture the flavor of a place in time, and sometimes will be used to make a point about then versus now. An anecdote is a more complex mode of rhetoric in which the descriptive capabilities of a storyteller are put to the test.

    Biographies, histories, and courts of law champion first-hand accounts.

    Illustration Using Second-Hand Evidence

    Second-hand evidence is something that someone heard from someone else. It can also be something that someone read about or heard about, although it lacks any citation.

    Olympic National Park is like nowhere else in the United States. My dad went there, and he saw all these cool jungle trees and giant yellow slugs.

    This second-hand account provides detail about the thought “Olympic Park is like nowhere else in the United States.”

    Second-hand evidence is not as strong as first-hand evidence because the information is further from the source. The writer of this example could be misremembering what their dad said, for instance. Or, the writer might be using their dad’s illustration out of context.

    This mall used to be the most happening place in town. I read in an article once that JFK gave a speech here.

    This is second-hand evidence from an article that the writer once read. It is not as strong a piece of evidence as the article itself, because the article is 1. closer to the event it illustrates, and 2. contains greater and more accurate details than a memory of it.

    If you remember the last section, for instance, Gerald Ford gave the speech, not JFK.

    Illustration Using Verifiable Evidence

    Verifiable evidence includes things such as photos and research, which directly support a point. A first-hand account can become verifiable evidence if it is supported by enough corroborating evidence, including other first-hand accounts.

    Ultimately though, what qualifies as verified, valid evidence will be up to the reader. This is why, when writing an essay or paper, citations are critically important. In a timed essay, citing the focal text or passage is a strong way to prove your point. This is also why when analyzing a piece of literature, the analyst will spend the majority of their time examining a piece of literature: it will contain much of the analyst’s verifiable evidence.

    Alucard drinks blood. On page 123, it says, “He drank her blood like sipping soda out of a can.”

    This passage illustrates the point—that Alucard drink blood—directly from the source text.

    Fresno gets very hot. Its median yearly high temperature is among the top 1% of cities in America, according to a 2021 report in Oh My Gosh That’s Crazy Magazine.

    Statistics like this one (although it's made up) are a great source of verifiable evidence. Most statistics come from studies that publish their findings publically, so anyone can double-check the numbers.

    How Illustration Functions in Sentences and Essays

    Essays are built from building blocks: sentences. Every time you complete another sentence, you add another brick to the wall. Your goal is a firm construction so that your thesis doesn’t come crashing down around you.

    As we’ve discussed, illustrations are a key way for a writer to provide details about their thoughts and claims. That’s all well and good, but how should a writer connect their “thoughts and claims” to their illustrations?

    With transitions.

    Transitions are a basic way to provide context to thoughts by linking them to other related thoughts. Transitions, which use dozens of words such as “therefore” and “for example,” can stitch together sentences, paragraphs, and chapters to create vast illustrative anecdotes or logical arguments.

    If sentences are the building blocks for your essay, then transitions are the mortar. Use transitions to bind together your various points and examples.

    How to Write Good Illustrations

    Effective illustrations are consistent with your audience and your tone. Use illustrations when they provide necessary context or logical support for your points. Anecdotes, for example, are far more helpful in casual essays and histories. They can be used in longer papers and books where many forms of context might be helpful.

    In your essay, use stronger forms of illustration. Use evidence or first-hand accounts from reputable sources who know more about a topic than you do. In timed essays, you will want to draw on the passage as much as you can to support your ideas.

    How to Analyze Illustrations in a Casual Account

    First, identify the kind of work you are analyzing. If it is a casual account, don’t worry about evidence. Analyze the emotional effectiveness of the illustrations, such as how well they communicate the feelings of the scene or idea. Analyze how vibrant a picture the illustrations paint. The more details, the better.

    Casual accounts can include short passages, short stories, memoirs, and other media that don’t present a thesis.

    Here is a passage from Mark Twain's A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur's Court (1889) and an example analysis.

    When I came to again, I was sitting under an oak tree, on the grass, with a whole beautiful and broad country landscape all to myself—nearly. Not entirely; for there was a fellow on a horse, looking down at me—a fellow fresh out of a picture-book. He was in old-time iron armor from head to heel, with a helmet on his head the shape of a nail-keg with slits in it; and he had a shield, and a sword, and a prodigious spear; and his horse had armor on, too, and a steel horn projecting from his forehead, and gorgeous red and green silk trappings that hung down all around him like a bedquilt, nearly to the ground." (A Word of Explanation)

    Illustration, How Illustration Functions in Sentences, Oak Tree, StudySmarterFig. 2 - Oak Tree in Peaceful Landscape

    This is the moment that Hank Morgan wakes up in Camelot. Here, Hank illustrates the idyllic and peaceful surroundings, which are in sharp contrast to modern-day Connecticut. This illustration paints a place not crowded with industry. Twain is also very purposeful in how he writes Hank’s description of the knight. Rather than describing the knight’s armor in terms of its actual pieces, Hank describes it in terms of things he knows: picture-books, nail-kegs, and bedquilts. Mark Twain’s illustration creates a contrast between Hank’s world and the knight's world. These illustrations set up the humor and satire to follow.

    How to Analyze Illustrations in an Essay

    If you are analyzing an essay or report, consider the objectivity of its sources. In other words, does the essay or report use verified evidence to support its points? If not, you should analyze any flaws of the illustrations. Compare the illustrations to the thesis. Do they directly support it? If not, search for logical fallacies and other errors in the essay or report.

    Illustration - Key Takeaways

    • Illustration is a basic rhetorical method that adds detail to a claim or thought.
    • Methods of illustration might include:
      • Common examples
      • First-hand evidence
      • Second-hand evidence
      • Verifiable evidence
    • Use transitions to effectively bind your illustrations to their claim or thought.
    • Effective illustrations are consistent with your audience and your tone.
    • In your essay use stronger forms of illustration, such as first-hand accounts.


    1. Fig. 1 - Empty Mercury Mall ( Image by Mx. Granger ( licensed by Creative Commons CC0 1.0 Universal Public Domain Dedication (
    2. Fig. 2 - Oak Tree ( Image by Ymblanter ( licensed by Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 4.0 International license (
    Frequently Asked Questions about Illustration

    What is illustration in writing?

    Illustration is a basic rhetorical method that adds detail to a claim or thought.

    What is an example of illustration in a sentence?

    "This mall used to be the most happening place in town. When I was a young man, Gerald Ford came through here and gave a speech after cutting the red tape at its grand opening."

    This is an example of first-hand evidence being used to illustrate a thought.

    Can illustrations include words?

    Yes, illustrations can include words in a rhetorical sense. "Illustration" is used in many fields and contexts. Illustrations can also be drawn pictures.

    How do you write a good illustration in a paragraph?

    Illustrations should provide necessary context or logical support for your points. Effective illustrations are consistent with your audience and your tone.

    What kind of rhetorical mode is "illustration"?

    Illustration is a basic rhetorical mode. The reason that illustration is so common in rhetoric is that rarely does a statement provide all the necessary context needed to interpret it. Illustrations provide that context.

    Test your knowledge with multiple choice flashcards

    "50% of all income on the Mars Colony is not taxed, reports Earth Weekly."Would this statement benefit from illustration?

    "My boss is a penny-pincher. He's a real Mr. Potter type, like from It's A Wonderful Life." What kind of illustration is the underlined part?

    If an illustration would be helpful to a thought or claim, it would likely come in the form of a(n) _____.


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