The exact nature of an exploratory essay can't be known in advance. It emerges gradually from decisions and discoveries made along the way. Individual writers go in different directions, depending on their interests and their specific writing contexts.
However you proceed, the strategies presented here will help you use your writing process to explore unfamiliar, perhaps intimidating subject areas.
The end result should be something very much like a research paper, but with the primary emphasis on your learning process rather than your sources of information. The idea is to use your writing process to learn and discover.
As you become familiar with this problem-posing strategy, you'll start to see it fairly often, especially in places like The New Yorker or Atlantic Monthly, and it also works well for much academic writing.
... the strategies presented here will help you use your writing process to explore unfamiliar, perhaps intimidating subject areas.
Consider two views of writing. The first sees writing as transcribing existing information, thereby giving it order and permanence so it can be examined and understood by others. In the second, writing is a way of coming to know what's unfamiliar and of participating in an evolving conversation with readers, a conversation that constantly reshapes and redefines human experience.
The first view applies best to simple, straightforward tasks such as writing down a recipe or writing a letter of recommendation for a former employee. Yet even these offer room for discovery, innovation, growth. And the discovery factor increases exponentially as writing contexts grow more complex. In a sense, then, all writing is partly exploratory.
The following activities will help you ease into your writing process and use your uncertainty for inspiration and motivation in the ongoing process of making meaning through writing.
For clarity, the process is presented in stages, but these stages don't have clear-cut beginnings and endings. Sometimes they overlap and blend into each other. Also, in practice, they don't always proceed in a neat linear fashion. As you explore, feel free to "leap ahead" to a later stage or "circle back" to an earlier one.