Writing an academic essay means fashioning a coherent set of ideas into an argument. Because essays are essentially linear—they offer one idea at a time—they must present their ideas in the order that makes most sense to a reader. Successfully structuring an essay means attending to a reader's logic.
The focus of such an essay predicts its structure. It dictates the information readers need to know and the order in which they need to receive it. Thus your essay's structure is necessarily unique to the main claim you're making. Although there are guidelines for constructing certain classic essay types (e.g., comparative analysis), there are no set formula.
Answering Questions: The Parts of an Essay
A typical essay contains many different kinds of information, often located in specialized parts or sections. Even short essays perform several different operations: introducing the argument, analyzing data, raising counterarguments, concluding. Introductions and conclusions have fixed places, but other parts don't. Counterargument, for example, may appear within a paragraph, as a free-standing section, as part of the beginning, or before the ending. Background material (historical context or biographical information, a summary of relevant theory or criticism, the definition of a key term) often appears at the beginning of the essay, between the introduction and the first analytical section, but might also appear near the beginning of the specific section to which it's relevant.
It's helpful to think of the different essay sections as answering a series of questions your reader might ask when encountering your thesis. (Readers should have questions. If they don't, your thesis is most likely simply an observation of fact, not an arguable claim.)
"What?" The first question to anticipate from a reader is "what": What evidence shows that the phenomenon described by your thesis is true? To answer the question you must examine your evidence, thus demonstrating the truth of your claim. This "what" or "demonstration" section comes early in the essay, often directly after the introduction. Since you're essentially reporting what you've observed, this is the part you might have most to say about when you first start writing. But be forewarned: it shouldn't take up much more than a third (often much less) of your finished essay. If it does, the essay will lack balance and may read as mere summary or description.
"How?" A reader will also want to know whether the claims of the thesis are true in all cases. The corresponding question is "how": How does the thesis stand up to the challenge of a counterargument? How does the introduction of new material—a new way of looking at the evidence, another set of sources—affect the claims you're making? Typically, an essay will include at least one "how" section. (Call it "complication" since you're responding to a reader's complicating questions.) This section usually comes after the "what," but keep in mind that an essay may complicate its argument several times depending on its length, and that counterargument alone may appear just about anywhere in an essay.
"Why?" Your reader will also want to know what's at stake in your claim: Why does your interpretation of a phenomenon matter to anyone beside you? This question addresses the larger implications of your thesis. It allows your readers to understand your essay within a larger context. In answering "why", your essay explains its own significance. Although you might gesture at this question in your introduction, the fullest answer to it properly belongs at your essay's end. If you leave it out, your readers will experience your essay as unfinished—or, worse, as pointless or insular.
Mapping an Essay
Structuring your essay according to a reader's logic means examining your thesis and anticipating what a reader needs to know, and in what sequence, in order to grasp and be convinced by your argument as it unfolds. The easiest way to do this is to map the essay's ideas via a written narrative. Such an account will give you a preliminary record of your ideas, and will allow you to remind yourself at every turn of the reader's needs in understanding your idea.
Essay maps ask you to predict where your reader will expect background information, counterargument, close analysis of a primary source, or a turn to secondary source material. Essay maps are not concerned with paragraphs so much as with sections of an essay. They anticipate the major argumentative moves you expect your essay to make. Try making your map like this:
- State your thesis in a sentence or two, then write another sentence saying why it's important to make that claim. Indicate, in other words, what a reader might learn by exploring the claim with you. Here you're anticipating your answer to the "why" question that you'll eventually flesh out in your conclusion.
- Begin your next sentence like this: "To be convinced by my claim, the first thing a reader needs to know is . . ." Then say why that's the first thing a reader needs to know, and name one or two items of evidence you think will make the case. This will start you off on answering the "what" question. (Alternately, you may find that the first thing your reader needs to know is some background information.)
- Begin each of the following sentences like this: "The next thing my reader needs to know is . . ." Once again, say why, and name some evidence. Continue until you've mapped out your essay.
Your map should naturally take you through some preliminary answers to the basic questions of what, how, and why. It is not a contract, though—the order in which the ideas appear is not a rigid one. Essay maps are flexible; they evolve with your ideas.
Signs of Trouble
A common structural flaw in college essays is the "walk-through" (also labeled "summary" or "description"). Walk-through essays follow the structure of their sources rather than establishing their own. Such essays generally have a descriptive thesis rather than an argumentative one. Be wary of paragraph openers that lead off with "time" words ("first," "next," "after," "then") or "listing" words ("also," "another," "in addition"). Although they don't always signal trouble, these paragraph openers often indicate that an essay's thesis and structure need work: they suggest that the essay simply reproduces the chronology of the source text (in the case of time words: first this happens, then that, and afterwards another thing . . . ) or simply lists example after example ("In addition, the use of color indicates another way that the painting differentiates between good and evil").
Copyright 2000, Elizabeth Abrams, for the Writing Center at Harvard University
Essays are common in elementary, middle, high school and college, and you may even need to write essays in the business world (although they are usually called "reports" at that point). An essay is defined as "a short piece of writing that expresses information as well as the writer's opinion."
For some, writing an essay is as simple as sitting down at their computer and beginning to type, but a lot more planning goes into writing an essay successfully. If you have never written an essay before, or if you struggle with writing and want to improve your skills, it is a good idea to go through several steps in the essay writing process.
For example, to write an essay, you should generally:
- Decide what kind of essay to write.
- Brainstorm your topic.
- Do research.
- Develop a thesis.
- Outline your essay.
- Write your essay.
- Edit your writing to check spelling and grammar.
While this sounds like a lot of steps to write a simple essay, if you follow them you will be able to write more successful, clear and cohesive essays.
Kinds of Essays
The first step to writing an essay is to decide what kind of essay to write. There are several main structures into which essays can be grouped:
- Narrative Essays: Tell a story or impart information about your subject in a straightforward, orderly manner.
- Descriptive Essays: Focus on the details of what is going on. For example, if you want to write a descriptive essay about your trip to the park, you would give great detail about what you experienced: how the grass felt beneath your feet, what the park benches looked like, and anything else the reader would need to feel as if he were there.
- Persuasive Essay: Convince the reader of some point of view.
- Comparative Essay: Compare two or more different things.
- Expository Essay: Explain to the reader how to do a given process. You could, for example, write an expository essay with step-by-step instructions on how to make a peanut butter sandwich.
Knowing what kind of essay you are trying to write can help you decide on a topic and structure your essay in the best way possible.
You cannot write an essay unless you have an idea of what to write about. Brainstorming is the process in which you come up with the essay topic. You need to simply sit and think of ideas during this phase.
- Write down everything that comes to mind as you can always narrow those topics down later.
You could also use clustering or mind mapping to brainstorm and come up with an essay idea. This involves writing your topic or idea in the center of the paper and creating bubbles (clouds or clusters) of related ideas around it. This can be a great way to develop a topic more deeply and to recognize connections between various facets of your topic.
Once you have a list of possible topics, it's time to choose the best one that will answer the question posed for your essay. You want to choose a topic that is neither too broad nor too narrow.
- If you are given an assignment to write a one page essay, it would be far too much to write about “the history of the US” since that could fill entire books.
- Instead, you could write about a very specific event within the history of the United States: perhaps signing the Declaration of Independence or when Columbus discovered the U.S.
Choose the best topic from among them and begin moving forward on writing your essay.
Once you have done your brainstorming and chosen your topic, you may need to do some research to write a good essay. Go to the library or look on the Internet for information about your topic. Interview people who might be experts in the subject. Keep your research organized so it will be easy for you to refer back to, and easy for you to cite your sources when writing your final essay.
Developing a Thesis
Your thesis is the main point of your essay. It is essentially one sentence that says what the essay is about. For example, your thesis might be "Dogs are descended from wolves." You can then use this as the basic premise to write your entire essay, and all of the different points throughout need to lead back to this one main thesis. The thesis will usually be used in your introductory paragraph.
The thesis should be broad enough that you have enough to say about it, but not so broad that you can't be thorough.
Outlining Your Essay
The next step is to outline what you are going to write about. This means you want to essentially draw the skeleton of your paper. Writing an outline can help to ensure your paper is logical, well organized and flows properly.
Start by writing the thesis at the top and then write a topic sentence for each paragraph below. This means you should know exactly what each of your paragraphs are going to be about before you write them.
- Don’t jumble too many ideas in each paragraph or the reader may become confused.
- You also want to ensure you have transitions between paragraphs so the reader understands how the paper flows from one idea to the next.
Fill in facts from your research under each paragraph which you want to write about when you write the essay. Make sure each paragraph ties back in to your thesis and creates a cohesive, understandable essay.
Write and Edit
Once you have an outline, its time to start writing. Write from the outline itself, fleshing out your basic skeleton to create a whole, cohesive and clear essay.
You will want to edit and re-read your essay, checking to make sure it sounds exactly the way you want it to. You want to:
- Revise for clarity, consistency and structure.
- Make sure everything flows together.
- Support your thesis adequately with the information in your paragraphs.
- Make sure you have a strong introduction and conclusion so the reader comes away knowing exactly what your paper was about.
- Revise for technical errors.
- Check for grammar problems, punctuation and spelling errors. You cannot always count on spell check to recognize every spelling error as sometimes you can spell a word incorrectly but your misspelling will also be a word, such as spelling from as form.
A lot goes in to writing a successful essay; fortunately, these tips for writing essays can help you along the way and get you on the path to a well-written essay.