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
- Have you ever borrowed some books to start your research and realised you did not know where to begin?
- Have you ever spent time reading a great deal of information that in the end was irrelevant to the essay or assignment you were working on?
- Have you ever started to write your essay and realised you had too much information on one topic, and not enough information on another topic?
If you write the first draft of your essay plan before you begin your research, you will be organised and prepared, and you will save time.
You must write the first draft of your essay plan before you start your research. This will give your research direction and ultimately make it easier for you to write your essay. Having a plan will let you know what you need to research and how much research you need on each topic or subject that you will be writing about.
You will base this first draft of your essay plan on your essay question, and your current knowledge of your subject. You will not often be asked to write an essay on a topic you know nothing about, since you will already be studying the subject and will normally have had one or more lectures or tutorials on the topic.
It is acceptable if your essay plan is rough or vague at this point, or if you do not have a great deal of detail. You will develop your essay plan (expanding it and including more detail) and possibly even change it as you go through the research process.
What does a first draft of an essay plan look like?
The first draft of your essay plan will show you what main topics you will discuss in your essay, how the essay will be structured, and roughly how many words you will spend on each part.
If your essay question was 'Is Critical Thinking relevant to the role of a Registered Nurse?' and you had to write 1,500 words, then your essay plan might look like this:
(Please note that this sample essay plan is intended only to serve as a guide for how to develop and write an essay plan, and should not be used as an essay plan by students writing an essay on this topic.)
Introductions and conclusions
As you can see from the example essay plan above, an introduction and a conclusion will normally be approximately ten per cent of the word count of the entire essay. (This is a general guide and does not apply to essays longer than 5,000 words).
In order to be considered a true introduction, your first paragraph must do two things:
- Answer the essay question in a clear statement (this is called your thesis statement)
- Introduce the main points your essay will make to support your argument
Essay question: 'Is Critical Thinking relevant to the role of a Registered Nurse?'
Essay length: 1,500 words
Introduction (150 words)
- Thesis statement: Through an examination of the evidence, it is clear that Critical Thinking is highly relevant to the role of a Registered Nurse for a number of reasons.
- Introduce main points or topics to be discussed: accuracy of diagnoses, patient outcomes, prevent and solve problems, communication
Topic 1: Accuracy of diagnoses (300 words)
Topic 2: Patient outcomes (300 words)
Topic 3: Prevent and solve problems (300 words)
Topic 4: Communication (300 words)
Conclusion (150 words)
- Concluding statement: Thus, it can be seen that the concept of Critical Thinking is invaluable and highly relevant to Registered Nurses.
- Sum up main points or topics that have been discussed: accuracy of diagnoses, patient outcomes, prevent and solve problems, communication
You cannot discuss any major points or topics in your essay if you have not introduced them in your introduction. In addition, you must discuss all your main points or topics in the order that you introduce them in your introduction. This helps to maintain the flow and structure of your essay.
Similarly, in order to be considered a true conclusion, your last paragraph must do two things:
- Restate the answer to the essay question (i.e. restate your thesis statement)
- Sum up the main points your essay has made to support your argument
Remember, a conclusion cannot contain any new information.
Body of the essay and topic sentences
You can find out how many words you will write in the body of your essay by taking away the number you will spend on your introduction and conclusion from the total amount. How you divide the number of words in the body of your essay between your main topics will depend on how important each topic is to your argument. How long you spend writing about each topic should reflect the importance of each topic. If all of your topics were of equal importance, you would write roughly the same amount of words on each. If one topic were more important, you would write about it first and spend longer discussing it. If one topic were less important, you would write about it last and write fewer words on it.
Using topic sentences at the beginning of each new paragraph is essential to ensure that your essay is well organised and well structured. It also ensures that the essay flows logically and reads well. (This is something that your essay editor can check for you when you submit your document for editing.) A topic sentence must do two things:
- Introduce the new topic about to be discussed
- Show how this new topic helps to answer the essay question or support your argument in answering the essay question
If your essay question were 'Is Critical Thinking relevant to the role of a Registered Nurse?' and you were about to discuss the topic 'accuracy of diagnoses', then your topic sentence might sound like this: 'Another way in which Critical Thinking is highly relevant to the role of a Registered Nurse is in ensuring accuracy of diagnoses'. This sentence clearly demonstrates to the reader that you are about to discuss 'accuracy of diagnoses' and you are doing so because it is another way that Critical Thinking is relevant to Registered Nurses, which is what your essay is arguing.
The information in this article is relevant to the second step of writing an academic essay. However, there are five other steps. Please ensure you read all of the articles in the series How to Write Distinction Essays Every Time. When you have completed following the steps and have written your essay, remember to submit it to one of our academic editors for professional editing. Academic essay editing and proofreading helps students to improve their grades.
Other parts in this series;
Step 1: Analyse the Question
Step 2: Draft the Essay Plan
Step 3: Conduct the Research
Step 4: Finalise the Essay Plan
Step 5: Write the First Draft of the Essay
Step 6: Professional Academic Editing
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