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
This page is the first of two that describe the processes involved in producing an essay for academic purposes, for school, college or university.
This page covers the planning stages of essay writing, which are important to the overall process.
The second page, Writing an Essay, provides more information on the steps involved in actually writing an essay. We recommend you read both pages to gain a full understanding.
Developing the skill of essay writing takes practice, time and patience, your essay writing skills will improve and develop the more you write.
With the help of your course tutor (teacher or lecturer) and peers (other students) and from constructive feedback from the marker of your work, writing an essay will become easier as you progress through your studies and your confidence increases.
This page details general good practice in essay planning, including what you should do and what you should try to avoid. It is important however, that you understand the specific requirements of your school, college or university.
Writing an essay helps you to consider the issues raised in your course and to relate them to your own experience, way of thinking, and also any wider additional reading and research you may have undertaken in order to tackle the essay topic.
Writing an essay (or other assignment) is an important part of the learning process. In the writing of an assignment, learning occurs as you think through and interpret the points raised (together with those of other writers on the subject).
Presenting your experience and showing understanding within your assignment will, from the marker's point of view, demonstrate your knowledge of the subject area.
The Purpose of an Essay
The original meaning of an essay is 'an attempt', or a try, at something. It is therefore appropriate to consider writing an essay as a learning exercise.
Essays, and other academic writing, focus the mind and encourage you to come to conclusions about what you are studying.
Writing is often the best possible way to assimilate and organise information. Writing helps to highlight any areas that you have not fully understood and enables you to make further clarifications. It develops your powers of criticism, analysis and expression, and gives you a chance to try out your and other writers' ideas on the subject.
The feedback you receive from the marker of your essay should help to advance your study skills, writing, research and critical thinking skills.
What is the Marker Looking For?
As an essay - in the context of this page - is an assessed piece of work, it can be very useful to consider what the person who will be assessing the work, the marker, will be looking for.
Although different types of essays in different subject areas may vary considerably in their style and content there are some key concepts that will help you understand what is required of you and your essay.
When marking an assignment, a marker will look for some of the following elements, which will demonstrate you are able to:
- Find relevant information and use the knowledge to focus on the essay question or subject.
- Structure knowledge and information logically, clearly and concisely.
- Read purposefully and critically. (See our page: Critical Reading for more)
- Relate theory to practical examples.
- Analyse processes and problems.
- Be persuasive and argue a case.
- Find links and combine information from a number of different sources.
Answer the Question
One main factor, always worth bearing in mind, is that a marker will usually only award marks for how well you have answered the essay question.
It is likely that the marker will have a set of criteria or marking guidelines that will dictate how many marks can be awarded for each element of your essay.
Remember it is perfectly possible to write an outstanding essay, but not to have answered the original question. This will, in all likelihood, mean a low mark.
Planning Your Essay
Planning is the process of sorting out what you want to include in your essay.
A well-planned and organised essay indicates that you have your ideas in order; it makes points clearly and logically. In this way, a well-planned and structured essay enables the reader, or marker, to follow the points being made easily.
Essay assignments are usually formulated in one of the following ways:
- As a question
- A statement is given and you are asked to comment on it
- An invitation to ‘outline’, ‘discuss’ or ‘critically assess’ a particular argument or point of view
Remember always write your essay based on the question that is set and not on another aspect of the subject. Although this may sound obvious, many students do not fully answer the essay question and include irrelevant information. The primary aim of an academic essay is to answer the task set, in some detail.
To help you do this, you might find the following list of stages helpful.
Producing an Essay Plan
The essay plan below contains ten steps.
It is often useful to complete the first six steps soon after receiving your essay question. That way information will be fresh and you are more likely to be thinking about your essay plan as you do other things.
- Study the essay question intently.
- Write the essay question out in full.
- Spend some time, at least half an hour, brainstorming the subject area.
- Write down your thoughts on the question subject, its scope and various aspects.
- List words or phrases that you think need to be included.
- Note the main points you should include to answer the question.
If, at this point, you feel unsure of what to include, talk to your tutor or a peer to clarify that you are on the right track.
Once you have finished the first six steps and you feel sure you know how to proceed, continue to expand on your initial thoughts and build a more in-depth essay outline.
- Skim through any course material or lecture handouts and start to build up a more detailed outline. Scan through your own lecture notes, and if anything strikes you as relevant to the assignment task, write where to find it on your detailed outline
- Write down where you will find the necessary information on each of the points in your detailed outline (lecture notes, course handouts etc.). Indicate on the outline where you feel that some further research is necessary.
- Note down sources of further information, books, journals, webpages and media sources as appropriate.
- Be careful not to allow your outline to become too complicated; stick to main points and keep it relevant to the question.
- If you have been given a reading list or a core text book then check the relevant sections of that.
- See our page: Sources of Information for more ideas of where you can find relevant information for your essay.
- Once your plan is complete, stop and think about the proportions – how many words in total you need to write and how many words to allocate to each section of your essay.
- Academic essays usually have a word limit and writing within the word limit is an important consideration. Many institutions will penalise students for not writing the correct amount of words – for example, the essay question may call for a 2,000 word essay, there may be a 10% grace, so anything between 1,800 and 2,200 is acceptable.
- Think about the main elements that need to be covered in the essay. Make sure you allocate the greatest number of words to the 'main body of the essay' and not to a subsidiary point.
- Decide how much space you can devote to each section of your outline. For example, a third of a page for the introduction, half a page for point 1 which has two sub-points, one and a half pages for point 2 which has five sub-points etc. Although you will not follow such a space scheme rigidly, it does enable you to keep things under control and to know how much detail to put in, keeping the balance of the essay as you originally planned.
Of course, you will make minor adjustments to your essay plan as you actually write. However, do not make major adjustments unless you are absolutely certain about the alternative and how it fits into your original scheme.
Having a strong essay plan makes the actual task of writing an essay much more efficient.