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
Introductions and conclusions play a special role in the academic essay, and they frequently demand much of your attention as a writer. A good introduction should identify your topic, provide essential context, and indicate your particular focus in the essay. It also needs to engage your readers’ interest. A strong conclusion will provide a sense of closure to the essay while again placing your concepts in a somewhat wider context. It will also, in some instances, add a stimulus to further thought. Since no two essays are the same, no single formula will automatically generate an introduction and conclusion for you. But the following guidelines will help you to construct a suitable beginning and end for your essay.
Some general advice about introductions
- Some students cannot begin writing the body of the essay until they feel they have the perfect introduction. Be aware of the dangers of sinking too much time into the introduction. Some of that time can be more usefully channeled into planning and writing.
- You may be the kind of writer who writes an introduction first in order to explore your own thinking on the topic. If so, remember that you may at a later stage need to compress your introduction.
- It can be fine to leave the writing of the introduction for a later stage in the essay-writing process. Some people write their introduction only after they have completed the rest of the essay. Others write the introduction first but rewrite it significantly in light of what they end up saying in the body of their paper.
- The introductions for most papers can be effectively written in one paragraph occupying half to three-quarters of the first page. Your introduction may be longer than that, and it may take more than one paragraph, but be sure you know why. The size of your introduction should bear some relationship to the length and complexity of your paper. A twenty page paper may call for a two-page introduction, but a five-page paper will not.
- Get to the point as soon as possible. Generally, you want to raise your topic in your very first sentences. A common error is to begin too broadly or too far off topic. Avoid sweeping generalizations.
- If your essay has a thesis, your thesis statement will typically appear at the end of your introduction, even though that is not a hard-and-fast rule. You may, for example, follow your thesis with a brief road map to your essay that sketches the basic structure of your argument. The longer the paper, the more useful a road map becomes.
How do I write an interesting, effective introduction?
Consider these strategies for capturing your readers’ attention and for fleshing out your introduction:
- Find a startling statistic that illustrates the seriousness of the problem you will address.
- Quote an expert (but be sure to introduce him or her first).
- Mention a common misperception that your thesis will argue against.
- Give some background information necessary for understanding the essay.
- Use a brief narrative or anecdote that exemplifies your reason for choosing the topic. In an assignment that encourages personal reflection, you may draw on your own experiences; in a research essay, the narrative may illustrate a common real-world scenario.
- In a science paper, explain key scientific concepts and refer to relevant literature. Lead up to your own contribution or intervention.
- In a more technical paper, define a term that is possibly unfamiliar to your audience but is central to understanding the essay.
In fleshing out your introduction, you will want to avoid some common pitfalls:
- Don’t provide dictionary definitions, especially of words your audience already knows.
- Don’t repeat the assignment specifications using the professor’s wording.
- Don’t give details and in-depth explanations that really belong in your body paragraphs. You can usually postpone background material to the body of the essay.
Some general advice about conclusions
- A conclusion is not merely a summary of your points or a re-statement of your thesis. If you wish to summarize—and often you must—do so in fresh language. Remind the reader of how the evidence you’ve presented has contributed to your thesis.
- The conclusion, like much of the rest of the paper, involves critical thinking. Reflect upon the significance of what you’ve written. Try to convey some closing thoughts about the larger implications of your argument.
- Broaden your focus a bit at the end of the essay. A good last sentence leaves your reader with something to think about, a concept in some way illuminated by what you’ve written in the paper.
- For most essays, one well-developed paragraph is sufficient for a conclusion. In some cases, a two-or-three paragraph conclusion may be appropriate. As with introductions, the length of the conclusion should reflect the length of the essay.
How do I write an interesting, effective conclusion?
The following strategies may help you move beyond merely summarizing the key points of your essay:
- If your essay deals with a contemporary problem, warn readers of the possible consequences of not attending to the problem.
- Recommend a specific course of action.
- Use an apt quotation or expert opinion to lend authority to the conclusion you have reached.
- Give a startling statistic, fact, or visual image to drive home the ultimate point of your paper.
- If your discipline encourages personal reflection, illustrate your concluding point with a relevant narrative drawn from your own life experiences.
- Return to an anecdote, example, or quotation that you introduced in your introduction, but add further insight that derives from the body of your essay.
- In a science or social science paper, mention worthwhile avenues for future research on your topic.
How does genre affect my introduction or conclusion?
Most of the advice in this handout pertains to argumentative or exploratory academic essays. Be aware, however, that different genres have their own special expectations about beginnings and endings. Some academic genres may not even require an introduction or conclusion. An annotated bibliography, for example, typically provides neither. A book review may begin with a summary of the book and conclude with an overall assessment of it. A policy briefing usually includes an introduction but may conclude with a series of recommendations. Check your assignment carefully for any directions about what to include in your introduction or conclusion.