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
Outlines can be a helpful tool when you're trying to organize your thoughts for an essay or research paper. After you've decided on a topic and done some brainstorming to generate ideas, think about the best way to group your ideas together.
Ask yourself: What is my main point or purpose in writing this paper? The answer will help you form a thesis statement.
Ask yourself: Can I list at least 3 larger concepts that will support my main idea? These larger topics will make up the body paragraph sections of your outline.
Ask yourself: How can I organize the rest of my ideas so that they fit within these larger categories? These ideas will make up the sub-topics of your outline.
Ask yourself: What else do I want or need to say about this topic to fulfill my assignment? These additions should be placed on your outline, as well.
A Note About Formatting: Outlines usually follow a specific format using parallelism, Roman Numerals, upper case letters, and sometimes numbers to indicate ideas with different levels of importance. Unless your instructor is planning to collect and grade your outline based on proper formatting, try not to get too hung up on making sure that you're formatting each section properly. The important thing to remember is that the outline is meant to be a helpful organizational tool--compose your outline in such a way that it will be helpful to you!
Example of a Formal Outline
- Introduction/Tentative Thesis
- Main Topic 1
- Support 1
- Evidence 1
- Example 1
- Support 1
- Main Topic 2
- Support 2
- Evidence 2
- Main Topic 3
- Evidence 3
- Example 1
- Support 1
- Topic 1
- Topic 2
- Topic 3
A simpler, more informal type of outline can be helpful after you've written your rough draft. If you find that your essays are often disorganized or you tend to struggle with transitions, reverse outlines might be a useful tool for you.
What is a reverse outline? Reverse outlines are informal lists that are created after a rough draft has been written, to help you visually see what you're discussing in your essay
How do I create one? You can make a formal outline if you want, but often the best type of reverse outline simply involves jotting down notes in the margins of your draft. Follow these steps:
- Read your introduction paragraph. Underline your thesis statement.
- Read each body paragraph slowly. Each time you finish a paragraph, jot down the main idea that the paragraph discussed, in the margins.
- Read each body paragraph again and jot down notes about the supporting information that was discussed in each paragraph, in the margins.
- Read your conclusion paragraph. Check to make sure that it refers back to your thesis statement, but uses different words to do so.
In order to use this reverse outline as a revision tool, you'll need to take a look at the main ideas that have been presented. Ask yourself the following questions:
- Do each of these body paragraph topics support my thesis statement? (Consider removing anything that wanders away from your topic)
- Have I discussed the same idea or topic in multiple places throughout the draft? (Group similar ideas together!)
- Have I used clear transitions to show how each paragraph relates to the surrounding paragraphs? (If not, add connecting words or transitional phrases)
- Have I covered everything that I wanted to say about my topic? (Look for holes in your information, then add paragraphs or sentences to fill them)
- Have I tried to cover too much information or rambled on about a particular idea for a long time? (Narrow your topic and/or remove unnecessary words)