Essay Structure

Helpful Sites - Overall Form - Butter Cup Structure - Title - Introduction - Body - Conclusion - Tips & Conventions - Block & Splice

Helpful Sites

Douglas College has:

tutorial help

grammar resources and handouts

PDF on the academic essay 

You’re not required to use other sources (articles, books, etc.). If you do, however, you must cite them according to MLA format. For citation and bibliographical information, see Purdue University’s OWL (Online Writing Lab). Start at “Research and Citation” at

The University of Richmond has a very extensive and user-friendly site, which covers a wide range of topics, including writing in other disciplines:

St. Cloud State University has an excellent site, which tends to use graphics helpful to visual learners:

The University of Wisconsin at Madison has an excellent handbook:

Overall Form

— The title gives your reader a general idea about the topic.

— The introduction takes your reader from a general state of awareness to your particular argument.

— The thesis statement tells the reader exactly what you’ll be arguing about your subject; it presents your overall argument in 1) a condensed form and 2) in a way that clearly links to your topic sentences.

— The topic sentences show your reader how each subsidiary point you are making advances your overall argument.

— The conclusion highlights your overall point, and either completes any scenario you developed in your introduction or suggests further avenues of enquiry. In very short essays a conclusion is optional; in such a case, try to end on a concluding note.

Butter Cup Structure

The parts of an essay can be seen as parallel (//) to the parts of a Reese’s peanut butter cup:

- Outside wrapper//  Title

- Tray//  Thesis statement: gives overall shape or structure to the contents

- Paper wrappers//  Topic sentences: define the shape or structure of each part

- Chocolate pieces//  Paragraph content: what you bite into and digest

Remember that while Reese’s peanut butter cups come in threes, you can also buy the large size, which has four cups. Topics can be divided in two, three, four, or any number of parts. The ‘three-paragraph essay’ is an easy way to talk about essay structure, yet you don’t have to bend your ideas to fit into this structure.

The Title

Generally, the last thing to decide on is the title, as it often comes from the most insightful argument, angle, scenario, or analogy you come up with. Working titles, however, are a good idea, as they help to focus your thinking.

Try to find a title that’s creative, thought provoking, humorous, sums up your argument, or points your readers in the direction you want them to think.

A title can be straightforward or it can be ambiguous or obscure if your aim is to intrigue you reader. Once you get into the first sentence of your introduction, however, you need to avoid any type of ambiguity or obscurity.

The Introduction

Once you figure out your argument, you should find an interesting way of introducing your subject — that is, of taking your reader from the world around us to the specific focus of your topic. In your introduction, you want to do the following:

— Introduce the main elements of your subject.

— Grab the reader’s attention. Find a challenging, provocative, informative, imaginative or intriguing way of moving into your topic. You should also think about how you’ll return to your opening in your conclusion.

— Make sure your argument is clearly stated in your thesis statement, which should be placed at the end of your introductory paragraph.

The thesis statement should be detailed and should show the relation between the different aspects you'll be examining. For instance, instead of writing the author uses imagery and conflict, write the author uses nature imagery to suggest a tension that is then explored in terms of a conflict between lovers.

— Put your thesis statement in the second paragraph only if your first paragraph develops a context or analogy which is more effective without a thesis statement tacked on at the end.

There are at least two ways of doing an introduction:

1)  You can start with the context in which the poem is written. This could be historical, biographical, political, philosophical, etc. This way tends to be drier, yet it's very consistent with the analysis that follows it. Be careful, however, not to go over information which is too basic or too easily accessible. Don't pad your introduction with historical or biographical information. For example, instead of explaining that 1) homosexuality was unacceptable to many in the 1970s, 2) Freddie Mercury was gay, and 3) "Bohemian Rhapsody" may be about him coming out (all of which are fairly easy to see), note alternate interpretations of the lyric, and explain why this particular angle (about him being gay) makes more (or less) sense in light of your reading of the lyric. This will require more thinking on your part, and will end up being more insightful.

2)  You can start with a personal situation, movie or TV reference, analogy, quotation, popular theory, misconception, etc. This tends to be more interesting for general readers, yet is sometimes more difficult to integrate into the analysis that follows. 

Often you’ll write your introduction after you have figured out your thesis statement and main points. This way, you can pick the type of introduction that works best with the final shape of your argument.   

The Body

Start each paragraph with a topic sentence that clearly connects to your thesis statement. The reader shouldn’t have to guess the relation of a topic sentence to the thesis statement. It’s often helpful to use in a topic sentence the same word or phrase (or a variant of the word or phrase) that you use in the thesis statement.

— Don’t link paragraphs using the last sentence of the paragraph. Use the topic sentence to make that link—as in “Another example of ____,” or “Such ____ [use a word or phrase which sums up the last paragraph] stands in opposition to ____.”

— Give the details of your argument in each paragraph. Your argument must contain proof in the form of logical arguments, textual references, illustrative examples, etc. Your argument must be rigorous. It must be a product of analytical thought, that is, of a process which has taken the components of the subject apart, analyzed them, and then configured them into a new, distanced, critical understanding.

The Conclusion

-- Make your reader think about what you’ve argued. Don’t simply restate your introduction or your main ideas. Suggest a further direction or ask a provocative question. Or return to your opening by advancing or commenting on your initial position. For instance, if you started with a historical or biographical introduction, you might want to return to that, and expand on what happened afterwards. For example, after a biographical introduction to Freddie Mercury, you could touch on the different climate for gay singers today.

Tips & Conventions

Underline or italicize books, magazines, journals, films, plays, TV shows, and albums. 

— Use quotation marks for essays, articles, short stories, chapters, TV episodes, and songs.

Avoid long quotes. If you use a long quote, make sure to explain the key elements in it. Offset quotes of more than two lines. Indent, single space, and omit quotation marks.

Integrate shorter quotes into your sentence structure. The use of short quotes (as opposed to long quotes) is the most efficient and readable way to prove your point. Short quotations by nature integrate tightly into the contours of your argument and thinking; the reader does not have to go from your point, to a long quote where they have to make the link to your point, and then back to your point. Using short quotes, you make your point and prove it immediately, thus allowing your reader to get connections more quickly and move on to your next point.

— Don’t worry about repeating a term or word. Often it confuses your reader if you switch terms. In academic writing (as opposed to literary writing), content is more important than style. For this reason, using a thesaurus is often not a good thing.

— Write in a direct and formal manner. This doesn’t mean, however, that you have to be dry or boring. Spice up your writing with well-chosen words and phrases. For take-home papers, add photos, pictures, or coloured graphs and charts to liven up the presentation of your ideas.

— Write simply and directly, avoiding jargon. If you’re a very good writer you can write in a slightly more creative manner. If the instructor can’t understand your creative moments then you’re probably not communicating in an academically effective manner. Consult the instructor before trying a style that’s unconventional.

— Generally, you don’t need to write, “I think” or “I believe.” In everyday speech we often make it clear that what we’re saying is coming from our point of view: we often start sentences with “I think” or “I believe.” In academic writing, however, it’s a convention to leave this out. An exception to this rule is if your stand is partial, strong, or extreme. For instance, if you believe that everyone should be vegan, you shouldn’t write, “Given that everyone should not eat cheese …” Here, the point of view is strong and not shared by most of your readers. In this case, you should write, “According to vegans,…” or “Personally, I have been a vegan for ten years and believe that …”

— Avoid choppy sentences. They are not good. No one likes reading them. They sound too blunt. It's Ok to use one. But don't use two. (Get the picture?). Link complete thoughts with conjunctions and subordination. Also, try to vary your sentence length.

— Don’t use point form in essays for English courses — except in outlines. Point form may be fine in other disciplines, yet English essays must be in sentences and paragraphs, unless you are labeling a chart, photo, etc.

— He/she/they. While it’s accepted to use the singular they, this can also cause confusion. I suggest using it only when necessary. Sometimes you can simply repeat the name of the person you’re referring to. Instead of writing “The president of the club was happy. They told the members…” I would suggest, “The president of the club was happy. The president told the members…” In all cases, avoid he/she or s/he. 

— Use italics and exclamations marks for emphasis, but not too often. 

— Use / to show the end of a poetry line, as in “across the water / With his galleons and guns.” 

— Don’t directly address your audience, and avoid commenting on your own writing. 

Block & Splice

 There are two methods of approaching a text in terms of its arrangement on the page.  The first is the block method, where you deal with the text block by block, or section by section (a block or section is any number of consecutive words or paragraphs). The other is the slice method, where you analyze one aspect as it appears in different parts of the text, and then relate this to another aspect which appears throughout the text. 

Hockey Night in the College

In a block analysis you would analyze how the teams played in each period, how the play changed from one period to the next, and what was the resulting overall pattern of play:

Period   Paragraph      Analysis

1            1               Goals, strengths, weaknesses, offence and defence, strategy, etc.

2            2               Goals, etc., plus how play compared to 1st period

3            3               Goals, etc., plus how play compared to 1st and 2nd periods

In a splice analysis, you’d compare different aspects — such as A) goalie performance throughout the game and B) defence performance throughout the game:

Period    Paragraph    Analysis 

1-3         1               Goalie performance throughout game

1-3         2               Defence performance throughout game

1-3         3               Relation of goalie performance to defence performance


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