Essay Structure

Helpful Sites - Essay Structure - Tips & Conventions - Quotes or Italics? - Marking Notes & Symbols

Helpful Sites

Douglas College has:

tutorial help

grammar resources and handouts

PDF on the academic essay

For citations and bibliographies, see the Douglas College library and also Purdue University’s OWL (Online Writing Lab), where you could start with “Research and Citation Resources.”

The University of Richmond has an extensive user-friendly site, and The University of Wisconsin has an excellent handbook.

Essay Structure

In Higher Learning, I noted that the academic essay has a super-logical structure that can be applied to, or adapted to, many situations outside of an English class. The thesis stetment / topic sentence structure isn’t the only academic structure, yet it’s the most widely used in English North America, and it’s a powerful launch vehicle for making clear arguments. The core of this structure is the thesis statement, the topic sentences, and the proof in the body paragraphs, yet the title, introduction, and conclusion are also important.

— 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.

Peanut Butter Cup Structure

The parts of an essay are parallel (//) to the parts of a Reese’s peanut butter cup:

- 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 that 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.

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 your reader. Once you get into your first sentence, however, you must eliminate ambiguity or obscurity.

The Introduction

Find an interesting way to take your reader from the world around us to the specific focus of your topic. In your introduction, you want to do the following.

Make sure your argument is clearly stated in your thesis statement, which should be placed at the end of your introductory paragraph. Put your thesis statement in the second paragraph only if your first paragraph develops a context or analogy, the effect of which would be ruined if you tacked a thesis statement at the end.

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.

The main purpose of an introduction is to introduce the main elements of your essay, yet you can also use it to grab the reader’s attention. Try to 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.

There are at least three ways of doing an introduction:

1)  You can avoid a long introduction by writing one sentence on the background or nature of your topic, and then writing a more detailed thesis statement. Here’s an example from my sample essay on Attenborough’s film Gandhi (the complete essay is here):

In 1919 the British General Edward Dyer fired upon an unarmed crowd of protesters in Amritsar, India, killing 379 and wounding about 1,200. In his film Gandhi (1982), Richard Attenborough depicts the massacre and its immediate impact in a 10 minute sequence, in which he condemns British control of India by first providing physical evidence — in his shifting settings, with their emotionlly-laden sounds, colours, images, and words — and then by disarming the British with his well-crafted, logical, and straightforward words.

2) You can start with the context in which the text is written. This could be historical, biographical, political, philosophical, etc. This way tends to be drier, yet it's very integrated with the analysis that follows. 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, let’s say that you’re writing an essay on Queen’s lyric “Bohemian Rhapsody.” Avoid explaining that homosexuality was unacceptable to many in the 1970s (this is obvious) or that Freddie Mercury was gay (this is well-known). Also, if your argument is that the song is about him coming out of the closet, start with a rigorous contextualization, one that argues rather than merely asserts. For instance, note alternate interpretations of the lyric, and explain why your particular angle makes more sense in light of the given historical context. It’s fairly easy to repeat obvious facts, yet this doesn’t get you a good mark. Finding your own angle will require more thinking on your part, yet your argument will be more rigorous, interesting, and insightful.

3)  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 topic sentence to thesis statement.

It’s often helpful to use the same word or phrase (or a variant of the word or phrase) that you used in your thesis statement. For instance, the following topic sentences have clear links to the Gandhi thesis statement above (I’ve put in bold some of the more obvious linking parts).

Th. st. — Attenborough depicts the massacre and its immediate impact in a 10 minute sequence, in which he condemns British control of India by first providing physical evidence — in his shifting settings, with their emotionally-laden sounds, colours, images, and words — and then by disarming the British with his well-crafted, logical, and straightforward words.

Note the links between the th. st. above and the t.s. below. In addition to the more obvious links in bold, there is also the chronological linkage from scene to scene, an internal linkage using emotion (in italics), and a back and forth from scene to scene, explicit in the sentences but also implicit in the use of the words sequence and increasingly.

T.s. #1 — Each setting in the sequence increasingly suggests that the British either shouldn’t or don’t control India.

T.s. #2 — Attenborough uses sound, colour, and image in the first three scenes to give the audience strong emotional reasons to agree with Gandhi in the fourth.

T.s. #3 — Emotional words complement the non-verbal rhetoric in the first three scenes.

T.s. #4 — In this last scene, Gandhi not only interrupts the viceroy as he circles the table and 'lays down the law,' but also disarms the British with his well-crafted, logical, and straightforward words.

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 — as in this conclusion of the Gandhi essay:

Gandhi's threat of non-violent non-cooperation takes us full circle, back to the protest leader who pleads for non-violence seconds before the noisy, bloody massacre starts. The ten minute sequence thus moves from the sacrifice of peaceful protesters, to a table at which the same ideals are espoused much higher up in the hierarchy of power -- a table at which top British administrators fail to justify their rule to Mohandas K. Gandhi, the spiritual leader of Indian Independence, or to the two other men who will play key roles in coming history: Muhammad Ali Jinnah, the future Governor-General of Pakistan, and Jawaharlal Nehru, the future Prime Minister of India, the world's largest democracy. Attenborough's film is of course about Gandhi, but Attenborough's point here is that the Amritsar Massacre has pushed him to speak forcefully for an entire subcontinent.

Tips & Conventions

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.

You can use contractions for my classes, although some professors prefer that you don’t. I strongly suggest not using contractions when they might momentarily confuse your reader. This can happen when using “’s,” as in “Sylvia’s,” which could indicate the verb to be, as in “Sylvia is,” or the possessive, as in “of or belonging to Sylvia.” If you mean “Sylvia is” I suggest always writing “Sylvia is,” to differentiate it from “of or belonging to Sylvia,” which is less awkward to write using an apostrophe to indicate the possessive.

Write simply and directly, and 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.

Be confident. 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, you can leave this out — The only exception to this rule is if your stand is partial, strong, or extreme. For instance, if you believe that everyone should be vegan, you wouldn’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 could 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). All English essays must be in sentences and paragraphs — unless you are labeling a chart, photo, etc.

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.

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