The most basic skill that is needed in academic life is that of writing a good essay and a fundamental part of that is essay structure. Yet, despite the importance of writing an essay that is clear, well-argued and strongly structured, very little time is spent on assisting students to structure an essay. This brief guide to how to structure an essay aims to help with that so read on and find out just how easy it is to write and structure well!
The first thing you should do before you begin to write your essay is to make sure that you are answering the question. This will help you a great deal with planning your essay structure and you will be able to judge from the first precisely how your essay should be structured.
Basically, you need to look for key words. These words will give you the first pointer that you need to write an essay that is structured correctly. For example, if an essay question is asking you to ‘compare and contrast’ you will adopt a different technique from if it is asking you to ‘discuss’. This is because you will be adopting a structure which puts points against one another in the first but you will be addressing a theme and forming an argument in the second. Sound complicated? Read on!
Once you have sorted out exactly what the question is asking you to do, you then need to decide on the best way to do it. If you are structuring an essay that is presenting an argument, then you will need to begin with a thesis statement. All that this means is that you state in your opening paragraph what your immediate response to the question is and how you intend either to prove or disprove it. For example, you might want to say that you agree or disagree with the question and then develop the basic method you will use for doing this. Remember, though, that the thesis statement must be in your first paragraph, preferably within the first two or three sentences.
It is important that your opening sentence is strong, so that you grab the reader’s attention right away. Think about how, when you read a newspaper article, you decide very quickly whether or not you want to read the whole thing. Most readers want a quick and succinct idea of the article in the first sentence or two before they decide whether they are interested enough to continue and your essay structure should do the same. Of course, your tutors have to read your essays but they are more likely to mark highly if the experience is less a chore than a pleasure!
How Many Paragraphs?
In some ways that’s like asking ‘how long is a piece of string’? However, for most purposes the essay structure of the five paragraph essay works well. This is because all essays begin with an introduction and end with a conclusion and the other three paragraphs therefore form the main body, each one addressing a different aspect of the argument. It is fairly obvious that the main body can easily be extended depending on how many points you are going to cover so the structure of the five paragraph essay works well. The essay structure should be based on something like this:
This should be briefly addressing the main question remembering those key words and including a thesis statement. You should also include something about the method you are going to use. Most academic essays are written in the third person, by the way, so write, ‘it will be suggested’ rather than ‘I think’ unless you are specifically asked to give your opinion. Link into your first paragraph of the main body by a closing sentence that suggests the first point.
As discussed earlier this can be anything upwards of three paragraphs depending on how many words you have been asked to write and how many points you want to make. Ensure that each of the paragraphs is linked and that they each connect with the central argument. Ideally, whoever is reading your essay should be able to tell from each individual paragraph exactly what the question is and how you are structuring your argument. There is nothing worse than an essay that veers from the point so keep checking back to ensure that you are sticking to the point all the way through. Remember, too, that you need to support your points with evidence, either from a primary source or a scholarly text. A point made without evidentiary support is incomplete. Reference according to the style your university has requested.
This should summarise the main points made in the essay, synthesise your thinking and show evidence that you have proved the thesis that you set out in your opening paragraph. Depending on the length of the essay you should also state the limitations of the work and suggest further work that could be undertaken in the future.
Finally – remember to proof-read thoroughly so that you don’t throw away precious marks through carelessness: good luck!