1. Essay Structure
Writing an academic essay means putting a coherent set of ideas into an argument. Academic essays are linear—they offer one idea at a time—so you need a structure that presents your ideas in an order that makes the most sense to a reader. The structure of the essay is often determined by the topic of the essay. The topic dictates the information the reader needs to know and the order in which they need to receive it. Thus your essay’s structure is unique to the main claim you’re making.
Some essential elements of an essay include: introducing the argument, analyzing data, raising counterarguments, concluding. The introduction and conclusion have fixed places, but the other parts don’t. A counterargument, for example, may appear within a paragraph, as a free-standing section, or before the ending. Background material (i.e: historical context, a summary of relevant theory or criticism, the definition of a key terms) 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. There is no set structure for an essay. Take your time, plan your argument, and the logical flow of your essay. Making an outline is the first step to getting the structure right.
2. Essential Elements
While there is no set structure for an academic essay, there are some essential elements that you need to include in your essay.
2.1: A clear, concise, and defined thesis statement that occurs in the first paragraph of the essay
Your thesis needs to present a focused and argumentative expression that avoids generalization and vagueness, while being defined enough to state your position on the topic. You are taking a position and defending it, not just summarizing what other people have written. The first goal of a thesis statement is to establish a position, the second is to explain how that position will be argued.
2.2: A well-defined and organized introduction that clearly shows the reader what your argument is
In the first paragraph of the essay, you should set the context by reviewing the topic in a general way. It is essential that the thesis statement be narrowed down to follow the guidelines of the essay topic. In some cases, the introduction paragraph can also be used to present why this topic is important, or why readers should care.
2.3: Clear and logical transitions between the introduction, body paragraphs, and conclusion
Transitions are the glue that holds the essay together. Without a logical progression, the reader is unable to follow the essays argument and the structure of the essay will collapse. Transitions should connect the content of the paragraph above and below. Without transitions, your essay is simply a series of unrelated arguments.
2.4: Body paragraphs that include evidence. Each paragraph is limited to the discussion of one idea/argument that supports the thesis of the essay
It must be clear how each paragraph and argument supports the thesis with the evidence collected during research. Do not simply restate what others have said. Your evidence is there to support your thesis, claims and your argument. It is not necessary to prove that your idea is the only “right” idea. Know what the research says and explain how these different ideas/positions are understood through the research. Each body paragraph should include:
- topic sentence
- evidence that will support your thesis/stance
- an explanation of the evidence and why it is important for your argument, and
- conclusions that can be drawn from the analysis of the evidence
2.5: A conclusion that does not simply restate the thesis, but readdresses it in light of the evidence provided
The conclusion of the essay leaves the most immediate impression on the mind of the reader. It must be effective and logical. Restate why the topic is important, review the main points of your essay, and review your thesis. Don’t simply cut and paste from what you’ve already written; review your essay in a fresh way with new sentences and tone. It is okay to include a short discussion of additional research that may need to be done in light of what you found; but avoid asking unanswerable questions, or making broad sweeping statements that cannot be answered or accounted for.
3. Consider These Elements
A typical essay contains many different kinds of information, which can be located in many different places throughout the essay. These are not individual paragraphs, but elements that can come up throughout the essay. It’s helpful to think of the different essay sections as answering a series of questions your reader might ask when encountering your thesis. Again, these are NOT separate sections, but questions that can guide your outline and writing.
The first question to anticipate from a reader is “what”: What evidence shows that the phenomenon described by your thesis is true? This question is usually answered within the first few paragraphs. Tell your reader what to expect by providing enough detail and background on the subject. But be careful: it shouldn’t take up too much space of your finished essay. If it does, the essay will lack balance and may read as a mere summary or description of other people’s research.
The follow up question to “what” is “how”: How does the evidence support the thesis of the essay? How does the thesis stand up to the challenge of a counterargument? (i.e: are your claims backed by evidence? Are the claims specific enough to be true in the cases you’ve presented?) You could answer the “how” within each paragraph, and next to any claim and evidence that you present. It can appear anywhere in an essay, it does not have to be its own paragraph.
Your reader will also want to know what is at stake in your claim: Why does your interpretation of a phenomenon matter to anyone beside you? (this is your answer to “why does this matter?”). This question addresses the larger implications of your thesis. 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 comes towards the end of the essay. If you leave it out, your readers will experience your essay as unfinished or insular