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
Writing an outline for your essay requires you to come up creative ways of structuring your ideas.
Taking the time to draft an outline can help you determine whether your ideas connect to each other, what order of ideas works best, where gaps in your thinking may exist, or whether you have sufficient evidence to support each of your points.
A good outline is important because:
- You will be much less likely to get writer's block because an outline will show where you're going and what the next step is. Use the outline to set goals for completing each section of your paper.
- It will help you stay organized and focused throughout the writing process and helps ensure the flow of ideas in your final paper. However, the outline should be viewed as a guide and can be adapted as you begin writing. As you review the literature or gather data, the organization of your paper may change; adjust your outline accordingly.
- A clear, detailed outline ensures that you always have something to help re-calibrate your writing if you feel yourself drifting into subject areas unrelated to the research problem. Use your outline to set boundaries around what you will investigate.
- The outline can be key to staying motivated. You can put together an outline when you're excited about the project and everything is clicking; making an outline is never as overwhelming as sitting down and beginning to write a twenty page paper without any sense of where it is going.
- An outline helps you organize multiple ideas about a topic. Most research problems can be analyzed from a variety of perspectives; an outline can help you sort out which modes of analysis are most appropriate to ensure the most robust findings are discovered.
- An outline not only helps you organize your thoughts but can also serve as a schedule for when certain aspects of your writing should be accomplished. Review the assignment and highlight when certain tasks are due. If your professor has not created specific deadlines for handing in your writing, think about your own writing style in relation to other assignments and include this in your outline.
Steps to making the Outline
A strong outline details each topic and subtopic in your paper, organizing these points so that they build your argument toward an evidence-based conclusion. Writing an outline will also help you focus on the task at hand and avoid unnecessary tangents, logical fallacies, and underdeveloped paragraphs.
Identify the research problem. The research problem is the focal point from which the rest of the outline flows. Try to sum up the point of your paper in one sentence or phrase. This is your thesis statement.
Here are some sample research topics to consider:
- Too Broad: Effects of Volcanoes
- Too Narrow: The effect of the eruption of Mt. St. Helens on the regeneration of plant species
- Appropriate: The geographical impact of the eruption of Mt. St. Helens
- Too Broad: Deindustrialization in Canada
- Too Narrow: The effect of downsizing on the automobile labour force in Ontario, 1995 - 2015
- Appropriate: The changing distribution of the Canadian automobile industry
- Too Broad: Mortgage crisis in Canada
- Too Narrow: The long term effect of rising housing prices, unaffordable mortgages, and the influence of international buyers in the Canadian market
- Appropriate: The changing housing markets in Canada and its effect on real estate values
- Identify the main categories or topics. What main points will you analyze? The introduction describes all of your main points; the rest of your paper can be spent developing those points.
- Create the first category. What is the first point you want to cover? If the paper centers around a complicated term, a definition can be a good place to start. For a paper about a particular theory, giving the general background on the theory can be a good place to begin.
- Create subcategories. After you have followed these steps, create points under it that provide support for the main point. The number of categories that you use depends on the amount of information that you are trying to cover. There is no right or wrong number to use.
- Write an analysis (or synthesis) of your main points. You might express the main points in single sentences with supporting references from your annotated bibliography.
- Finish your essay with a conclusion. It should sum up your argument but without directly repeating statements from the introduction.
- Choose a topic narrow enough to find specific information, but not so narrow that you cannot find enough information.
- Before committing to a topic, scan a database such as Summon to see if you will be able to find enough information on that topic.
- Assemble a variety of information sources or data into a coherent argument to demonstrate the you understand the material.
- Do not expect to find a book or journal article with the exact title of your topic.
- Take advantage of the many online databases the library offers for finding journal articles.
- Scan the bibliography of an up-to-date book or article on your topic in order to gather additional sources.
- Ensure journal articles that you use for your paper have been peer-reviewed.
- All information cited in your paper must be properly cited. Take the time to learn about the specific style that is expected from your professor. View the Citing your sources help pages provided by the library.
- Ask for help at the Research Help Desk, located on the main floor of the library.