Updated March 2021
One of the most important skills a scholar can master is the knowledge of how to structure an essay. Many essays fail due to poor structure and the inability to transition between clear points whilst making valid, well-evidenced arguments. We put together this guide with the aim of giving students the basic knowledge they need to structure an essay. You will learn the different structure features, essay types and receive some handy tips to help make your next a winning one.
What Is the Basic Structure of an Essay
Before addressing essay structure and deciding on how to format an essay, you’ll need to ensure that you fully understand the question. So many essays fail because the student has not properly read what they are being asked to do. Look out for keywords such as analyze, evaluate and compare and contrast to fully understand the task.
How many paragraphs should I use for the correct essay structure?
Well, it all depends on the type of essay writing structure you use and the level of depth that your essay goes into. The basic paragraph’s structure in colleges and universities is the three-paragraph structure which comprises an introduction, main body and conclusion. The three-paragraph method is useful as it allows the essay to be read in a way that mirrors a good story with the introduction taking up the role of the beginning, the main body in the middle, and the conclusion at the end. By providing this type of structure you are more likely to keep your reader engaged.
- Introduction (1 paragraph):
When it comes to addressing the essay introduction structure, you’ll want to explain to the reader what it is you are about to do and reassure them that you have a significant understanding of the question. You can do this by addressing key words, providing a thesis statement and explaining the method which you intend to use. Every essay creator knows that a thesis statement should be a few sentences long and should be captivating enough to make the reader want to keep reading. Ensure that you transition between your introduction and main body by finishing with a closing statement which links them both.
- Body (any number of paragraphs depending on the task):
This is the section that sits between the introduction and conclusion and is the part of your essay that answers the question in detail. Essay body structure should be succinct and not veer away from the question in hand, if it does, you are likely to lose your readers interest very quickly. To achieve this, you should ensure that you keep referring back to your main argument and that everything you write is linked to this. You also need to ensure that every point you make is backed up with evidence from a reputable source, if it is not it is classed as incomplete and invalidates your argument. Referencing of these points should be carried out using the specific style that your university or college has requested, such as the Harvard method.
- Conclusion (1 paragraph)
The essay conclusion should be seen as a summary where you highlight the main points made in the main body. It is important to remember that you should never introduce any new ideas here, rather restate very briefly your findings. Students sometimes find that writing the conclusion first before completing the main body helps to form a good essay structure.
Every academic essay needs to be backed up with evidence from other sources. The bibliography is the part of the paper where you let the reader know all the texts that you have referenced. If you have included direct quotes, paraphrased quotes or other content, you should include them here in line with the referencing style that you have been asked to use. Not referencing properly or leaving out references altogether can leave you susceptible to plagiarism and the associated penalties.
Proper Essay Structure – Different types of essay
There are many different types of essays and the option you choose will have a direct effect on the structure. The main types are:
Through definition, this is where you argue a particular standpoint based on evidence. For an argument essay to work you will need to ensure that you have devised a strong thesis statement and your points should always be backed up by reputable academic sources. The main purpose is to persuade your reader that your thesis is either correct or holds substantial weight. Here is an example for an argument essay structure:
- Provide an introduction that explains the topic and thesis standpoint.
- Use the main body to present credible evidence for your arguments.
- Summarise your argument with a clear and succinct conclusion.
This type does not necessarily require a particular argument or standpoint, but rather a clear yet focussed explanation of the given topic. Expository essays are a great way for students to show how familiar they are with a particular subject and their ability to convey information in a clear and organized way. With this in mind, a well-structured expository paper should include:
- An introduction that explains the topic and some background information.
- The main body presents the reader with all of the details.
- A conclusion that summarises all of the information presented.
This is an essay that tells a compelling story either about a personal encounter that you have experienced, or perhaps an imaginary episode. A narrative essay shows that a scholar has the ability to tell stories in a captivating yet structured way. They require high levels of creativity and should use the following essay structure:
- A set up of the narrative. This doesn’t have to be a formal introduction but will need to provide the reader with a beginning or entry point to the piece.
- Again, a standard conclusion is not required but you should finish the piece by explaining what the point of the story was so that the reader is able to understand what you have drawn from the experience.
Here’s an example of The New York Times narrative essay winner:
“I never kissed the boy I liked behind the schoolyard fence that one March morning. I never had dinner with Katy Perry or lived in Kyiv for two months either, but I still told my entire fourth-grade class I did. The words slipped through my teeth effortlessly. With one flick of my tongue, I was, for all anybody knew, twenty-third in line for the throne of Monaco. “Actually?” the girls on the swings beside me would ask, wide eyes blinking with a childlike naivety. I nodded as they whispered under their breath how incredible my fable was. So incredible they bought into it without a second thought.”
As with narrative, descriptive essays allow students to be more creative with their writing. They too provide a detailed description of something but tend to be more focussed on figurative language. For instance, you might decide to describe a specific place or object rather than committing to telling a story. A well-structured descriptive essay should use the following structure:
- Begin by introducing the object of your description.
- The main body should be set aside for your detailed description.
- The essay should end with a summary of your description.
A rhetorical analysis is involved with looking at a text and analyzing the ways in which it uses devices to persuade an audience to commit to a certain viewpoint. The essay is not concerned with whether or not the scholar agrees with the author's point of view, rather how they went about constructing their argument. Here are the basics of structuring this type of essay:
- Provide an introduction that presents the text along with some background information.
- The main body should be focused on the core of the analysis.
- The conclusion should summarise your analysis of the text and highlight any findings and concerns.
The literary analysis is concerned with providing a detailed analysis of the choices made by an author in writing a piece of literature. It is not a review, more a detailed personal interpretation of the text and the themes presented. A literary analysis would look at tools such as figurative language, characters and settings in order to deeper understand messages that the author was trying to convey. When deciding on literary analysis essay structure you should:
- Provide an introduction that clearly states what text you are analyzing, any background information, and your thesis statement.
- The main body should detail your close reading and interpretation of the text whilst providing quotations to support your ongoing argument.
- End with a conclusion which summarises what your particular argument teaches the reader about the text.
Useful Tips When Deciding How to Structure an Essay
When writing an essay, you should always remember that you are being assessed on both your strength of critical thinking and your ability to form a constructive argument. In order to achieve this always ask yourself the following questions:
- Does my essay actually answer the question?
- Does my essay provide a strong and well-supported standpoint?
- Are the sources I’ve used relevant to my argument or question?
- Are my points clear, well delivered and relevant to the question?
- Is the finished essay well-structured with a clear introduction, main body and conclusion?
You can better aid essay structure by:
- Analyzing the question – Don’t just answer the question but dig deep into what is actually being asked of you. Look at the concepts, scope and directive words such as discuss, define and evaluate to better understand what you should do.
- Clearly define your argument – If your paper requires an argument make sure it is a strong one. Take a position on the topic and stick to it.
- Always use evidence – A great point is an invalid point if it is not backed up. Always look for credible academic evidence and use it to back up the points you make.
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