How to Structure an Essay

Anyone who understands essay writing knows that the task involves generating ideas and fashioning these into coherent and convincing arguments. Since, essentially, essays are linear – with ideas presented one after another – the order needs to be one that readers find sensible. The process also means knowing how to structure an essay logically.   

Therefore, essay structure is important. It determines the type of information the reader needs and the order for delivering this information. Structure needs to be unique according to the central claim or assertion being put forward. While guidelines exist for developing certain types of classic essays (comparative analysis essays, for example), structure generally has no specific formula.

Answers to Questions:  An Essay’s Parts 

Even if you know how to write an essay, it is worth mentioning that these papers are typically comprised of numerous types of information, usually divided into specialist sections or parts. Even a short essay has several functions: it introduces the writer’s argument, analyzes data, discusses opposing arguments, and arrives at conclusions. There are set places for the introduction and concluding sections, but not for other sections. For instance, a counterargument may be placed as a standalone section, in the middle of any paragraph, at a paragraph’s beginning, or near its end. Background or historical information (or biographical details, the summing-up of relevant criticisms or theories, and definitions of terms) are often placed at the start, somewhere between the paper’s introduction and first analysis section, but maybe early on in a particularly relevant paragraph or section.

When constructing an essay it can help to view the different sections as responses to questions a reader might ask upon reading the central thesis. (Your work should generate questions in the reader’s mind. If not, it is likely your thesis is a factual observation rather than a claim that can be argued.)

The question you should first anticipate is “what.” What specific evidence demonstrates the truth of the assertion or phenomenon in your essay’s thesis? Analyze your supporting evidence to answer this question, thereby showing your assertion is true. This “illustration” or “what” section should make its appearance early in your essay, immediately after the introductory section. Because, in essence, you are reporting your observations, it is in this part you may have the most to say. But, a word of warning: this should not constitute more than one third (and usually a lot less) of an entire work. Otherwise, your essay may be imbalanced and seem like a description or summary.

When structuring your essay, the next question is “how.” Another thing readers will probably ask is whether the assertion in the thesis is always true. Can your thesis withstand any counterargument and how? If you have introduced new data or materials – a fresh perspective on your evidence – how does this affect your main claim? Essays will typically include one section on “how” at the very least. (This can be called “complication” because you are addressing complicated questions from readers.) Generally, “how” sections follow “what” sections, but remember that arguments may have several complications depending on what length the essay is, and that a counterargument can pop up anywhere within them. 

Still on the subject of parts of an essay, the next question is “why.” Readers will question the essence of an assertion or claim – what are the stakes? Why is the way you interpret a situation or phenomenon important to anyone but you? “Why” covers the wider implications of an essay’s thesis. It helps readers understand the broader context of an essay. When it answers “why,” the significance of the essay is explained. Although the “why” question may have been touched upon in the introduction, the fuller answer is likely to belong at the end of the essay. If this part is omitted, readers may consider an essay incomplete - or much worse - insular or without point.

Essay Mapping 

The idea of structuring the sections of an essay according to reader logic involves examining the thesis and figuring out what information readers need or want, and the sequence they want it in, to be able to understand and feel convinced by the unfolding argument. Mapping ideas in narrative form is the best way to achieve this. This approach provides a preliminary account of the writer’s ideas, and keeps them mindful of what readers need to understand their ideas.  

An essay map prompts writers to anticipate where background or historical information, detailed analysis of primary sources, recourse to secondary sources, and counterarguments will be expected by readers. Maps are more concerned with an essay’s sections than its paragraphs. They help anticipate the main moves of an essay’s argument. Consider mapping an essay as follows:  

Use one or two sentences to set out your main thesis, and a further sentence stating why that assertion or claim is important. Use alternative words to indicate what readers might expect to learn as you explore the claim together. It is here you are expecting to answer the question “why,” which will eventually be fleshed out in the concluding section.

An essay map should lead you naturally to initially answering the fundamental questions of how, why, and what. However, a map is not contractual; the order of ideas need not be rigid. Maps offer flexibility; they grow and evolve with ideas.

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