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Essay Structure

Many of your writing assignments will involve more than one paragraph.  Most will require 3-5 paragraphs, while some may be much longer.  How do you organize your ideas and make sure the reader understands your argument in these types of papers?

There is a standard structure you can follow to help ensure your thoughts are presented logically and effectively.  A typical essay should consist of the following:

  • An introduction
  • 1 or more body paragraphs
  • A Conclusion

 

The Introduction

Your first paragraph should introduce readers to your subject and catch their attention so they want to continue reading.  Some common approaches to the introduction include:

  • Providing background information (historical, statistical, etc.)
  • Using an anecdote
  • Making a controversial or surprising statement that can be argued for or against
  • Including a quotation from a relevant source

Regardless of what approach you choose, always start with a topic sentence that piques the reader’s interest.  Continue with sentences that support or explain your topic so you can lead readers to your thesis statement, which is typically found at the end of the introduction.  The thesis statement reveals your specific view on the subject of your essay and can include a list of the important points you will be making in your argument.  The latter can be especially helpful to the reader as it provides a road-map to your paper.  However, if you include such a list in your thesis statement, make sure you then discuss those points in the same order when you write your body paragraph(s).

 

The Body Paragraphs

The ensuing paragraphs should support your thesis statement by explaining the main points in your argument.  Typically, each main point should be discussed in its own paragraph.

Each body paragraph should start with a topic sentence that tells which main point you will be covering.  You should then include supporting sentences that describe your ideas and/or provide evidence.  Make sure you fully explain your points and give any necessary information (statistics, quotations, examples, etc.) to convince the reader that your argument is valid.  Conclude by restating the main idea, offering a solution or prediction, answering any unresolved questions, or transitioning to the next paragraph.   

There are a number of different ways you can order your body paragraphs.  In a persuasive essay, start with your strongest or most important point, move on to your second-best point, and so on.  In a research paper, it might make more sense to take a chronological approach.  Regardless, always try to find a logical order so that your ideas are easy to follow and the reader does not get lost.  Using signposts can help make the structure of your argument more obvious to the reader. (You can learn more about that technique here.)

The order of the body paragraphs should match the order of points listed in the thesis statement (if you choose to include such information there). Do not include anything that is not directly relevant to the topic described in your thesis statement.

 

The Conclusion

Your final paragraph should wrap up the paper and leave the reader with one or more final thoughts.  It should refer back to the introduction and include a summary of your main argument.  Do not simply restatement your thesis statement, though; instead, briefly remind the reader of your position and the main points you made to support that position.  Finish with something that clearly indicates the essay is ending. (Or, in other words, do not just stop mid-thought!)  Some ways you can end your conclusion are:

  • Call the reader to action
  • Ask a question
  • Suggest a direction for further research
  • Look to the future (give a prediction, express a particular hope, etc.)
  • Make some kind of final point that ties together all the ideas in your essay

 

Expanding This Structure for Longer Papers

Longer papers (mostly likely those around 5 or more pages) should follow a similar structure of introduction-body-conclusion, but each of those phases will be expanded.  Your introduction may include multiple paragraphs.  Additionally, longer papers typically involve more detailed explanations, and so each main point may include multiple sub-points that each require their own paragraph.  Your inclusion could also be expanded to more than one paragraph.

In longer papers, it may help to break your writing up into sections, each with its own heading.  This will organize your argument into more manageable bites and will help the reader make sense of your paper.  For example, if I were writing a 15-20 page paper about the life of George Washington, I might include the following sections:

  • Introduction
  • Childhood & Young Adulthood
  • Years Leading to the Presidency
  • Washington as President
  • Life after the Presidency
  • Conclusion

My introduction would clearly lay out the trajectory for the rest of the paper, and separating the material into these subsections would make sure the reader always knows where he/she is in the essay.  Having a clear organization and highlighting that structure will have a huge impact on how well your ideas are understood and will make your writing much more effective.

 

Some Additional Resources

More information about how to structure an essay can be found at:

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