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
How to Write a Good Essay on any Topic
In the long process of studies, you can at last master writing of one kind of paper, and there at once appears a dilemma – how to write a good essay to compare and contrast or criticize topics. The difficulty may also appear with a topic, as there is so much of them with their peculiar features. However, there should be some magic formula you may consider and you will be right. To make your academic writing easier, we will present you a list of features your essay should include.
Recently, I've seen an idea of essay writing compared to military strategy. The essence is the following. Ancient military tactics meant for gathering all the troops together, wounding the strongest of them at the front and back. They were strong and impenetrable. The same is with academic writing – presenting a strong and thought-provoking introduction, you will manage to achieve success with any type of academic paper. Take care about the shape of your paper to reach the level of professional writing service writers. What else should be mentioned in the paper?
- Analyze the information you know and that you've found, while carrying out the research. Having a good base of knowledge, you will be able to analyze the presented arguments and define the claims, as well as the reasons and evidence.
- The first thing to take into consideration, while thinking how to write a good essay, is writing a thesis statement – the main idea of your paper. It should be ultimately precise and short and analyzed throughout the whole paper. Each new idea ought to support the general thesis and written as a separate paragraph.
- Check out free essay samples on the Internet to get to know how to express your ideas and how to support them. Each professional writing service demonstrates samples of previously written works, which are published on their websites.
- At the end of essay writing, think over the conclusion and introduction. Try to write something memorable in both of them – a quotation, a thought-provoking idea, a call to action, or something like this. These two essay parts may be the same, but sound in a different way.
- Essay formatting is probably the most common mistake among college and university students. Not sticking to the formatting guidelines usually leads to incorrect citations and plagiarized parts of the paper.
- Always check your paper on small mistakes – even if you are sick and tired of it and can't even look on the first two sentences. Go to bed. Have a rest. Drink morning coffee. Eat a sandwich. Only then start proofreading your paper, as you see it for the first time.
Now, it's high time for you to start writing your paper – you know how to write a good essay, understand the sequence of writing actions and are ready to complete the paper.
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- Unfortunately, most students leave essay writing to the last minute. Writing your essay the night before it is due may be a common thing for you. But if you want to complete a well-structured and organized paper, this approach will not work. If you want to write a good essay, you should start as early as possible.
- There will be no essay if there is not content to write about. Deeply reading various materials will help in composing a good essay. A student should be direct with the main arguments and points while writing. If you know where to find required information, you will know how to write essay on any topic.
- Before you start to write an essay, it is a good idea to have a proper plan. In this way, you will have a straight idea about arguments that your paper should have. A student should be able to include supporting evidence and counterpoints in an organized manner. If you write the entire essay or a paragraph on any topic, you should follow your plan like a road map.
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