The Structure of an Essay Content from the guide to life, the universe and everything

The Structure of an Essay

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essay n.   a composition, usually short and in prose, on any subject.
- Concise Oxford Dictionary

Being able to write coherent, organised essays is an important skill, not just in education, but often in life as well. Therefore you must know how to write them properly. There are logical, accepted structures for essays, regardless of length or subject, which are ignored at the author's peril. One example is the PEE essay writing technique, which is for use in English essays. However, structures can differ slightly from place to place. This Entry deals with one form, which can be adapted as required.

It is often advisable to draft your essay. Making a draft is particularly important if you are writing it by hand as this gives you a chance to go back and correct any grammar and spelling mistakes, or change something when it simply isn't clear. If you are typing or word-processing your essay, it is far easier to edit as you go along, and this saves a great deal of time. If your essay is for an exam, you may not have the luxury of a draft. Try to set time aside at the end to read it through and make changes if necessary.

One Researcher suggests the following if you don't have much time to prepare the essay:

  • Write down the title of the essay and the title of each paragraph (basically, a list of your main arguments).

  • For each of these paragraphs, use a separate piece of paper to draft your main points.

This method allows you to write the essay without even realising it, you just have to link all your points together.

The same Researcher also has this tip: if the essay is to be written in a foreign language, don't write any of it in your mother tongue. If you do, you will only end up translating it and therefore creating extra work for yourself.

The Introduction

All essays should start with an introduction. This gives an overview of everything you will be discussing in the essay without drawing conclusions or being very long. It may ask a question which you intend to answer, or state a hypothesis which the essay will prove or disprove. Here is a sample introductory paragraph:

Many people have among their school memories the experience of dissecting a frog or other small animal. Dissections have long been considered an excellent way to teach children about anatomy in a hands-on way. In recent years, however, an ethical question has been raised with regards to classroom dissections: is it right to kill animals in order to teach something that children could learn just as well from a book?

One important thing to remember: if you are writing the essay in an examination, it is often wise to use your introduction to explain your understanding of the question. If, worst-case scenario, you have misunderstood what the question is asking of you, by stating what you understand the question to mean you can reduce the chance of losing additional marks. This is especially true in arts-related courses such as literature or history where the differences in interpretation are what singles out brilliant students from average ones.

The Body of an Essay

This is made up of as many paragraphs as you need to get all of your points across to the reader. In non-fiction works, such as an essay, each paragraph discusses a different aspect of the topic, and they should be in such an order that each one seems to follow logically from the previous one. You can do this by using linking words such as however, consequently, therefore, and subsequently. Try not to write chronologically, as this is often viewed as trite. Your aim should be to gradually build to your conclusion, however, so there is a sense of progression.

For example: If you were trying to answer a question such as 'Do you think Custer was to blame for the defeat at the Battle of the Little Bighorn?', you could alternate the point of view of your paragraphs. That is, have one paragraph present evidence that blames Custer and the next present evidence that defends him. It is important to tell your reader about the different points of view on the essay topic, or you will most likely lose marks and/or write a less effective essay. If you've ever written about a science experiment, it is similar, with each paragraph dealing with a different aspect of the topic.

Paragraphs separate your topic into ideas, each of which deserves to be considered independently from the others. It's simpler to read an essay when it's in easily-digestible chunks.

The Conclusion

The conclusion is the final paragraph. This is the point to which you should have been building throughout your essay, so it should appear to be consistent with what has gone before. There are two schools of thought concerning how to achieve this: one says that you should never repeat your previous points; the other says that briefly summing them up is perfectly acceptable. The latter view is the method described here. Again, though, it may differ depending on what or where you are studying.

The conclusion is where you finally state, in a short and to-the-point manner, the answers to any questions or conclusions to any hypotheses which might have been present in the introduction. You should do this by summing up what has been learned throughout the essay and then drawing your conclusions from this information. Make it perfectly clear where you stand, even if that is somewhere in the middle.

The Final Stage

If you follow this basic structure, you will be able to write an outline for your essay before you actually get down to pouring out the ideas. You can make a bare-bones layout in which you state briefly what you want the introduction, the body, and the conclusion to say and then work on fleshing them all out. If you don't have time for a proper draft, it is still useful to plan your essay in this way. At the very least, you will then have some idea where the essay is heading. Also, in an exam, if the essay is not finished, your plan alone may help you get a few extra marks. It is always worth planning an answer to essay questions in exams if only to organise your ideas and ensure you say everything you meant to. Don't forget to check your work for mistakes afterwards.

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