The Structure of an Essay

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The Importance of Essays

An essay is defined as "a compositition, usually short and in prose, on any subject."
The Concise Oxford Dictionary of Current English, Ninth Edition.

Being able to write coherent, organised essays is an important skill, not just in education, but in life. 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. This is particularly important if you are hand-writing it, as this gives you a chance to go back and correct any grammar and spelling mistakes, or change something where it simply isn't clear. If you are 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 a good way of preparing your essay if you don't have time to draft every word is to plan it by first writing down the title of the essay, then the title of each paragraph (basically, a list of your main arguments). For each of these paragraphs, use a seperate piece of paper to draft your main points.
This method allows you to basically 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 being written in a foreign language, don't write any of it in your mother tongue, because 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 will 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?

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, 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, merely take points as they fit together but in a sensible order.

If you are 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 would alternate paragraphs, so that one paragraph gave a factor which blamed Custer, and the next a factor which defended 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 up a science experiment, it is similar, with each paragraph dealing with a different aspect of the task.

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. There are two schools of thought concerning this section - one says that should should never repeat your previous points, and 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 where you are from.

The conclusion, then, is where you finally state in a short and to-the-point manner, the answer to any questions or conclusion to any hypothesis which might have been asked in the introduction. You should do this by summing up what has been learned throughout the essay in a few sentences, 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 get down to actually pouring out the ideas. You can make a bare-bones layout in which you state briefly what you want each paragraph to say, and what the introduction and conclusion should be, 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 so you have some idea where it is heading. Also, in an exam, if the essay is not finished, your plan may get you 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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