Essays have structure?
The fact that essays have a logical structure is a point that escapes many would-be writers, even if they know how to spell and punctuate and are generally good at expressing themselves in the English language. It is important when writing to organise your thoughts in such a way that your readers can follow your train of thought coherently, as opposed to just throwing all your thoughts into a pile for people to sort through.
Note: Style and formatting will not be discussed here. Depending on your market or audience, you may be asked to format your essay in a particular style. The Guide, for example, has standard formats for doing things like quoting other works and titles, including foreign words, and organising your outside references. Journals, magazines, book publishers, and professors might ask for styles such as MLA (Modern Language Association) or APA (American Psychological Association). These are easily found on the World Wide Web or in any library, and of course the Guide's own style is readily accessible to all you researchers. This article will only cover the basics of organising your ideas clearly.
An essay should start with an introduction. The introduction gives an overview of everything you will be discussing in the essay. It may also ask a question which your essay will answer, or state a hypothesis which the essay will prove or disprove. You might also make a statement as to why your topic is interesting or worth discussing, e.g. what can be learned from examining the issue in question. 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?
Paragraphs are often overlooked by new writers. Walk over to your bookshelf and open a book (preferably one with no boxes or illustrations interrupting the text). The text is broken up into blocks, with the first line of each block indented. Each block is a paragraph, and it expresses a different idea than the ones before and after it. In fiction, different paragraphs might illustrate different aspects of scenery, or serve to separate a quiet moment from a sudden burst of action a moment later. 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.
Look at an entire page of that book you picked up, and imagine what it would be like if all the paragraphs were slurred together into one big lump of text. It would be pretty hard to read, wouldn't it? Paragraphs separate your topic into ideas, each of which deserves to be considered independently from the others. It's easier to read an essay when it's in easily-digestible chunks.
Note that in Guide entries, you have the option of using headers to separate your ideas, and paragraphs to further break down each idea. The GuideML Clinic explains exactly how to do it. Also, with markup languages in general (such as GuideML and HTML), it is difficult to indent only the first line of a paragraph. Paragraphs written in such languages are generally separated by an entire blank line, and the first line of each paragraph does not have to be indented, as the line breaks make it clear where one ends and the next begins.
The conclusion is the final paragraph. This is where you finally state, in a short and to-the-point way, the answer to any questions that might have been asked in the introduction. You might also sum up what has been learned throughout the essay in a few sentences.
Off you go...
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.
Afterwards, you can turn your attention to fixing your grammar and spelling, and formatting according to your chosen style. Don't worry yourself with those details while writing your first draft-- just get your ideas out on paper (or pixels), and clean them up later on.