Essay Writing: Structure
One of the more difficult elements to get right in an essay is structure. This is particularly important in what are quite short pieces of writing, where a few hundred words makes a significant difference in what can be said (for instance, a first year undergraduate essay of 1500-2000 words is different from a Postgraduate piece of 3000-4000 words).
Basic Essay Structure
The structure of your essay should be as simple and straightforward as possible. Essays are not being assessed on how complicated and verbose you are in your essays- simple, direct language, in a clear and logical structure, are key.
A typical essay will have three main sections: an introduction, a main body, and a conclusion.
All pieces of written work should have an introduction. In an essay it is vital for two reasons:
1) It shows the marker that you clearly understand the task that has been set. (Remember misunderstanding the question is the quickest way to fail an essay.)
2) It tells the marker how you are going to address the topic, outlining the structure of your essay. (It should also help you to think about organising your arguments.)
The introduction should be simple, clear and straightforward.
Let’s say you were being asked to write an essay on the topic ‘Do aliens exist?’ An introduction to such a topic might go:
‘This essay is about the existence or otherwise of aliens. It begins by defining what is meant by ‘aliens’, and then evaluates the evidence for and against their existence. The evaluation will look first at evidence from eyewitnesses of UFOs and alien abductions. It then examines the scientific evidence against the existence of aliens visiting earth, before discussing the scientific evidence for the existence of alien life elsewhere in the universe.’
Essays without introductions, or well written introductions, are difficult to follow, are usually poorly structured, and usually get bad marks.
The Main Body
The structure of the main body of the essay is more open to personal writing styles, but there are some basics to remember.
First, the structure of the main body should follow a logical and coherent structure. Each point you make should follow on as best as possible from the previous point and the points should all build up towards a coherent conclusion. In the Western/English-language tradition, arguments are constructed in a linear fashion, which may be quite different to your own experience. With longer essays (like Postgraduate essays) the use of a small number of sub-headings for different parts of a discussion is a useful way of maintaining coherence.
Second, remember you have to balance the desire to make a number of points against the space available to properly discuss each point. In an undergraduate essay of, say 1500-2000 words, you actually have room to make only about 4 or 5 substantial points. Remember it’s the quality of your arguments not the number of them that is being assessed. In a Postgraduate essay of 3000-4000 words there is room for more points BUT you are expected to offer a more detailed level of analysis than at undergraduate level.
Third, and the reason why there is room only to make a few points, make sure that with every key point you want to make you follow the formula below:
1) Introduce the point
2) Explain what it means
3) Offer some supporting material (e.g. a quote or some evidence from a source)
4) Offer an example as an illustration where applicable
5) Consider any criticisms of the point that can be made (e.g. a piece of evidence or author’s comment that critiques the point)
When preparing a plan for the essay, under each key point keep a tally of what you’re going to use for that point: Have you got a source? A quote? An example? Some criticism of that point? If you can get these for every point in your argument you will be on the way to a good essay. Sometimes you can’t get everything for a point that you really want to make. If that’s the case you have to be ruthless- if you can’t find enough material to present the point fully, then you shouldn’t really include it- you are not going to get much credit for points that are unsupported.
The reason for this focus on evidence, examples and source material is that, again in the Western/English language academic tradition, these are the elements that are important. We are trying to teach you skills of critical analysis and critical thinking which depend upon an ability to offer arguments informed by sources, evidence and examples, NOT on personal opinion alone. This doesn’t mean you aren’t allowed to offer your own opinions on a topic BUT as students, by definition, you are not experts on the topics you are writing about so you have to rely on sources, evidence and examples to make your opinions academically valid.
Like the introduction, the conclusion is a vital part of an essay, and needs to be simple, clear and direct.
The conclusion should round out the essay by offering a brief summary of what the essay covered, and the key points that were made. For the hypothetical essay about aliens mentioned above it might be like this:
‘This essay has examined the evidence for and against the existence of aliens. It has shown that whilst there are numerous eyewitness accounts of UFOs and aliens, the scientific community remains sceptical about these representing real alien life-forms. Nonetheless, new astronomical evidence is pointing to the existence of life elsewhere in the universe being every more likely, so it is possible to argue that whilst no firm evidence exists yet, the existence of aliens is an increasing possibility.’
One important point about conclusions is that often it isn’t easy or possible to reach a particular, absolute answer (as in ‘aliens do exist’). In fact, unless your evidence is very strong, if you reach a strident conclusion it’s possible that you haven’t critically analysed your points sufficiently, and this may be reflected in the mark you get.