How to structure an academic essay
Something that a lot of my students have struggled with in the past is how to structure their essays. While they may have a good idea and lots of sources to back up their arguments, they trip up when trying to organise all their thoughts in a coherent and convincing manner. Though each subject area has different subheadings they prefer you to use when writing, the general structure of a paper stays relatively consistent between fields. Let’s discuss how to go about planning and writing an essay to ensure you get the best response.
Before you start writing anything, the first thing you need to do is ask yourself some questions. What type of essay question is it? What is the keyword in the title (e.g. discuss, describe, agree or disagree) and what kind of information are they looking for (e.g. how, what, why)? Am I being asked to write a descriptive essay, outlining a problem or event, or am I being asked to take a side in a debate or discussion? Remember that when writing argumentative style essays, you will need to include at least one paragraph detailing the opposing side of the argument and why it’s valid - play devil’s advocate!
Once you’re sure you’ve understood the question, the next thing you need to do is gather your sources. Even if you’ve been set the reading by your tutor, or you’ve been told to just use one source, it’s important that you read through it and understand exactly what points the author is trying to make. If you have to find your own sources, you can check out our other post about how to find good sources for academic papers for tips on where to search and how.
Now we’ve got the first steps out of the way, let’s talk about the actual writing process!
The introduction is a vital part of any essay. Here you should outline the context of your essay, maybe pointing out why the topic is important, and giving some background information about the discussion. When did the topic become relevant, for example. If the question you’re being asked is argumentative (asking you to choose between two sides) try and introduce both sides of the discussion. End with your thesis - where you stand on the topic - and give a brief overview of how you will be answering the question.
This section should be around one paragraph long, but can be up to two for longer essays.
Trace Winston's path towards destruction in the novel 1984. Is his defeat inevitable?
George Orwell’s novel 1984 remains one of the most influential and popular dystopian novels of all time. The novel follows the main character, Winston, who at first opposes Big Brother and the Oceania regime, but in the end is captured, tortured, and loses his fighting spirit. While throughout the novel it seems like there may be a chance that Winston and his allies may be able to succeed, by the end of the story we can see that his quest was always destined to fail due to the all-encompassing nature of the regime’s surveillance. This essay will show that Winston’s defeat was inevitable, not only because of his own fatalistic outlook, but because of the circumstances of Winston’s life, which are not revealed in full until near the end of the novel.
This section is where you will discuss your thesis in full, show your evidence, and outline any opposing arguments or possible flaws in your approach. This is the longest single part of any essay, so make sure you spend the most time on this section.
You may want to begin each paragraph with a single sentence that introduces what you're about to talk about, and/or that links the paragraph back to the main question you’re asking. For example: One reason for Winston’s inevitable defeat is his ignorance about the real identity of the friends and acquaintances he makes throughout the story. You can also link paragraphs and ideas together by using linking words like ‘however’, ‘moreover’, and ‘although’.
Remember that each paragraph should contain only one idea. If you find yourself moving on to another point (for example, by arguing against the point you just made) stop and move it into the next paragraph! Make sure your writing is concise and to the point, avoid repeating yourself, and try and include at least one piece of evidence (a reference or quote) for each point that you make.
This is your opportunity to briefly summarise your argument, either explaining why the stance you have taken is superior based on your evidence, or giving a short overview of your main points. If you have space, you can point out where there is potential for more exploration, for example any areas that could be explored in more depth, but do not introduce any new ideas or arguments!
Like the introduction this section should be only one or two paragraphs depending on the overall length of the essay.
Possible other sections
Depending on what you’re studying and how advanced your studies are, you may be asked to include some other sections apart from the basic structure we’ve outlined above. Here are some other common essay sections and how you should go about writing them.
Literature Review: A literature review is your chance to survey the existing writing on your topic, summarise the main findings, and point out the flaws or areas that require greater development. Each paragraph should look at a different piece of work (book, journal article, website, etc.) and discuss that piece of work in detail. At the end of your literature review, you should mention how your essay will build on the existing works and how it will expand the field or topic.
Methodology: This is where you explain how you approached your research, how you collected your resources and data, how you analysed this data, and why.
You’ll want to include details such as whether you used qualitative or quantitative methods (or both), why you decided to go down this route (i.e. why it was the best approach to help you solve your problem), and how you designed your research methods (e.g. how did you come up with the questions for a survey, or where you got your materials from).
Don’t forget to refer to existing literature on this topic to help you justify why you chose the methods that you did. Did you choose this method because it’s the standard practice and has proven results? Or because you noticed gaps in previous works that could be solved by using this new or improved methodology?
Results: This section is usually found in scientific papers, and is designed to answer the question “so what did your research uncover?” This is where you break down your data and analysis into sections, presenting your results either in simple sentences, or in charts, tables or other visual representations. After showing the data collected, you then explain in your analysis why this is relevant to the original research question (unless you’re planning on including a separate ‘Discussion’ section). If you have space, you can also include any secondary findings you made not directly related to the research question, but you should leave out any results that do not directly contribute to the overall research question.