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Structure For Writing A College Essay

  • 1

    Research: First, choose a topic. Then, make sure to research it as much as possible. Know the material inside and out and become an expert on it. This will help connect the dots between various points in order to form a compelling argument.
    • Some essays in school require academic sources. These can sometimes be tricky to pick out because not everything is considered academic. For help in this area, you can refer to L. Lennie Irvin’s piece, “What Is ‘Academic’ Writing?” where he eases the student’s fear of the unknown and guides them to understand what academic writing is, how to pick it out, and discusses the benefits of using academic writing. [1]
  • 2

    Analyze. After immersing yourself in your research and learning all there is to know about the topic, analyze the information. Don’t think just surface level- what is the author actually saying? What is his or her argument and why is he or she trying to prove that point? Is the author accurate? Credible? Dissect their piece and read like the author.
    • Conventions are methods used in writing to enhance the product and make it more readable and understandable. They also determine what category or genre the piece belongs in. Types of conventions include but are not limited to mechanics, format, sentence structure, and word usage. So consider the following questions as well: What genre is the work and what conventions are used? Why did the author pick that genre and include those specific conventions?
    • Reading Mike Bunn’s “How to Read Like a Writer” will help you understand how this can be done.[2] He discusses in his piece how to notice decisions the author makes and the conventions used in their work so you can make similar decisions in your own.
  • 3

    Take your stance and form your argument. While researching and your argument is forming, mark pieces of evidence in the research that could be useful pieces of evidence for your paper. Don’t be afraid to mark more than you need because it’ll give you more options later on when you finalize what evidence you’re using.

  • 4

    Free write. This is a part of brainstorming. At this point, a million different ideas and connections are forming in your head and it is important to get them all out. Don't pay attention to the format or flow. In fact, use a pen to keep yourself from erasing anything because everything that comes out is important. Just write and write for ten minutes straight and get everything in your head on paper. Later, you will shift through it all and pick out the most important points that fit together the best.

  • 5

    Construct your thesis. Synthesize your main points and argument of the paper into a coherent sentence or two. This doesn’t need to be permanent and is subject to change. It will serve as a guideline for the paper in the time being. Incorporate it into the introduction and when the essay is complete, it will inform the reader what you are writing about and what you are arguing.

  • 6

    Create an outline. Next, make an outline of your essay. Separate your points into appropriate paragraphs and write notes about what you are going to include. After you have this all written down, ensure your ideas flow and you have enough points by picking evidence for each point.
    • Go back through the evidence you marked earlier or flip through your research again to find additional evidence if it does not sufficiently back up your claims. After this is complete and your outline logically flows, you are ready to begin writing!
  • 7

    Write your introduction. Compose your introduction that starts with a hook to capture the reader’s attention. In the paragraph, include your sources, thesis, and a “road map” for your essay. The “road map” is to give the reader a sense of where you are taking the subject and how you are going to prove your point without specifically stating, “First, I will talk about this. Then, about that”, etc.

  • 8

    Expand with body paragraphs. Make sure each body paragraph has a single main idea. If there are more than one, the paragraph can get confusing and one point will get overpowered by the other. Each paragraph should also have a topic sentence that tells the reader what that paragraph is going to tell them. Once again, don’t explicitly say, “In this paragraph I will explain...”.
    • Also, incorporate your evidence into appropriate places and ensure they flow. Evidence can be used in a quote but don’t forget that you can paraphrase too. Change it up so your essay doesn’t seem repetitive and make sure to use each of your sources equally.
  • 9

    Form your conclusion. Tie together your essay with a final conclusion of your argument. Give your reader something to walk away with after reading your essay. For example, have a call to action, leave them pondering a question or with something memorable, or maybe you’ll even end up blowing the reader's minds with something they’ve never thought of or considered. Just make sure they don’t finish your essay thinking “so what?” or “what was the point?”.

  • 10

    Cite your sources. Cite your sources in the appropriate format. Don’t forget this step- no plagiarizing! If you have any questions on citations, you can refer to Diana Hacker's "A Pocket Style Manual" which provide a plethora of information on citations, grammar, and formatting.[3]

  • 11

    Revise your piece. First, set your paper aside. Give yourself a little break to refresh your mind and then come back to revise. One helpful technique is to slowly read your essay out loud to yourself. The key is to read it out loud because you will catch more mistakes that way.
    • If you have a peer to revise with, trading with them and getting their opinion can be very helpful. If there are multiple people to trade with, go for it! The more opinions the better. Then you can pick and choose what revisions you agree with. You can repeat this step a few times by stepping away from it and coming back to ensure you caught all your mistakes.
  • 12

    Take time to reflect. Reflect on your writing, the process of how you completed it, and how you feel about your work. This process identifies the positives and the negatives of the paper, which could help improve it. Write down what you consider to be the downfalls of your paper and you can even go back to the revision stage and fix these once they are identified.

  • 13

    Done! When you are satisfied with your paper and you have fixed everything that you possibly can, you have completed your essay!

  • Writing an academic essay means fashioning a coherent set of ideas into an argument. Because essays are essentially linear—they offer one idea at a time—they must present their ideas in the order that makes most sense to a reader. Successfully structuring an essay means attending to a reader's logic.

    The focus of such an essay predicts its structure. It dictates the information readers need to know and the order in which they need to receive it. Thus your essay's structure is necessarily unique to the main claim you're making. Although there are guidelines for constructing certain classic essay types (e.g., comparative analysis), there are no set formula.

    Answering Questions:  The Parts of an Essay

    A typical essay contains many different kinds of information, often located in specialized parts or sections. Even short essays perform several different operations: introducing the argument, analyzing data, raising counterarguments, concluding. Introductions and conclusions have fixed places, but other parts don't. Counterargument, for example, may appear within a paragraph, as a free-standing section, as part of the beginning, or before the ending. Background material (historical context or biographical information, a summary of relevant theory or criticism, the definition of a key term) often appears at the beginning of the essay, between the introduction and the first analytical section, but might also appear near the beginning of the specific section to which it's relevant.

    It's helpful to think of the different essay sections as answering a series of questions your reader might ask when encountering your thesis. (Readers should have questions. If they don't, your thesis is most likely simply an observation of fact, not an arguable claim.)

    "What?"  The first question to anticipate from a reader is "what": What evidence shows that the phenomenon described by your thesis is true? To answer the question you must examine your evidence, thus demonstrating the truth of your claim. This "what" or "demonstration" section comes early in the essay, often directly after the introduction. Since you're essentially reporting what you've observed, this is the part you might have most to say about when you first start writing. But be forewarned: it shouldn't take up much more than a third (often much less) of your finished essay. If it does, the essay will lack balance and may read as mere summary or description.

    "How?"  A reader will also want to know whether the claims of the thesis are true in all cases. The corresponding question is "how": How does the thesis stand up to the challenge of a counterargument? How does the introduction of new material—a new way of looking at the evidence, another set of sources—affect the claims you're making? Typically, an essay will include at least one "how" section. (Call it "complication" since you're responding to a reader's complicating questions.) This section usually comes after the "what," but keep in mind that an essay may complicate its argument several times depending on its length, and that counterargument alone may appear just about anywhere in an essay.

    "Why?"  Your reader will also want to know what's at stake in your claim: Why does your interpretation of a phenomenon matter to anyone beside you? This question addresses the larger implications of your thesis. It allows your readers to understand your essay within a larger context. In answering "why", your essay explains its own significance. Although you might gesture at this question in your introduction, the fullest answer to it properly belongs at your essay's end. If you leave it out, your readers will experience your essay as unfinished—or, worse, as pointless or insular.

    Mapping an Essay

    Structuring your essay according to a reader's logic means examining your thesis and anticipating what a reader needs to know, and in what sequence, in order to grasp and be convinced by your argument as it unfolds. The easiest way to do this is to map the essay's ideas via a written narrative. Such an account will give you a preliminary record of your ideas, and will allow you to remind yourself at every turn of the reader's needs in understanding your idea.

    Essay maps ask you to predict where your reader will expect background information, counterargument, close analysis of a primary source, or a turn to secondary source material. Essay maps are not concerned with paragraphs so much as with sections of an essay. They anticipate the major argumentative moves you expect your essay to make. Try making your map like this:

    • State your thesis in a sentence or two, then write another sentence saying why it's important to make that claim. Indicate, in other words, what a reader might learn by exploring the claim with you. Here you're anticipating your answer to the "why" question that you'll eventually flesh out in your conclusion.
    • Begin your next sentence like this: "To be convinced by my claim, the first thing a reader needs to know is . . ." Then say why that's the first thing a reader needs to know, and name one or two items of evidence you think will make the case. This will start you off on answering the "what" question. (Alternately, you may find that the first thing your reader needs to know is some background information.)
    • Begin each of the following sentences like this: "The next thing my reader needs to know is . . ."  Once again, say why, and name some evidence. Continue until you've mapped out your essay. 

    Your map should naturally take you through some preliminary answers to the basic questions of what, how, and why. It is not a contract, though—the order in which the ideas appear is not a rigid one. Essay maps are flexible; they evolve with your ideas.

    Signs of Trouble

    A common structural flaw in college essays is the "walk-through" (also labeled "summary" or "description"). Walk-through essays follow the structure of their sources rather than establishing their own. Such essays generally have a descriptive thesis rather than an argumentative one. Be wary of paragraph openers that lead off with "time" words ("first," "next," "after," "then") or "listing" words ("also," "another," "in addition"). Although they don't always signal trouble, these paragraph openers often indicate that an essay's thesis and structure need work: they suggest that the essay simply reproduces the chronology of the source text (in the case of time words: first this happens, then that, and afterwards another thing . . . ) or simply lists example after example ("In addition, the use of color indicates another way that the painting differentiates between good and evil").

    Copyright 2000, Elizabeth Abrams, for the Writing Center at Harvard University

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