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The Writing Center

Structure of an Essay

 
 

When you write an essay for a particular course, your professor will more than likely give you some guidelines. For example, he/she will give you a page count or a word count and will indicate whether or not they expect research to be included in the paper. However, your instructors hardly ever give you a paragraph count. Many students assume that essays must be five paragraphs, and this is simply not the case. Some effective essays might contain only four paragraphs while others contain ten. No matter how many paragraphs they contain, all essays should contain certain elements. These elements include the following:

Introduction

The introduction acquaints the reader with the topic. Its purpose is to get the readers' attention and make them want to read the essay. For this reason, you should try to make your introduction interesting, engaging, and original. You can do this through one of the following:

  • Give a startling example or statistic
  • Tell a story
  • Use a relevant quotation
  • Ask a pointed question

Bear in mind that just because the introduction appears at the beginning of the essay, it does not mean you have to write the introduction first. On the contrary, very often the wittiest, most engaging introduction is written after the author has completed the body of the essay.

Thesis Ideas

The introduction should also allow readers to get their bearings. After having read the introduction, the readers should know what the topic is and the point that you will make about the topic. As a writer, you indicate the point you will make about your topic in a thesis. The thesis can be either stated or implied. In either form, it should clearly and specifically convey your point, and it should do so early on in the essay. Note that the thesis you begin with and the one you end with may not be the same. As you go through the drafting process, you should be getting a clearer sense of what you are trying to say, and this should be reflected in your thesis. To find your thesis, ask yourself these questions:

  • What point am I attempting to make in this essay?
  • Has this point been clearly indicated to my audience in my essay?

Common Assumptions about Introductions and Thesis Ideas

  • Introductions should be only one paragraph
  • Thesis statements must appear as the last sentence of the first paragraph
  • Thesis statements should be only one sentence long.

All of the Above Are False!

  • While an introduction may certainly be a single paragraph, it may also be two or three paragraphs long. Just as there is no paragraph requirement for an entire essay, neither is there a paragraph requirement for specific elements of the essay. Rather, paragraph counts are specific to the nature and scope of an individual essay or assignment. 
  • Though the thesis does not always occur at the end of paragraph one, it should occur early on in the essay before you begin to develop the body paragraphs.
  • Again, though a good thesis can be only one sentence long, very often, a two or three sentence thesis is clearer, more specific, and thus more effective.

Body Paragraphs

The purpose of a body paragraph is to develop and prove the thesis. Each body paragraph should make just one point that clearly develops and supports the thesis. In the same way that you have a thesis to indicate the point of the essay, you should have a topic sentence for each body paragraph. The topic sentence states the point of the paragraph, and all of the other sentences should support, develop, and explain that point. To develop body paragraphs, do the following:

  • Provide details and explanation
  • Give vivid examples
  • Cite statistics where appropriate
  • Include research as necessary
  • Be descriptive

A Note on Body Paragraphs and Transitions

Each body paragraph should be unified independently. That is, it should make sense by itself and be able to stand alone. However, it is just one piece of the essay, and it is up to you as the writer  to connect the body paragraphs and relate them to the thesis. You do this by referencing key words or ideas from the thesis and using transitional words and phrases.

Conclusion

The purpose of the conclusion is to bring the essay to a satisfying close. You should avoid bringing up a new point in your conclusion and you should avoid lengthy and excessive summary. The most successful conclusions are thoughtful and reflective. After having presented your topic and proven your thesis, you want to be able to make an overarching statement based on that information. If you struggle with concluding your work, reread the essay and ask yourself the following questions:

  • What have I learned from having written this essay?
  • What are the implications or consequences of my thesis?
  • What is the last impression with which I want to leave my audience?