Essay Structure

Introduction

When students first learn to write essays, they’re often taught some version of the “five paragraph essay.” The five paragraph essay typically makes three related points, each with its own body paragraph. While this kind of rigid essay structure can be helpful for first time writers, it easily becomes predictable and boring. That’s why we’d like to present a different model of essay writing. On this page we provide some general advice about how you can craft essays that are organic and natural. While structure is important, we provide guidelines that are flexible and meet your needs.

Basic Parts

Every essay obviously has an introduction and a conclusion. In the middle you’ll find a bunch of paragraphs. So much for the obvious.

What’s important is that there is no set rule as to how many paragraphs you can use for any section of your essay. In a long essay, your introduction might take up two or three paragraphs. In a short essay (e.g., 3-4 pages) it makes sense to keep your intro and conclusion sweet and short. You can also have as many middle paragraphs as you like.

In other words, as long as you introduce your topic, argue your case persuasively, and provide some closure, the number of paragraphs is completely irrelevant.

In fact, writing an essay is a bit like crossing a stream. Think of the paragraphs as the stepping stones that let you get to the other side high and dry:

If the stream is wide, you’ll need more stepping stones. The same is true for an essay: the longer the essay, the more paragraphs you’ll need.

Introductions

Don’t overthink your introduction. There’s no need to cram all kinds of things into your introduction. Just introduce the topic and your argument:

In other words, instead of coming up with some artificial hook (e.g., a quotation or surprising fact), assume that your topic is interesting enough to grab your reader’s attention. Focus your effort on explaining the research question or problem that drives your research. Why is your topic significant? Why should people care? If you answer the “why?” question, your reader will care enough to read on.

The Thesis

The thesis is a succinct statement of your overall argument. It should come at the end of the introduction. If you introduction is multiple paragraphs long you have more flexibility where you place the thesis.

Some teachers advice their students to come up with three points for their thesis. That is generally a terrible idea. What invariably ends up happening is that you end up writing three mini-essays that are only loosely connected.

While you can have sub-points, the most important thing is that you come up with ONE coherent argument that ties together everything in your essay.

If it takes you a few sentences to fully express your argument that’s no problem: a thesis doesn’t have to be just one sentence long.

Body Paragraphs

The middle paragraphs form the body of your essay. These paragraphs are a bit like vases: they hold the contents of your essay, and they come in all shapes and sizes:

Like vases, paragraphs tend to be more narrow in the middle. That’s where you’ll find the specifics of the argument, the quotations and the facts.

The beginning and end of a paragraph are usually more general in scope. The opening sentence (the topic sentence) indicates what the paragraph is about. It also connects the paragraph to what came before.

The trick with writing paragraphs is to remind your reader of the general argument. However, there’s no need to conclude every paragraph with a summary of what came before. Just make sure you paragraphs transition nicely from one to the next.

Lastly, each paragraph should make just one point. If you’re starting to say something new, even if it’s just a different aspect of the same point, start a new paragraph!

Conclusions

The difficulty with conclusions is avoiding needless repetition. Don’t let your reader zone out when you zoom out.

Try to explain why your findings matter. Point out those nuances and complexities that your thesis only hinted at, but that can now be fully understood.  Provide observations that keep your conclusion fresh and interesting.

Final Thoughts

Now that you have some general idea about how to structure your essay, take the time to study our more in-depth lessons on the various parts of the essay (introductions, paragraphs, conclusions). And, if you’re still not convinced that the five paragraph essay is generally a bad idea, check out John Warner’s book Why They Can’t Write: Killing the Five-Paragraph Essay and Other Necessities, or read his blog post on the subject.

 

2 comments

  • Thank you for this outstanding resource, which has helped my community college writing students with their coursework. I do have a comment about the five-paragraph essay (5PE).

    I would like to suggest that this format shouldn’t be written off automatically. The 5PE can serve as “training wheels” for some hesitant writers (and certainly for students in developmental writing courses found in many community colleges). The formulaic nature of this rigid structure can help some writers understand both the function of necessary essay elements and the purpose of organization in writing projects.

    In addition, the 5PE can also offer some students a format from which they can find initial success with early writing projects. In other words, this format can help some students produce a well-organized piece of writing. (And for some developmental writing students, this could be the first time they have encountered success in writing.)

    Although I agree that students must be encouraged to move beyond this structure, the 5PE can allow some struggling students to view themselves as college writers. This can lead to student growth; they can feel more comfortable taking greater risks and making more sophisticated rhetorical choices in their writing.

    Again, I thank you for this much-appreciated beneficial resource.

    • Thanks, Eileen, for your thoughtful feedback. You’re right that the five paragraph essay can be an excellent first step. My hope is that they will move on once they’re ready to experiment with their writing. Personally, I didn’t realize till second year of university that I could split a single point up into multiple paragraphs. I once wrote a 10 page paper with only two body paragraphs! That’s the downside of these rigid ways of writing essays. 🙂

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