Essay Structure

If you read a novel and figure out what events occur in what order in the story, you can get a firm grip on the plot of the novel. Conversely, if you are writing a novel and decide what events occur in what order before you start writing, and proceed to write chapters and sections accordingly, then that will make the writing process smoother and easier. The same applies to the process of essay writing. If you conceive a blueprint of your essay and write sections and paragraphs accordingly, the writing process will be smoother and easier. A blueprint of an essay specifies the following characteristics: (a) what types of information the essay contains, and (b) the order and length of that information. Such a blueprint is called the “essay structure.”

As you have learned from “2. Understanding Academic Reading and Summary Writing,” when you read a research paper or book, it is important to read it with a view of the main goals of the whole and the goals of each part (sub-goals). Similarly, when you conceive the essay structure, it is important to decide about the main and sub-goals of the essay and about the order in which you will proceed to achieve these goals. Your essay will contain parts, each of which is directed toward each goal you set. It is also important to consider how much space should be given to each part in the essay. An essay is usually assigned with a requirement in terms of length (often in the form of word or page limits). You need to adjust the length of each part so that the whole essay is not too long or too short for the required length.

Components of an Essay

In many cases, the main goal of an essay is to offer reasons or evidence for a specific answer to a research question. (An essay may be assigned with a specific research question, and it may have other requirements.) Since essay writing is a goal-directed activity, it is wise to start developing an essay structure by specifying what you will do to achieve the main goal of the essay.

  • Set a research question
  • Construct a discussion or argument for a specific answer to the research question
    (Offer reasons or evidence)
    (Provide the answer)
    (Explain how reasons or evidence support the answer)

An essay has sub-goals besides main goals. For example, it may contain one or more of the following sub-goals:

  • Explaining the background and importance of the research question
  • Summarizing, expounding on, and evaluating related studies
  • Laying out the organization of the essay
  • Describing the experimental or survey design
  • Reporting and analyzing the results of the experiment or survey

The essay structure may spell out what you will do to achieve the sub-goals as well. Indeed, what you write in an essay varies as its main and sub-goals vary. When you set sub-goals for your essay to pursue, consider the following points: (a) what sub-goals you need to reach to achieve the main goals of the essay, (b) what information you want to highlight or emphasize in relation to the main and sub-goals of the essay, and (c) what information is essential for helping the reader to understand the essay. For (c), to repeat a point made in “1. Understanding Essay Types and the Process of Essay Writing,” it may be helpful to assume that your readers include both your instructor and friends (friends do not know the course materials).

Arranging the Components

After you have set the main and sub-goals of your essay and determined what to do to achieve these goals, you move on to decide in what order your goal-directed activity will be reported and how much space will be given to each step. Of course, if you find a piece or set of information highly relevant for the goals of the essay, it needs to be spelled out in detail. The more relevant a piece of information is, the more space needs to be allocated to it. Practically speaking, you may divide the entire space of the essay as follows: when a piece or a set of information is highly relevant for a sub-goal and contains all the information about what you do to achieve a sub-goal, a section is allocated to it; if a piece or a set of information is less important, a paragraph in a section is allocated to it. You may develop the essay structure at the section level, deciding what types of information each section includes. Or you may work out the essay structure at a very detailed level and decide what information is written in what paragraph.

A paragraph is a set of sentences that jointly serve a purpose or goal. For this reason, you need to change paragraphs as you write for different goals. If you develop the essay structure at the paragraph level, you need to decide what sub-goals and sub-sub-goals (goals relevant for achieving the sub-goals) your essay has and which paragraph contains information that serves each goal. Even if you develop the essay structure only at the section level, you at least need to have a rough picture of what sub-goals the essay will have and decide what types of information will be written in each section.

Essay structure
Essay structure

Forming an Essay Structure Outline

An essay structure outline (an outline for short) is a written form of essay structure with its components ordered in a certain way. If you develop the essay structure and write it down as an outline, you can compose the essay more efficiently. Ideally, you may compose the entire essay by adding sentences to the outline.

When you form an outline at the section level, describe what type of information should be included in each section. You may develop a more detailed outline by specifying what information should be stated in each paragraph. As with a section, a paragraph is a unit of sentences collected for a purpose or goal. To make it easier for potential readers to understand what you are doing in your essay, write a paragraph in a way that it includes a sentence that either makes clear what goal the paragraph serves (that is, what you do in it) or explicitly describes its goal. Such a goal- or activity-reporting sentence is called the “topic sentence” of the paragraph.

You may develop an outline at the paragraph level by writing down topic sentences for paragraphs in advance. Once you have an outline at the paragraph level, it will be easy to write a draft on a paragraph-by-paragraph basis by adding more information to each topic sentence. You may put in the outline all the information sources you will cite or quote in the essay. This helps you to plan draft writing with information sources. In addition, if you use figures, tables, or graphs in the essay, you may draw them at this stage and indicate where they appear in the outline (check “Academic Skills Guide: Designing Presentation Materials” for drawing figures, tables, and graphs). The purpose of forming an outline is to manage the process of draft writing.

It is only after your inquiry into the essay writing reaches a certain level that you can start developing an outline. In practice, you may have to go back and forth between the steps of essay writing to develop an outline. As it happens, you may find that more study or inquiry is necessary when you develop an outline, or conversely, you may change the outline you formed at an early stage due to progress or delays in the inquiry.


From Outline to Composition

Once you have developed an outline, you can start writing a draft of the essay. (In practice, while you write a draft, you may need to re-read the relevant texts, re-analyze data, and modify the outline). To avoid a thorough revision of the first draft of the essay, it is crucial that you develop the outline in enough detail. Otherwise, you cannot use it as a guide for draft writing.

At the step of draft writing, be aware of the goals you set for parts of the essay, and if necessary, look at the outline to check them. As stated above, not only the whole essay and its sections but also its paragraphs have goals. You need to compose a paragraph in such a way that the goal it serves is clear to potential readers. This is the point of “paragraph writing.”

Paragraph Writing

In the first step of paragraph writing, write a topic sentence for the paragraph. The point of writing a topic sentence is to make the goal of the paragraph recognizable. As you proceed in paragraph writing, you add more and more sentences to the topic sentence. The structure of the paragraph (what information is stated in what order) is important for making the goal of the paragraph recognizable. Organize each paragraph in such a way that potential readers can understand the goal and emphasis of the paragraph without reading it several times. Here are some tips for writing an easy-to-read paragraph:

  • Paragraph goal: The goal of the paragraph (and your goal-directed activity) are recognizable, and the paragraph does not contain information that has nothing to do with the goal
  • Emphasis: The points that you emphasize are clearly stated (and may be repeated)
  • Information flow: Connectives are used to connect sentences in a particular direction of flow. However, it is better if the flow is smooth enough not to overuse connectives
  • Consistency of information flow: logical relationships, causal relationships, degrees of abstraction, degrees of relevance, etc. are written and followed in a fixed order

More words may be required for the sake of information flow and the consistency of the information flow.

Information Flow

It is good to use connectives to indicate the flow of information, but not always. Use connectives only when the flow is not easily recognizable.

Example 1: Canada is a multicultural state. Therefore, it has people who speak English or French as a first language. However, many people lived in the land currently known as Canada before British and French immigrants came in. Therefore, these people also constitute people living in Canada.

Example 1 Revised: Canada is a multicultural state. It has people who speak English or French as a first language. However, many people lived in the land currently known as Canada before British and French immigrants came in. These people also constitute people living in Canada.

Indeed, in many cases, it is not necessary to use resultative connectives: therefore, accordingly, hence, then, as a result, and so on. Use them only when you want to emphasize the relationship at stake. Because the logical order of resultative connectives and of explanation connectives (because, since, for, and so on) goes in opposite directions, mixing them creates a problem in understanding the paragraph. For example, if you express the logical relationship of A, therefore B, and B, therefore C, using the construction “A, therefore B, and C because B,” it will be confusing and difficult to understand.

Consistency of the Information Flow

When you arrange a set of sentences in a paragraph that differ in logical relationship, causal relationship, degrees of abstraction, or degrees of relevance, the paragraph will be difficult to understand unless the direction of information flow is fixed throughout the paragraph.

Example 1: There are many countries in the world. Japan is one of them. The East Asia region includes several countries, e.g., China, Taiwan, and Korea.

Example 1 Revised: There are many countries in the world. The East Asia region includes several countries, e.g., China, Taiwan, and Korea. Japan is one of them.

Example 2: The German invasion of Poland occurred first. Later, Germany attempted to invade Russia. Shortly before that, Germany invaded France.

Example 2 Revised: The German invasion of Poland occurred first. Germany then invaded France, and finally attempted to invade Russia.

Paragraph writing will make your essay easy to read and understand. You can see the power of paragraph writing by comparing the two paragraphs below. They convey the same information, but only the right paragraph is composed following the preceding tips for paragraph writing. The right paragraph, unlike the left one, clearly indicates the goal of the paragraph and arranges information in a fixed order. The underlined topic sentence of the right paragraph states that the goal of the paragraph is to describe differences between university and high school education.

Paragraph writing
Recommended Readings
Guptill, A., Button, A., Farrell, P., Leonard, K. and Pizarro, T. (2016) Writing in College: From Competence to Excellence. The College at Brockport, SUNY: Open SUNY Textbooks.
Unnamed Author. (2015) Writing for Success. University of Minnesota Libraries Publishing.
Issue |
Institute of Liberal Arts and Sciences & Center for the Studies of Higher Education
First edition |
Author |
Kasaki, Masashi