Structure For An Academic Essay

PART I: THE INTRODUCTION

An introduction is usually the first paragraph of your academic essay.  If you’re writing a long essay, you might need two or three paragraphs to introduce your topic to your reader.  A good introduction does three things: 

  1. Gets the reader’s attention.  You can get a reader’s attention by telling a story, providing a statistic, pointing out something strange or interesting, providing and discussing an interesting quote, etc.  Be interesting and find some original angle via which to engage others in your topic. 
  1. Provides necessary background information. Don’t start too broad, for instance by talking about how literature helps us understand life, but do tell your readers what they need to know to get their bearings in your topic, e.g. who wrote the story you’re writing about, when it was published, where it was published, etc.
  1. Provides a specific and debatable thesis statement.  The thesis statement is usually just one sentence long, but it might be longer—even a whole paragraph—if the essay you’re writing is long.  A good thesis statement makes a debatable point, meaning a point someone might disagree with and argue against.  It also serves as a roadmap for what you argue in your paper.

PART II: THE CONCLUSION

A conclusion is the last paragraph of your essay, or, if you’re writing a really long essay, you might need two or three paragraphs to conclude.  A conclusion typically does one of two things—or, of course, it can do both:

  1. Summarizes the argument.  Some instructors expect you not to say anything new in your conclusion.  They just want you to restate your main points.  Especially if you’ve made a long and complicated argument, it’s useful to restate your main points for your reader by the time you’ve gotten to your conclusion.  If you opt to do so, keep in mind that you should use different language than you used in your introduction and your body paragraphs.  The introduction and conclusion shouldn’t be the same.
  1. Explains the significance of the argument.  Some instructors want you to avoid restating your main points; they instead want you to explain your argument’s significance.  In other words, they want you to answer the “so what” question by giving your reader a clearer sense of why your argument matters.
  • For example, your argument might be significant to studies of a certain time period
  • Alternately, it might be significant to a certain geographical region
  • Alternately still, it might influence how your readers think about the future.  You might even opt to speculate about the future and/or call your readers to action in your conclusion.

PART III: THE BODY PARAGRAPHS

Body paragraphs help you prove your thesis and move you along a compelling trajectory from your introduction to your conclusion.  If your thesis is a simple one, you might not need a lot of body paragraphs to prove it.  If it’s more complicated, you’ll need more body paragraphs.  An easy way to remember the parts of a body paragraph is to think of them as containing the MEAT of your essay:

Main Idea.  The part of a topic sentence that states the main idea of the body paragraph.  All of the

sentences in the paragraph connect to it.  Keep in mind that main ideas are…

  • like labels.  They appear in the first sentence of the paragraph and tell your reader what’s inside the paragraph.
  • arguable.  They’re not statements of fact; they’re debatable points that you prove with evidence.
  • focused.  Make a specific point in each paragraph and then prove that point.

Evidence.  The parts of a paragraph that prove the main idea.  You might include different types of

evidence in different sentences.  Keep in mind that different disciplines have different ideas about what counts as evidenceand they adhere to different citation styles.  Examples of evidence include…

  • quotations and/or paraphrases from sources.
  • facts, e.g. statistics or findings from studies you’ve conducted.
  • narratives and/or descriptions, e.g. of your own experiences.

Analysis.  The parts of a paragraph that explain the evidence.  Make sure you tie the evidence you provide back to the paragraph’s main idea.  In other words, discuss the evidence.

Transition.  The part of a paragraph that helps you move fluidly from the last paragraph.  Transitions

appear in topic sentences along with main ideas, and they look both backward and forward in order to help you connect your ideas for your reader.  Don’t end paragraphs with transitions; start with them.

Keep in mind that MEAT does not occur in that order.The “Transition” and the “Main Idea” often combine to form the first sentence—the topic sentence—and then paragraphs contain multiple sentences of evidence and analysis.  For example, a paragraph might look like this:

TM. E. E. A. E. E. A. A.

Date published November 10, 2014 by Shane Bryson. Date updated: October 12, 2016

Paragraphs represent the basic building blocks of the arguments made in academic essays. This article looks at two essential elements of paragraphs, offers a general method for constructing paragraphs, drafts a general template for paragraph structure, and looks at some common paragraph pitfalls.

In an academic essay, the purpose of a paragraph is to support a single claim or idea that helps establish the overall argument or purpose of the paper. Paragraphs should be focused around this single idea or point, and they should be clearly related to what comes before them.

Two essentials: Topic sentences and transitions

One of the best ways to ensure that a paragraph is focused and clearly related to the thesis statement is to ensure that it has a good topic sentence. Each sentence in a paragraph should help support the topic sentence of that paragraph (in the same way that each paragraph should relate to the thesis statement), so each sentence should connect with the main point of the paragraph in some way. Sentences should also connect well with each other, and in forging sentence-to-sentence connections, good transitions are crucial.

Beyond of these two key features of good paragraphs (good topic sentences and transitions), there is a certain method of presenting information in a paragraph, and there are things to avoid in paragraphs.

Method: Introduce, provide, explain, (repeat), conclude

Following the topic sentence, a paragraph should introduce, provide, and explain its evidence. After this, it should either repeat, with new topic-sentence-related evidence, or take a sentence or two to close the paragraph.

While good topic sentences offer an idea of what the paragraph is going to be about and how that fits into the rest of the paper, at the heart of a paragraph are evidence and explanation that support the key claim of the paragraph. We can call these the heart of a paragraph both in the sense that they give purpose to the paragraph and in the sense that they appear (roughly) in the middle of the paragraph.

Diagram of paragraph structure


Introduce

It’s useful to think of a paragraph’s structure by comparison to the structure of an essay. As the body of an essay needs a good introduction, so do the evidence and explanation given in a paragraph. Usually, this evidence will need to be contextualized, prefaced, or otherwise introduced before it is provided.

Provide and explain

To provide evidence is usually to state a fact that supports your paragraph’s claim, given in the topic sentence. After providing any evidence, you will have to explain how that evidence supports the paragraph’s claim. Paragraphs on any subject require that the primary evidence for any claim be clearly explained to support that claim, so don’t assume that your facts speak for themselves.

In a sociology paper, this might mean explaining the significance of a statistic; in literary studies, the most interesting element of a quotation from a poem or story; in history of technology, what the technical explanation of a process means in simple terms; and in philosophy, the assumptions and logical connections at work in an argument. Different fields deal with such explanation in different ways, but they all require it.

Conclude

Finally, a paragraph requires a satisfying conclusion. To evaluate whether you’ve done a good job wrapping up your paragraph, ask yourself whether the final sentence or two sufficiently conveys the thrust of the paragraph. If not, consider adding a summary sentence.

General template

This template presents a very simple paragraph structure. It is highly adaptable and can be used throughout an essay, although there are certainly other ways of forming good paragraphs.

A good, simple paragraph might look something like this:

  1. Topic sentence.
  2. Sentence (or more) that introduces or contextualizes evidence.
  3. Sentence (or more) that provides evidence in support of the topic sentence.
  4. Sentence (or more) that explains how the evidence just given relates to the topic sentence.
  5. Sentence (or more) that eitherintroduces new topic sentence-related evidence (go back to step 2) or closes the paragraph.

Consider an example to illustrate:

(1) George Orwell’s 1946 essay “Politics and the English Language” has had an enduring impact on thought about the relationship between politics and language.(2) This impact is particularly obvious in light of the various critical review articles that have recently referenced the essay.(3) For example, consider Mark Falcoff’s 2009 article in The National Review Online, “The Perversion of Language; or, Orwell Revisited,” in which he analyzes several common words (“activist,” “civil-rights leader,” “diversity,” and more).(4) Falcoff’s close analysis of the ambiguity built into political language intentionally mirrors Orwell’s own point-by-point analysis of the political language of his day.(5) Even 63 years after its publication, Orwell’s essay is emulated by contemporary thinkers.

This paragraph could be altered or expanded (and improved) in several ways, but the course of the paragraph would always need to maintain the general form of (1) through (5). Even if we added or removed some of the particular sentences, these basic functions would need to be fulfilled.

Common pitfalls

Too short

  • Notice that on the above template the minimum length of a paragraph is five sentences. This can be slightly condensed, since we can, for example, introduce and provide evidence in the same sentence. We can only condense so much, though—normally you won’t be able to cover all of the basic functions of a paragraph in under three sentences.
  • Short paragraphs (three sentences or so) are rare, and should be used only when special emphasis is needed or the point of the paragraph is very simple. One- or two-sentence paragraphs are almost unheard of and should be generally avoided.

Too long

  • Size is a good indicator of whether a paragraph is too long. Generally speaking, with double-spaced, 12 point, standard font, and standard margins, a paragraph should not go much over 3/4s of a page. The reason a paragraph runs too long is only loosely related to size, though—rather, it’s a matter of how many topic or points are covered in a paragraph.
  • Remember, each paragraph should be about just one thing, and each paragraph should be just long enough to fully explain or prove its point.
  • Where there is a significant shift in topic matter, even while making one larger argument, a paragraph should often be split into two distinct paragraphs.
  • Where there is a significant shift in argument, even while the topic remains the same, a paragraph should often be split into two distinct paragraphs.

Unfocused or “too listy”

  • A paragraph is unfocused or “too listy” when it mentions many things but does not cover most (or, perhaps, any) of them in enough detail.
  • If you find a paragraph with this problem, you can (1) eliminate some points to focus on just a few, (2) break the paragraph into more robust sub-paragraphs by giving more attention to each point, or (3) work on tightening the connections between each of these points and their collective relation to the topic sentence or thesis.
  • Note that all of these strategies require additional information, either to explain connections or to deepen the discussion (or both).
  • Focus is a more common problem in long paragraphs, but can afflict short ones too.

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