Tristanne Connolly, Department of English, St. Jerome's University

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Essay Structure

You can skip ahead to advice on:
Thesis statements
Body paragraphs
Essay Titles


Essays usually begin with one introductory paragraph. The first section of this paragraph "eases the reader in". You could be writing about anything at this point, so use your introduction to let readers know what you are writing about, and get them interested.

Possible ways to do this are:

Find a quotation that reflects your ideas, or sums up what you want to say in an interesting, snappy way. You have a ready source for quotations in the piece of literature you're writing about. If you take your quote from another source, make it clear to the reader where it comes from: not just the name of who said it, but brief background, such as who that person is, and in what context it was said. Also relate it clearly to the topic (and text) at hand.

Give an example. Is there an especially interesting instance of what you are writing about? Use it to pull the reader in. Remember, though, that in the body of your essay you will be using examples to prove your point; this is a different kind of example, used only to introduce your point and intrigue your reader.

Start with the general and move to the specific--but not too general. Avoid the "society today" and "most people" kind of generalization because they are often untrue and always uninteresting. (William Blake once wrote, "To Generalize is to be an Idiot". Why? Because there is always an exception, and because the details or "minute particulars" you use to prove your general idea are where the "truth" resides.)

Give some background. What does the reader need to know about your topic, not only to get interested, but as a basis for what you intend to say?

Explain an issue. Why is your topic important? What is at stake?

Offer a definition. Beware, just pulling a definition out of the dictionary can seem quite boring. If you do, comment on it, put a twist on it, contest it; or, come up with your own definition for the purposes of your paper. Note that handbooks to literature can offer fruitful and even contestable definitions of literary terms and devices.

Ask a question. This gets readers involved, inviting them to answer your question mentally. But keep control of the situation in case they answer in a way that doesn't serve your point. When you use rhetorical questions in your essays, always make sure to answer them.

Make a comparison. The thing you are writing about, what is it like? Does your paper use comparisons that you can introduce right away? Is there a metaphor you can use to shed light on what you are saying?

Tell a little story or anecdote related to your topic. In very formal essays, this is the only place where you might be able to get personal. Make sure your introductory story is not too long. If necessary, give it its own short paragraph and let the next paragraph do the job of the introduction.

Present a mystery. Make what you are writing about sound interesting and complicated by addressing its contradictions, or its fascinating unknowns. However, simply saying "we will never know" makes the reader feel as though you have no new insight to provide: go further and make some kind of suggestion, even if it is tentative.

Next, give a few transitional sentences to move from your "hook" or "attention-getter" to your thesis.

Thesis Statements

A good thesis statement or main idea is the key to a good essay. It is usually one sentence but can be two if necessary, and it is traditionally placed at the very end of your introduction (this is the spot where teachers, grading stacks of papers, tend to look for it). It is the main thing you are trying to say or argue in your essay, and all of your body paragraphs will go to prove, support and elaborate on it. It is the pin that holds your essay together. A topic is what your essay is about, while a thesis is your stand, your particular, focused statement or argument on that topic, the insight that all of your points come together to show.

Here are some ways to improve thesis statements:

Make sure your thesis makes a claim. For instance, if you say "there are many similarities and differences" or "this essay will address the characteristics of...", you could get more specific. What similarities and differences? What characteristics? What do they have in common? And what does it all mean? Are there any interesting contradictions involved, e.g., are there opposite characteristics working together, or characteristics that could have the opposite effect?

Make sure your thesis is not obviously true: a statement of fact or a cliché. Instead, can you put a new twist on an old idea, or contest received wisdom? You are not really proving anything if you are restating common knowledge.

Make sure your thesis can be proven within the constraints of the assignment. Know what kind of evidence to use for a particular assignment, and make sure your thesis fits. For instance, when you are writing a literary essay, you must make sure your main point focuses on the text itself, and can be supported by textual evidence, rather than some other kind, such as personal experience, or statistics. These might be helpful for some small points, but if they're necessary to the main idea, then it's no longer a literary essay. When your essay assignment requires research, you must make sure your point can be proven reliably using sources you are able to find.

Make sure your thesis is not based only on opinion. Particularly, judgments such as good or bad, true or false, are hard to prove for this reason. Could you say something about the significance of the topic instead? Or examine why you think something is true or false, good or bad? Iif you are automatically stating your opinion without considering it, you are not thinking very deeply and may be in the realm of cliché. Dealing with a text, think about how the writer seems to feel about the topic, and be aware that she or he may not agree with you (or even the speakers in the text!). In all cases, question your assumptions. Imagine counterarguments and other views. Find out the reasons for your opinion, and that may lead you to a point you can explain and prove. Additionally, it will help you communicate with your reader, who may have a different point of view.

Make sure your thesis is focused: not too broad. Is your claim too general to be convincingly proven with a few examples? Try to define it: you do not need to account for "everyone" or "everything". Can you develop your point and prove it within the page limit? Sometimes it is better to say more about less. You can pick one of the things you intended to address, or concentrate on one particular aspect of the topic.

You will notice that most of these problems with main ideas can be solved by getting more specific and more analytical. Ask the questions, "What exactly?" and "What does it all mean?" or "What does it all teach us about ___?" Complications can actually help you. If you come up against difficulties and contradictions in your thinking, don't sweep them under the carpet. Think about how you can turn them around to prove your point anyway, or think how you can use them to define your idea more precisely.

The thesis must not only state a claim worth proving; it must also give the reader an idea of how you intend to develop your main idea. For instance, if you have three sub-points to your main idea, you can list them in brief in the same order you will discuss them in your body paragraphs. Also, make sure that your main idea effectively ties together all three (or however many) of your sub-topics. What do they have in common? What makes them different?

The thesis is like a preview of your essay. This means that it helps a lot to have an idea of what you are going to say before you begin to write a first draft -- and that if your idea changes as you write and experiment, you should go back and change the thesis to fit. Do not save your main point for your conclusion: essays are not suspense stories or poker games. Lay your cards on the table in the introduction. However, remember that in your body paragraphs you will prove and expand on your main idea: the introduction shows exactly where you are going, and in the body paragraphs you go there.

Body Paragraphs

You can have as many body paragraphs as you wish. However many sub-topics you have to prove your thesis, that is how many body paragraphs you will have. You can place them in any order, so long as it makes sense. For instance, you can:

*place the strongest argument last

*move in chronological order

*move from causes to effects

*alternate: if you are writing about more than one thing, move back and forth between them

*"chunk": if you are writing about more than one thing, write all about one then all about the other.

Every body paragraph must have a topic sentence which is like a mini-thesis, and which is usually placed at or near the beginning of the paragraph (indicating what you are going to prove), but can also come at the end (indicating what you have just proven). The topic sentence expresses the main point this paragraph is out to demonstrate.

Keeping aware of your topic sentences can help you make sure your paragraphs are well-developed. Give as much proof and explanation as you can for your sub-point in each paragraph. Go into detail.

Make sure in every paragraph you:

*offer some kind of evidence. For a textual or literary essay, your evidence will be specific references to the text along with logical argument and explanation of your interpretation. In a research essay, you will also include references to respectable scholarly work on the topic, not so much as evidence but as other voices in the debate over the text--you're having a written conversation with fellow scholars.

*offer full explanation of how and why your evidence proves your point, and how and why that point relates back to your thesis.

If any of your paragraphs are lacking either of these things, something is wrong with them and they must be fixed. E.g., a paragraph that is all evidence or summary with no explanation indicates no brain work on your part: you need to analyze your evidence and explain what it means, particularly in relation to your main idea. Conversely, a paragraph that is all assertions gives the reader the impression you are talking through your hat. Essay readers will not take your word for it. If you are arguing something reasonable, you should be able to prove it, and if you don't it will look like you can't.

For every assertion you make, give proof and explanation.

Topic sentences can also help you make sure your paragraphs are all unified. Each paragraph should be about only one thing. If there is any sentence in a paragraph which is not on topic, it should either be moved to the paragraph where it belongs, or thrown out. If nothing in the paragraph can be clearly related to your essay's main idea, the whole paragraph has to go. Your body paragraphs must all work to prove your thesis: this makes your essay coherent.

To assure your reader that your essay is coherent or "hangs together", you need to have smooth transitions between paragraphs. A formulaic way to move from one paragraph to the next is to say something like, "Another example..." or "The third point is...", but this is very mechanical and so doesn't have the finesse of an A paper! Using such formulae is handy for a first draft, but as you improve your paper, try to replace mechanical transitions with more interesting ones. Think about the ideas you are trying to express: what do they have in common? What is the difference between the last idea and this one? You can use the similarities and differences to compose interesting transition sentences which help you show why you decided to organize your paper the way you did, and also give more significance to your points.

Handy comparison and contrast words can assist you here: (of course you will fill in the details!) Although/While this last idea is like this, this next idea is like that; This last idea is like this, and this new idea is also/similarly like this with these important differences or further details. You can also use time sequence (e.g. Next/Meanwhile), or cause and effect (e.g. Consequently/If...then).


The conclusion of an essay wraps things up. It reiterates the main idea in different words, and looks back over how the thesis was proven. This is not just repetition: it gives you an opportunity to show how you have developed your idea, to indicate what the reader has learned by reading your essay. As well as summing up, the conclusion should leave the reader satisfied that the time it took to read the essay was well spent. So, remember Miles Davis and answer the question, "So What?" Why is all this important? What are the implications of what you have argued? What does it mean in the big world? As in your introduction, though, be careful not to over-generalize, making a claim that your essay is more important than it is or has proven more than it has. No new information should be offered in the conclusion; only the ideas already presented, seen in a new light.

Some ways to put a sting in the tail of your essay:

Quotation. Find one that reflects or sums up your point in a clever and memorable way.

Figurative language. Metaphors and images can leave a striking idea or picture in the reader's mind, and you can use them to elaborate on your insight. Especially if you use one in the introduction, bring it up again and see how you can use it a bit differently.

Example or anecdote. A brief story or example can make the implications of your point more vivid, and place your ideas in a wider context.

Predictions or speculations. What follows from what you have argued? Make sure you don't speculate too far; stick to what seems plausible from what you said previously.

And a finishing touch: a great title

A good title is not too vague, yet not too long either. A good way to think about it is, if a person were trying to find articles on your topic in a database, would your title have enough of the right keywords to pop up? Be sure to mention the text and/or author you're writing about, and include words which reveal something about the main drift of your argument. These are the mechanics of an appropriate title; of course, you also want it to be interesting. A unique or clever turn of phrase can do this for you. You can also take a short phrase from the text which you think particularly relates to what you have to say, and place it before your main title, with a colon to connect them. Here's an example.

"Wild Ecstasies" and "Sober Pleasure": The Relationship between William and Dorothy Wordsworth in "Lines Written a Few Miles above Tintern Abbey"