How to write a well-structured essay
Writing is an essential scholarly skill. To write is not simply to commit thoughts to (virtual) paper; insightful thoughts, communicated badly, are unhelpful. A good writer structures her thoughts for both her own benefit and for the benefit of her reader. The essay is a common short form that enables students to practice their basic writing skills, serving as a foundation for longer, more complex forms. A high-quality essay has three necessary components: an introductory paragraph with an explicit thesis statement, several coherent paragraphs with clear topic sentences, and a concluding paragraph that summarises the essay.
The opening paragraph of an essay is the reader’s introduction to the topic. It should begin with a general sentence, and each subsequent sentence should add more information, narrowing the scope. The last sentence of the of the first paragraph is essential: the thesis statement contains your main argument in one sentence, providing a summary of your supporting evidence. The structure of the thesis sentence foreshadows the topics of the paragraphs that follow.
The three or four paragraphs between the introductory and concluding paragraphs contain the meat of your essay. The first sentence of each paragraph tells the reader what the paragraph will be about; typically, the topic of each paragraph will be a distinct line of evidence for your thesis. Be sure that every sentence in a paragraph relates back to the topic sentence; one of the most common mistakes young writers make is to combine multiple topics in a paragraph, weakening the structure of the argument and confusing the reader.
The final paragraph in an essay summarises the content of the essay. The first sentence of the final paragraph is often another summary of the thesis and supporting evidence. Subsequent sentences discuss the topic in a wider context in light of the evidence presented in the essay, with each sentence gradually expanding the scope. The last sentence of the essay connects the topic with the broader interests of the reader, often addressing the future.
The essay form is strict, but does allow some flexibility. In one or two paragraphs before the conclusion, one often includes limitations, exceptions, or counter-arguments to the main argument in the essay. This will not be foreshadowed in the thesis statement — this would make the thesis statement too complicated — but is nonetheless important, as it signals to the reader that one has read thoroughly about the topic. Although an essayist may intend to persuade, a scholarly essay must nonetheless offer balance out of respect for the reader.
The key to a well-written essay is providing your reader with a clear thesis, coherent supporting paragraphs, and a smooth conclusion in your final paragraph. If you plan your essay with these components in mind you will find that it enhances your ability to think critically. Structured, critical thought and communication are crucial to master during your degree. Regardless of your plans after, being a good writer and clear thinker will give you a leg up your competition.
The above essay is actually a meta-essay, in that it is written in the precise form that it describes. The key to writing such an essay is planning. How does one plan such a well-structured essay?
First: gather information. As you read about a topic, you should be trying to structure the information in roughly three broad points that will become the support for your argument. You should be able to express each of these broad points in a short sentence. Each point or line of evidence should be distinct from one another.
Second: form the thesis statement out of the broad points identified during your reading. Each of the points should be represented briefly in the thesis statement, and will then serve to structure the essay in paragraphs.
Third, write the opening paragraph. Keep in mind that the goal of the first paragraph is to gently lead the reader to the thesis statement. By the time they reach the last sentence of the introductory paragraph, they should have all the contextual information they need to understand the thesis.
Fourth, write each supporting paragraph separately. Make each of the points you highlighted in the thesis statement into a topic sentence, followed by information that relates back to that topic. Do not include more than one topic in a paragraph. At this point, do not worry about transitioning between paragraphs.
Fifth, write the concluding paragraph. Paraphrase your thesis sentence — more or less — for the opening sentence, then broaden the scope. Link everything to the main topic and try to leave the reader with something important: perhaps about the impact the topic might have, implications of your argument, or the like. You have some freedom here. Be creative and critical, but always relevant.
Finally, read everything together. You might wait a day or so before between the previous step and this final step. This is your chance to tweak the writing and smooth over any awkward phrases. Add some transitions between the body paragraphs if needed. Look for basic errors like incomplete sentences, copy-paste issues, and the like.
If you followed the steps above you should now have a well-structured essay that makes your ideas transparent to whoever may read it. If you are a student hoping for a good mark, here’s a secret from cognitive science: fluency effects mean that your easy-to-read essay looks better to your marker than an hard-to-read essay with ideas of the same quality. With a bit of planning, you can take advantage of your marker’s cognitive biases, and have them thank you for it.