Essay Structure and Planning
The essay is a focused, academic discussion of a particular question, problem or issue. There are all sorts of reasons why essays are common forms of assessment: they allow you to explore a problem in depth, express yourself concisely and precisely, and debate other people’s published opinions on a topic. They’re also a good warm-up for traditional forms of academic publication, such as the journal article.
Many of you have been writing essays for years, and are probably good at it. That’s great, and everything you look at from here will build on and develop those skills. But it’s worth asking: are there different things expected of a university essay from those for school, college, or other contexts? The obvious answer is yes; and it takes time and effort to learn the range of writing skills needed to produce university essays effectively. There are all sorts of reasons why essays are common forms of assessment: they allow you to explore a problem in depth, express yourself concisely and precisely, and debate other people’s published opinions on a topic. They’re also a good warm-up for traditional forms of academic publication, such as the journal article.
Academic essays usually follow an established organisational structure that helps the writer to express their ideas in a clear way and the reader to follow the thread of their argument. Essay structure is guided by its content and argument so every essay will pose unique structural challenges. Having a clearer understanding of the most effective ways to structure your writing can help you to plan and organise the content of your essays and make sure you get your ideas across in the form of a coherent argument.
Essay writing is a process with many stages (see the flow chart for an example). Breaking the task down and creating a clear plan will allow you to focus attention more fully on the writing process itself when you put your plan into action either as part of an assignment or an exam.
1. Understand the Question
Lecturers often complain that students don’t answer the question... make sure you take time to understand the question! Ask the tutor for clarification if necessary. Take time to understand the question.
- Is the question open-ended or closed? If it is open-ended you will need to narrow it down. Explain how and why you have decided to limit it in the introduction to your essay, so the reader knows you appreciate the wider issues, but that you can also be selective.
- If it is a closed question, your answer must refer to and stay within the limits of the question (i.e. specific dates, texts, or countries).
- What can you infer from the title about the structure of the essay?
2. Brainstorm for Ideas
- What you know about the topic – from lectures, reading etc.
- What you don't know about the topic, but need to find out to answer the question
- Possible responses or answers to the question – any ideas about your conclusion.
- Consider using a mind map to organise your thoughts...
3. Make a Plan
- Planning your essay makes it more likely that you have a coherent argument
- It enables you to work out a logical structure and an end point for your argument before you start writing
- It means you don't have to do this type of complex thinking at the same time as trying to find the right words to express your ideas
- It helps you to commit yourself to sticking to the point!
The Hourglass Essay
If you're stuck on an overall structure for your essay, try this simple model for organising a typical academic essay.
- Start broad with a 'hook' to catch the reader's attention
- Provide some context for the hook. What does your project add to it?
- Focus in on the narrow area of your essay: can you summarise it in a single sentence 'mission statement'?
- The 'meat' of your essay. Body paragraphs will be focused and specific, each dealing with one aspect of the topic only
- Revisit your mission statement: how have you addressed it?
- Summarise the main points of your argument/findings
- Finish with a broader scope, explaining how your topic might inform future research or practice, or where gaps remain
- If possible, use the title to structure the essay (does it include multiple aspects, sections or parts?)
- What structure is most appropriate for the topic? I.e. does it require a descriptive/chronological structure, is it a comparison of two or more things, or does it require critical enegagement with one or more theories, ideas or models?
- Use an Essay Planning Template such as the one available for download here
- Start planning early, leave your plan for a couple of days, then come back to it. This may give you a fresh perspective.
- It is often easiest to write the introduction last, BUT when you are planning your essay structure make sure you have your MISSION STATEMENT.
- A good plan will make it much easier to write a good essay. Invest the time in making a plan that works.
- Check what your tutor wants, but it is often best to focus on one element in great detail, rather than discuss several aspects superficially.
- Make sure you allow time to PROOFREAD your work before submission!
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