Structuring Your Essay: Academic Writing (Part III)

Hand drawing empty diagramLast week we discussed some key elements of the academic essay in Writing Academically: A Lexicon. For the next few posts in my series on academic writing, I will be narrowing in on these elements. Today we’re talking structure.

Structure formulates your essay’s line of reasoning or argument. You can focus on successfully structuring individual paragraphs (even sentences!) in addition to structuring your essay as a whole. You have most likely heard of the five-paragraph essay format—great! You’re already on the way to understanding structure. But read on. Believe it or not, there is more to essay structure than five well-engineered and oiled paragraphs.

 The Five-Paragraph Essay

The most universal format for academic writing in junior and high school is the five-paragraph essay. It is exactly what it sounds like: five paragraphs consisting of an introduction, three “body” paragraphs, and a conclusion. This format is excellent in grasping the concept of essay organization, for it is logical and, well, ridiculously simple. Some tips for the five-paragraph essay (and this goes for all other formats):

  • Make sure that your thesis is stated clearly and concisely in your introduction (1-2 sentences max!). See my blog post on The Thesis Statement for a refresher.
  • Check and see if you can “trace” your thesis throughout your entire essay. You should constantly be reminding your reader of your main argument within each paragraph.
  • Consider including a counterargument prior to your conclusion. A counterargument considers an outside argument that would essentially challenge your own thesis. The idea is to introduce a counterargument (“Some people would suggest that…”) and then elegantly prove its inadequacy or insufficiency (“yet these arguments ignore the fact that…”).
  • Make sure your conclusion summarizes your main points and includes something new—another consideration, question, or problem.

 Intelligent Brainstorming

Before you embark on any format in your academic essay, be it the five-paragraph or other type, the key to good structure is some smart brainstorming. Rather than just vomiting forth all of your ideas onto a messy piece of paper, begin your brainstorming process with specificity in mind. So for example, if your paper is supposed to be on The Diary of Anne Frank, don’t begin with The Diary of Anne Frank. Try to narrow in on a specific idea, motif, passage, or word and brainstorm from there. The more concise your starting point, the more precise your structure!

Good Old-Fashioned Flow

You may think crafting a flow chart is a grade school way of writing an essay. Wrong! Flow charts are helpful at any stage of the writing process; and highly encouraged. Once you’ve brainstormed, start fitting your ideas into a format like the following, which begins with a thesis statement, includes main points, and culminates in a strong conclusion:


Crafting a Conversation

Now you can start thinking of ways to challenge the usual, boring five-paragraph essay format. A Conversational Structure is what I call the format that treats your essay like a conversation. This is most helpful if you are dealing with secondary sources (other authors’ opinions). In structuring your essay, think about “telling” a story to a friend. Literally talk through your structure out loud if you can. If you are explaining something complex to a friend, logic, coherence, and clarity are first and foremost. Ask yourself: does this line of reasoning make sense? Also, in crafting a conversation, you are forced to consider what your friend might say in response: this is where you can include a convincing counterargument.

Fearless Experimentation

An elegant way of breaking out of the five-paragraph essay is to modify your thesis throughout the essay: begin with one statement and then expand, modify, or add to it in your conclusion. For example, if you are writing about how existentialism is used in Kafka’s Metamorphosis , you can extend your thesis into a discussion of the implications of such existentialism on the book as a whole or in the context of Kafka’s work itself. Ending your paragraph with the same thesis statement yet more concisely refined is a great way of showing off your intelligent writing flair!

Last but Not Least

There is nothing wrong with the five-paragraph essay. I’d encourage a firm grasp of this format before moving onto more advanced modes. But just remember: academic writing can be flexible, as long as it is logical.  And it can only be logical if it has a strong thesis!

Additional Reading:

Check out the next posts in this 8 part series on writing academically:

Check out my previous posts:

About the author: Kathleen McGunagle is a senior in Princeton University’s English department and Interdisciplinary Humanities Certificate Program. Concentrating in British Renaissance Literature, she will be writing a thesis this spring on Shakespeare and epistolary culture. Kathleen is an Academic Peer Adviser at Princeton, tutor through Princeton Tutoring, and avid performer. She has recently returned from a year of study at Worcester College, Oxford.

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