Making sense of structure
So you’ve chosen your topic, done loads of reading, written pages of notes, and there’s only one thing for it: writing the damn essay. Here are some strategies to help you plan and structure your argument efficiently, so writing becomes a breeze…
The one, two, three of essay structure
- Introduce yourself. By ‘yourself’ I mean your personal opinions about your subject. Introduce your argument, your stance and your reasons for holding it.
- Prove yourself. Prove your opinion is valid by presenting the evidence you have gathered that has helped shape your opinion.
- Explain yourself. Show the scope of your argument by examining what other writers have said about it. Explore how other people’s views inform, or contrast with, yours.
I like to think of an introduction as your carrot – the carrot you dangle that makes people want to read on and believe you.
Get the intro right and you’re laughing. This goes for all writing: the first page in a novel, a headline in a newspaper.
In newswriting your intro would be a sentence long, yet it should still tell the reader who, what, where and when. In essay writing you have a similar obligation to set your stall out clearly and concisely, but you have a few more words in which to express it. What you must include in your introduction is:
- What you are writing about (who, what, where, when)
- The context from which you draw your argument (through what lens will you be looking at your topic and what sorts of evidence have you been looking at to back up your opinion?)
- What you hope to demonstrate: a summary of your argument and what you hope to find out
Your introduction should say it all. The rest of the essay will be used to evidence and back up the opinion put forward early on and your conclusion will hammer it down.
Your introduction should make up approximately 10% of your total word count.
If you are having difficulty summarising your argument concisely as an introduction, chances are you may need to go back to your research and do a little more thinking before you sit down to write.
There is no harm in opening your essay with the simple promise: “This essay will argue that…”
For example, in my essay on ghostwriting, this is how I set out my stall:
“It’s not revelatory to say that throughout history there have been countless unacknowledged craftspeople facilitating and enriching the arts. But in an age where celebrity is regarded with such high esteem one might imagine people would be reluctant to stand in the shadow. To be talented but have no desire to be a known name seems somewhat perverse, even despite the fact we know not everyone can be a star. It seems contradictory that a modern society of abundant communication – television, film, print, Internet – might, instead of making us better known, actually enable more people to disappear.
(…examples of how this subject and context relates historically and up to the present day. What areas it touches: the art industry, humanities, even the health and social care sector…)
In this essay I will be investigating how personally connected we are to the works we produce and whether or not a work is ever the sole property of its author. I will also ask how important is it to the reading of a piece that the author’s name is known. In the case of the ghost I feel these questions are fundamental. It seems that critics and readers have a negative association of ghosted work that is contradictory to its prevalence on our shelves, walls and screens. I would like to find out whether the popularity of ghosting is symptomatic of the current mass market, a cultural ‘dumb down’ or of new attitudes towards authorship.”
The middle part of your essay is where most of your referencing will come in, in other words, the blood. Thankfully the sweat and tears part already occured during the research stage.
You will, in sensible order, introduce various items of evidence from your research. You will draw out key points, and show how these ideas have informed your opinion and led to new paths of discussion.
What is evidence?
- Quotations from books, journals or interviews
- Data from surveys, experiments, studies
- Observations of images, films, questionnaires
Each time you refer to new evidence you must…
- Present it (what is it?)
- Give it context (where is it from?)
- Comment on it (why is it here?)
All your evidence should be used to support your one argument.
As a guide, about 3 different items of evidence (from different sources) should be sufficient for every 1000 words you write. Don’t be wedded to this number – you must use what you need.
Discussion of each new piece of evidence should fill one paragraph, with 1-3 forming the first half and 4 the second.
- Intro (inc. reference)
- Evidence (e.g. quote)
- Summary of evidence (in your own words)
- Opinion (your own!)
Working out your argument structure
The order in which your evidence is discussed will depend on the nature of the argument you are presenting.
You may want to choose a sandwich-structure: with two strong arguments to start and close your discussion and contained between, a variety of interesting fillings.
You may wish to choose a chain structure, starting with a strong piece of evidence, supported by other pieces, then linked to some more intriguing evidence that takes the discussion in a new direction: at which point you start the conversation cycle again.
Your research will dictate what is sensible in terms of what you are writing about. Here are some tips that will help when structuring the evidence-based part of your essay:
- Write on post-it notes or cards that you can rearrange to help you visualise your essay, like detectives at police headquarters
- Next to a quote, write down keywords
- Consider colour-coding your notes by point(s)
- When choosing quotes, consider the flow of your writing: if one piece of evidence refers to another, even slightly, this will provide an organic link from one paragraph to the next
- It may help to think about your evidence as characters in a story. Give the stars (strongest pieces) a prominent role and consider what other characters would support them, then group your quotes as families
Sweet, we got to the easy bit. Your conclusion is where you restate your argument and say why it is valid, drawing together the key points mentioned earlier on.
The tricky bit is, a good conclusion will also point out where your views lie in relation to the full spectrum of opinion about the topic in question. You will summarise how your views differ, and in that respect, you have the opportunity to underline the originality of your thinking.
In your conclusion you should:
- Mention other research you carried out but did not go into in depth due to it not being relevant to your specific argument
- State that you do not agree with such-and-such and why
- Summarise why your argument is good, or the best
You should not
- Introduce new ideas that you have not evidenced earlier on in your essay
- Draw general conclusions, only ones from the evidence you present.
- If you have not solved all the problems of your topic, do not claim you have, rather, mention what areas are still left open
Your conclusion should take up approximately 5% of your essay.
And here is your essay structure as a handy visual!