Planning an Academic Essay: Basic Structure

Looking for tips to help you plan your university or college essay or paper?

Staring at a blank page can be a daunting prospect, especially with the weighty knowledge that someone else will be looking through it with a critical eye.

 
 

Whether you’ve already started or you’re in a blank-page-induced paralysis, I’ve written a helpful guide to bring you on the right track. The thing to note, however, is that while an essay needs to be structured, these steps are interchangeable; you can complete them in any order, though this order is how they’ll appear in your final essay.

Here’s the whole list:

  1. What is your big question?

  2. What are the requirements and goals of your essay?

  3. How can you answer the big question?

  4. a) What key points support or contradict this central idea?

    b) What research already exists that supports your ideas?

  5. How will you compile your ideas into an essay?

  6. What point do you want your reader to take away with them?

Read further for the full breakdown.


  1. What is your big question?

    You might simply have been asked to write a paper on Feminist Theory in a certain book. However, essay titles tend to be framed around questions. If you haven’t been given a question to answer already, try to reword your essay brief into an answerable question.

    So my essay title would go from:

    Feminist Theory in Austen’s ‘Pride and Prejudice’

    to

    Is Austen’s ‘Pride and Prejudice’ a predecessor of Feminist Fiction?

    This is something about which you can talk to your tutor or supervisor, but essentially boils down to the fact that an essay will have much more focus if it centres on a question as opposed to an open-ended topic. Otherwise, we could waffle on for pages without really answering anything!

  2. What are the requirements and goals of your essay?

    Part of your preparation is to ensure that you know exactly what your supervisor is looking for. Anyone who reads your essay to grade it will have a set of criteria to which you’ll want to adhere.

    Look over the material you’ve been given for this essay; this could be a brief, a course intranet, or a specification. If you ask early enough and if it’s within university policy, you can even ask for a copy of the mark scheme itself, meaning you’ll see the exact criteria against which you’ll be measured.

    Here’s the important take-away from this point: once you have the criteria, plan your essay to explicitly cover them. This could lead to paragraphs, sections, or chapters that cover certain areas, or just mentioning the terminology

    Let me give a brief example from my own university days. My essay brief required me to quote and write about three paragraphs of my choice from a literary theory book. I did this, but didn’t receive the grade I was expecting. When I checked in with my tutor (who marked my essay), she informed me that she was unable to give me all the marks because I hadn’t specifically stated, “This is the first chosen paragraph…”, “This is the second…”, “This is the third…” Now, I recommend using the exact language in the brief or specification in order to highlight with bright, bold clarity that you’ve answered every single point!

  3. How can you answer the big question?

    As a general rule, I don’t recommend starting by writing your introduction, but this step will eventually lead you to it.

    When you look at your essay title, what is your initial (but informed) answer?

    My question might be:

    Did the Industrial Revolution in Great Britain contribute to wider European Industrialisation?

    My immediate answer would be ‘yes’. In its simplest form, this is the answer to your essay question, and is therefore what you’ll need to prove throughout.

    Some essay questions are a little more complicated than a ‘yes’ or ‘no’ answer, such as How did [blank'] influence [blank]? If you can answer this as concisely as possible - within one sentence - then the effect is the same.

    My question might be:

    How has the internet affected celebrity culture in the United Kingdom?

    My simplified answer could be ‘the internet has not only brought about a new era of celebrity - namely, the Influencer - but has allowed the public more intimate access into the lives of most celebrities.’ It’s not as simple as my previous example, but fits everything into a single idea.

  4. a) What key points support or contradict this central idea?

    The following two points are particularly interchangeable. Now that you have your central answer to your essay title question, it’s time to begin thinking about how exactly you’ll expand that answer into a full essay.

    Note down as many points to support your idea as you can. These needn’t be long - bullet points are fine - but they must all tie in to that answer. You can also note down the ideas that contradict your answer, to show your depth of consideration and to enable you to later refute them and strengthen your argument.

    This list of ideas will become your topic sentences or chapter headings, depending on the length of your paper. A topic sentence is simply the first line of your paragraph, which states clearly what the rest of your paragraph

    b) What research already exists that supports your ideas?

    Sometimes, it’s hard to figure out how to answer your question in a more in-depth way than just ‘yes’ or ‘no’ - it might be difficult in the first instance to even answer that much! You might have no clue yet at all.

    This is where it’s important to research the area to find evidence that supports and contradicts the essay’s premise. You can search through online sources, your university or local library archives, or conduct your own research; this will depend upon the expected methods of your subject area. If you are unsure as to what research methods are appropriate for your subject, consider asking your supervisor or professor for advice. Most universities and colleges provide student support services or begin a module/semester with a research methods introduction.

    For each idea found by your research, it will then become a point in your collection of topic sentences and ideas.

  5. How will you compile your ideas into an essay?

    Now that you have lists full of topic sentences and the research to back them up, you’ll need to order them in a way that leads from one point to another. This won’t always be possible, as often our thoughts jump from one point to the other without a clear link; in such cases, consider if you’ll need an intermediate paragraph to bridge the gap between your ideas. You might even need to merge two of your points together if they cover the same area too closely.

    Of course, this article is all about essay structure, meaning that we won’t delve into paragraph structure at the moment, but this is the stage at which you’d flesh out your topic sentences into paragraphs.

    If you’re writing a longer piece (such as a dissertation with chapters), you’ll need to repeat a similar process again (with points 4a and b); once your ideas are arranged in a logical order for your chapter titles, you’ll need to take each one and break it down into smaller points, which can then become your topic sentences.

  6. What point do you want the reader to take away with them?

    Now that you’ve got all your points and ideas, you can draw an overall conclusion from your findings. This is how you’ll come to write your first (introduction) and final (conclusion) paragraphs.

    Whilst your introduction needs to outline several possible answers to your essay question, your conclusion needs to definitively decide upon a final outcome. While you might have discussed many ideas in the body of your essay - including ones which contradicted you - your conclusion needs to give a statement as to your answer.

    While planning your structure, you need only make a rough outline of how you’ll approach these. At a later time, we’ll cover exactly how you might construct those elusive opening and closing paragraphs.


There you have it! It’s as fool-proof as I can make it. If you have any comments or questions, please leave a comment or drop me an email!

Until next time,

Emily
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