How to Structure an Academic Essay

Carolyn Braganca ’15

If you leave Elon University with nothing else, you should leave knowing how to structure an essay. This seems pretty obvious—how many of us, after all, have had a class in which we did not write a research paper or some kind of essay? The common idea is that if you write a lot, you get better at it. However, if you don’t get consistent feedback—or any feedback—your writing will remain the same.

I do not want to insult your intelligence—I am sure you all are fantastic writers. However, I am sure some of us have also sometimes struggled to organize and write particularly essays on particularly hard subjects. These are simply some basic but helpful tips I have learned in my university writing experience, and I wish to pass these pearls onto you all.

Think Thesis.

Everyone should know by that all research papers require a thesis, some point to your paper. However, what some may not fully understand is that every paragraph should have its own sub-thesis. The first or second sentence within a paragraph should be its sub-thesis and should tell the reader what the point or argument the paragraph is making.

I have found that a great way to avoid rambling and to keep my essay’s argument focused and organized is to start writing an essay by writing the first sentence of every paragraph. This way, I can look at all the points I will make, and I can add or subtract or rearrange without having to make too many adjustments to the whole paragraph.

Think Paragraph.

I am sure we all learned how to write paragraphs in a similar way: one introduction sentence, three body sentences, one conclusion sentence. While we now know the number of sentences within a paragraph can vary, this overall idea of introduction, body, and conclusion is still important. Every paragraph should start with a sub-thesis, contain evidence that proves your sub-thesis, and end with a sub-conclusion that summarizes the paragraph’s main point and transitions to the next paragraph’s main point.

If you struggle with writing smooth transitions between paragraphs, another good tip is to also go ahead and write the last sentence of every paragraph too. The last sentence should briefly summarize the paragraph’s thesis and proceed to connect this point to the next paragraph’s point. By writing first the sub-thesis and sub-conclusions, you can focus purely on the big picture of the small picture.

Not only should every paragraph contain a thesis, some evidence, and a conclusion but every section and every paper as a whole should also be structured the same way. Thinking in this way has helped me tackle and organize particularly long papers. I can whip out 10-page papers like nobody’s business, but I had to be significantly more organized and careful when writing a 20-page and a 40-page paper, so thinking in terms of chunks can make a single daunting task seem like multiple manageable tasks.

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