Writing an academic essay means fashioning a coherent set of ideas into an argument. Because essays are essentially linear—they offer one idea at a time—they must present their ideas in the order that makes most sense to a reader. Successfully structuring an essay means attending to a reader's logic.
The focus of such an essay predicts its structure. It dictates the information readers need to know and the order in which they need to receive it. Thus your essay's structure is necessarily unique to the main claim you're making. Although there are guidelines for constructing certain classic essay types (e.g., comparative analysis), there are no set formula.
Answering Questions: The Parts of an Essay
A typical essay contains many different kinds of information, often located in specialized parts or sections. Even short essays perform several different operations: introducing the argument, analyzing data, raising counterarguments, concluding. Introductions and conclusions have fixed places, but other parts don't. Counterargument, for example, may appear within a paragraph, as a free-standing section, as part of the beginning, or before the ending. Background material (historical context or biographical information, a summary of relevant theory or criticism, the definition of a key term) often appears at the beginning of the essay, between the introduction and the first analytical section, but might also appear near the beginning of the specific section to which it's relevant.
It's helpful to think of the different essay sections as answering a series of questions your reader might ask when encountering your thesis. (Readers should have questions. If they don't, your thesis is most likely simply an observation of fact, not an arguable claim.)
"What?" The first question to anticipate from a reader is "what": What evidence shows that the phenomenon described by your thesis is true? To answer the question you must examine your evidence, thus demonstrating the truth of your claim. This "what" or "demonstration" section comes early in the essay, often directly after the introduction. Since you're essentially reporting what you've observed, this is the part you might have most to say about when you first start writing. But be forewarned: it shouldn't take up much more than a third (often much less) of your finished essay. If it does, the essay will lack balance and may read as mere summary or description.
"How?" A reader will also want to know whether the claims of the thesis are true in all cases. The corresponding question is "how": How does the thesis stand up to the challenge of a counterargument? How does the introduction of new material—a new way of looking at the evidence, another set of sources—affect the claims you're making? Typically, an essay will include at least one "how" section. (Call it "complication" since you're responding to a reader's complicating questions.) This section usually comes after the "what," but keep in mind that an essay may complicate its argument several times depending on its length, and that counterargument alone may appear just about anywhere in an essay.
"Why?" Your reader will also want to know what's at stake in your claim: Why does your interpretation of a phenomenon matter to anyone beside you? This question addresses the larger implications of your thesis. It allows your readers to understand your essay within a larger context. In answering "why", your essay explains its own significance. Although you might gesture at this question in your introduction, the fullest answer to it properly belongs at your essay's end. If you leave it out, your readers will experience your essay as unfinished—or, worse, as pointless or insular.
Mapping an Essay
Structuring your essay according to a reader's logic means examining your thesis and anticipating what a reader needs to know, and in what sequence, in order to grasp and be convinced by your argument as it unfolds. The easiest way to do this is to map the essay's ideas via a written narrative. Such an account will give you a preliminary record of your ideas, and will allow you to remind yourself at every turn of the reader's needs in understanding your idea.
Essay maps ask you to predict where your reader will expect background information, counterargument, close analysis of a primary source, or a turn to secondary source material. Essay maps are not concerned with paragraphs so much as with sections of an essay. They anticipate the major argumentative moves you expect your essay to make. Try making your map like this:
- State your thesis in a sentence or two, then write another sentence saying why it's important to make that claim. Indicate, in other words, what a reader might learn by exploring the claim with you. Here you're anticipating your answer to the "why" question that you'll eventually flesh out in your conclusion.
- Begin your next sentence like this: "To be convinced by my claim, the first thing a reader needs to know is . . ." Then say why that's the first thing a reader needs to know, and name one or two items of evidence you think will make the case. This will start you off on answering the "what" question. (Alternately, you may find that the first thing your reader needs to know is some background information.)
- Begin each of the following sentences like this: "The next thing my reader needs to know is . . ." Once again, say why, and name some evidence. Continue until you've mapped out your essay.
Your map should naturally take you through some preliminary answers to the basic questions of what, how, and why. It is not a contract, though—the order in which the ideas appear is not a rigid one. Essay maps are flexible; they evolve with your ideas.
Signs of Trouble
A common structural flaw in college essays is the "walk-through" (also labeled "summary" or "description"). Walk-through essays follow the structure of their sources rather than establishing their own. Such essays generally have a descriptive thesis rather than an argumentative one. Be wary of paragraph openers that lead off with "time" words ("first," "next," "after," "then") or "listing" words ("also," "another," "in addition"). Although they don't always signal trouble, these paragraph openers often indicate that an essay's thesis and structure need work: they suggest that the essay simply reproduces the chronology of the source text (in the case of time words: first this happens, then that, and afterwards another thing . . . ) or simply lists example after example ("In addition, the use of color indicates another way that the painting differentiates between good and evil").
Copyright 2000, Elizabeth Abrams, for the Writing Center at Harvard University
Although writing an essay is daunting for many people, it can be pretty straight-forward. This page is a general recipe for constructing an essay, not just in philosophy, but in most other humanities disciplines (such as English, History, Religious Studies, etc.) and perhaps the social sciences. It should be an appropriate guide for writing at the middle school, high school, and lower college levels. The typical assignment I have in mind will be an argumentative essay, in which you argue for something, even if just an interpretation of someone an author’s work.
Note that what I provide here are only general guidelines. Be sure to check whether your instructor has different ones. If your instructor has not given clear guidelines, then these should suffice, since they are pretty standard.
Note: If you need help figuring out how to write an essay in philosophy specifically and at the college level, see my “Writing in Philosophy.” If you want to know how I evaluate students on a paper assignment, see my “Grading Rubric for Paper Assignments.”
Table of Contents:
- Essay Structure
- General Writing Tips
- Style & Punctuation
- Grammatical Errors
- Humorous Writing Guidelines
- Citations & References
- Relevant Links
- Typed – use a word processor (such as Microsoft Word) on a computer.
- Spacing – the space between lines on the page is typically double-space. However, it may be changing. (I now prefer single-spaced myself.)
- Font size – standard size of the text is usually 12-point.
- Font style – standard font, such as Times New Roman.
2. Essay Structure
The first thing to notice is that the basic form of an essay is quite logical. Let’s look at the standard structure of an essay starting with the most general. You can divide your paper into three main sections:
For the introduction section, you will need to do two things: introduce your topic and provide a thesis statement. Typically, these two tasks should be accomplished using only one paragraph for a short paper, but can be longer for longer papers.
First, introduce your topic. The introductory paragraph(s) should briefly orient the reader to the topic and provide a conceptual map of the rest of the paper.
Second, provide a thesis statement.
Your thesis statement is the main point of your paper and should address the paper topic assigned by your instructor.
Make sure your thesis statement is clear, specific, declarative, and on-topic. You should be able to provide the thesis statement in one or two sentences (most instructors prefer one, concise sentence) for a fairly short paper (about 1-8 pages). It is usually best stated at the end of your introduction section (the end of the first paragraph if your introduction section is only a single paragraph in length).
The body section should consist of at least several paragraphs where you will provide support for your thesis statement in the form of reasons, evidence, arguments, justification, and so on. That is, you have something you want to communicate or argue for (your thesis) and here is your chance to explain it in detail, support it, and defend it.
Each paragraph in the body section should have a topic sentence and, perhaps, a transition sentence. The topic sentence is the particular point you are trying to make in the paragraph. It’s sort of like a mini-thesis statement. It should usually be the first sentence of the paragraph, though in some cases it is appropriate to be the second sentence. A transition sentence is a sentence that helps link the points of each paragraph together by making a smooth transition from the previous paragraph. It can be done in the first sentence of the new paragraph or the last sentence of the previous one. A good way to tie all the points together throughout the body section is to have them all clearly state how they support the thesis statement. That way it is obvious that all of your paragraphs tie together. Note that the first sentence of the paragraph may satisfy both goals. That is, you may have a topic sentence that also serves to transition well. Another option is to have a transition sentence first and then a separate topic sentence following it.
The summary section (often misleadingly called a “conclusion”) is a short recap of what you have said in the essay. You might want to provide a slightly different version of your thesis statement as the first sentence of this paragraph and then provide a few sentences that sum up what the body section said in support of the thesis statement. The summary section should be only one paragraph long for a short paper, but can be longer for longer papers. (Some instructors, like me, even think that summary sections are unnecessary for short papers.)
Note: It’s a good idea to put these sections titles in as headings in your paper to organize and break things up for yourself and your reader. If your instructor doesn’t want headings in your paper, just take them out before you print it to turn it in. It is also helpful for long papers to put in additional headings, perhaps even sub-headings, to break up the body section (such as “First Argument,” “Second Argument,” and so on).
3. General Writing Tips
1. Think & Discuss
Familiarize yourself with the material before you begin writing. You won’t be able to write much if you don’t have anything to put on the page. Think about your paper topic as soon as you get the paper assignment prompt from your instructor. This can be facilitated in a number of ways. A great way is to discuss the issue with your instructor or teaching assistant. You can even try talking about it to a friend or family member.
2. Rough Drafts & Editing
Write rough drafts ahead of time. For most people, writing their rough ideas down as rough drafts helps them see their ideas more clearly than even thinking about them. Then take a break from the essay (this usually requires at least a half, if not full, day). After the lengthy break (for example, the next day), go back and edit more. Repeat this process as necessary until finished. (This is why it is important to start working on your essay far in advance!)
Also, don’t be afraid to just type without thinking too much about whether it’s any good. You can always go back and edit it. Many people find it best to just sit down and write a lot without much reflection. Just make sure you have enough time to go back and edit.
Once you have a final draft ready, have someone read it to look for errors and provide feedback. Many instructors encourage students to turn in early drafts to them for comments. Just be sure to check and see if your instructor allows you to do so.
4. Style & Punctuation
Overall, the paper should demonstrate a command of the writing process and the author’s care in crafting it. Avoid errors of spelling, punctuation, grammar, sentence structure, verb tense, and vocabulary, such as the following:
- Put punctuation inside quotations (for American writing). If you put something in quotations that is immediately followed by punctuation (such as commas or colons), then put the punctuation mark inside the last quotation mark.
Correct: John Doe claims that, “Britney Spears is a tool.”
Incorrect: John Doe claims that, “Britney Spears is a tool”.
Another example: “I’m in love with Space Ghost,” Bjork proclaimed.
(Note: I know this rule doesn’t seem right. The British style of writing has the punctuation outside the quotation marks, which makes more sense. However, the American style requires that you write it the other way.)
- Put parenthetical citations outside of quotations.
Correct: “Blah, blah, blah, this is a quote” (Author 32).
Incorrect: “Blah, blah, blah, this is a quote (Author 32).”
- Introduce quotes. Introduce quotes, preferably by acknowledging who is saying it.
Example: In the article “War Without End,” John Doe says, “…blah, blah, and blah” (36).
Notice the three dots in the quote (…), which is called an elipses. You’re supposed to put those in when you are not quoting the whole sentence. It denotes that something came before (or after) the part of the sentence you are quoting.
- Generally, spell out numbers. For example, write ‘three,’ not ‘3.’ Exceptions can be made for larger numbers, like 1089, especially when you are simply making reference to a numeral.
- Avoid informal abbreviations and notations. For example, don’t write ‘&’ for ‘and’ or ‘b/c’ for ‘because.’ However, there are notations and abbreviations that are conventions in professional writing; for example: ‘e.g.’ is often used for ‘for example’ and ‘etc.’ for ‘et cetera’ and ‘p.’ for ‘page.’ However, for this last one, note that it is only used in citing sources or references, not in other sentences. So, for example, don’t write “The p. had many words of wisdom written on it.”
- Use versus mention. In general, when you mention (or talk about) rather than use a word you should put quotes (single or double) around the word. This is not necessary when you use a word.
Incorrect: John contains the letter h.
Correct: ‘John’ contains the letter ‘h.’
(Note: Some people simply italicize the word to indicate mention. I follow this convention here sometimes so that it is easier to read. However, it can get confused with emphasis, which is what italics are more commonly used for. Also, the standard for use-mention indication is not exactly clear. Most people use quotes and use single quotes for British style and double quotes for American style. I tend to use single quotes just to distinguish them from quoting what someone has said.)
- Write well and consider your reader! Good writing keeps the reader’s perspective in mind. It takes work to read someone’s ideas. You owe it to your readers to explain your ideas clearly and ideally in a pleasing manner. To become a better writer in terms of style, read widely and find good writers to emulate (some excellent non-fiction writers that come to mind: Paul Bloom, Rebecca Goldstein, and Steven Pinker).
- Recognize the Flexibility of Writing Rules. You’ll notice that skilled writers don’t always follow all the “rules” for writing. They know that the rules are somewhat flexible and can even be explicitly broken for good effect at times. You might be able to get away with the same, but it’s good to practice working well within them for graded papers!
5. Common Grammatical Errors to Avoid
- Misusing i.e. and e.g.Do not confuse these two. They do not mean the same thing!
i.e. = that is
e.g. = for example
(Many people think that ‘i.e’ stands for ‘in example.’ That is false. Both are abbreviations for two different latin phrases.)
- Using ‘if’ when you should use ‘whether’.
Incorrect: I do not know if this is true.
Correct: I do not know whether this is true.
Correct: If this is true, then you are wrong.
- Confusing ‘there’ with ‘their.’ ‘Their’ indicates possession, ‘there’ does not.
Incorrect: There problem was a lack of courage.
Correct: Their problem was a lack of courage.
Incorrect: Their are a lot of problems here.
Correct: There are a lot of problems here.
- Misconnecting verbs.
Incorrect: We should try and change the law.
Correct: We should try to change the law.
- Letting your accent get in the way of things.
Incorrect: Mind and brain are one in the same thing.
Correct: Mind and brain are one and the same thing.
Incorrect: Socrates should of fought.
Correct: Socrates should have fought.
- Improper form of the plural possessive of names.
Incorrect: Descarte’s problem was ….
Incorrect: Descartes problem was….
Correct: Descartes’ problem was….
Correct: Descartes’s problem was….
(Note: Either of the last two is acceptable only for names ending in ‘s’ like ‘Descartes’ or ‘Jesus.’ Otherwise, always go with the last example–i.e., add an apostrophe and an ‘s.’ The convention is usaully to not add an extra ‘s’ for old names, such as ‘Descartes’ and ‘Jesus.’ So, to say that this is the book that Rawls owns, people often write: “This is Rawls’s book.”)
- Improper use of semi-colons.
Incorrect: The following will be on the test; Locke, Hume, Parfit.
Incorrect: Although there is no right answer; there are many wrong answers.
Correct: There is no right answer; there are many wrong answers.
(The Rule: Use a semi-colon only where you could use a period instead. In other words, a semi-colon must join two clauses that could stand by themselves as complete sentences. The semi-colin is just used to indicate that the two sentences are connected or intimately related.)
- Confusing ‘then’ and ‘than’.
Incorrect: If this is true, than I’m a fool.
Incorrect: I am more of a fool then you are.
Correct: If this is true, then I’m a fool.
Correct: I am more of a fool than you are.
- Its versus it’s.
Incorrect: Its easy to make this mistake.
Incorrect: It’s pages are crumbling.
Correct: It’s easy to make this mistake.
Correct: Its pages are crumbling.
(Note: partly adapted from Pasnau’s Top 10 Writing Errors)
6. Humorous Writing Guidelines
- Be more or less specific.
- Use not bad grammars.
- Proofread carefully to see if you any words out.
- Don’t use no double negatives.
- Avoid tumbling off the cliff of triteness into the dark abyss of overused metaphors.
- Take care that your verb and your subject is in agreement.
- No sentence fragments.
- Placing a comma between subject and predicate, is not correct.
- Who needs rhetorical questions?
- Use the apostrophe in it’s proper place.
- Avoid colloquial stuff, like totally.
- Avoid those run-on sentences you know the ones they stop and then start again they should be separated with semicolons.
- The passive voice should be used infrequently.
- And avoid starting sentences with a conjunction.
- Excessive use of exclamation points can be disastrous!!!!
- Exaggeration is a million times worse than understatement.
- Stamp out and eliminate redundancy because, if you reread your work, you will find on rereading that a great deal of repetition can be avoided by rereading and editing, so reread your work and improve it by editing out the repetition you noticed during the rereading.
- It’s incumbent on one to employ the vernacular and eschew archaisms.
- It’s not O.K. to use ampersands & informal abbreviations.
- Parenthetical remarks (however relevant) are usually (but not always) an obstacle for readers (and make it harder on readers even if you’re being careful).
7. Citations & References
If you are doing an essay that involves researching or you quote anyone in your essay, then you need to cite your sources. There are many different formalized styles for citing sources. For example: MLA (Modern Language Association), Chicago (Turabian), APA (American Psychological Association), and more. The most standard for English papers is MLA. You can buy the official books on how to properly cite sources according to certain styles, but you can also find a lot of that information on the Internet.
Here are a few Internet resources for citation styles: