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
Do you find it difficult to write essays about belonging?
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This sample HSC English essay received a mark of 14 out of 15. It is not perfect, but makes some good points and illustrates the structure you should aspire to have in your essays. It refers to the prescribed text As You Like It by William Shakespeare.[separator top=”40″ style=”shadow”]
“Relationships are essential to finding a true sense of belonging”
Discuss with reference to your prescribed text and related text/s
Due to the complex and abstract nature of the concept of belonging, a true sense of belonging can be found in different circumstances for different people. As each individual has their own desires, needs and values, they find their place in the world and a genuine sense of belonging in various avenues. Many individuals find the strongest sense of belonging through relationships, due to the fact that by nature these connections fulfill the human need for social interaction and enrich the lives of the persons involved. Conversely, relationships which do not fit the conventional model of this kind of connection and thus result in negative outcomes for individuals can ultimately lead to a true sense of not belonging and its related notions of isolation and disaffection. Instead, these individuals may attain the same sense that they truly belong outside relationships, though their connections to other ideas such as place and culture, or within themselves. Shakespeare’s As You Like It and Khyenstse Norbu’s Travellers and Magicians are two texts in which an exploration of belonging and its different meanings for individuals ultimately leads to a deeper understanding of the complexity of the concept of belonging and thus that individuals can find a true sense of belonging in a great range of places, not limited to relationships.
Relationships by nature embody ideas of a connection on a psychological level between two people which can fulfill other fundamental human needs such as the need for social interaction, and thus can result in the individuals involved attaining a true sense of belonging. When individuals find meaning and purpose in connections with other people, as they often do in relationships, the need to belong is fulfilled in the greatest sense as the individuals life is enriched by the positive outcomes for their self esteem, security and stability. This idea can be seen in the relationship between Adam and Orlando set up by Shakespeare in As You Like It. Adam promises that he will “follow thee to the last gasp with truth and loyalty” when Orlando decides to go to the forest. By changing the rhyme scheme for Adam’s declaration of commitment to Orlando, Shakespeare effectively emphasizes the lack of superficiality that exists in this relationship as opposed to other relationships he sets up in the play. In their relationship, Orlando finds purpose and stability in his life, knowing he has another person who will always look out for him, just as Adam finds purpose knowing he will always be in the company of Orlando, seen where he states “Fortune cannot recompense me better than to die well and not my master’s debtor.” Through this, Shakespeare communicates that in relationships which are built on trust, loyalty or other solid connections between people, individuals can find meaning, stability, purpose and thus a true sense that they belong. In Travellers and Magicians Norbu inquires into similar ideas which support the value of relationships in the search for a true sense of belonging. In the relationship between Tashi and Deki, Norbu communicates the idea of their deeper connection on all levels through quickly alternating close ups between the expressive eyes of Deki and Tashi, which create the idea that their souls and desires are connecting as their eyes remain fixed on one another. The couple is also often presented on equal terms embracing each other, caring and showing affection through mid shots. Their connection leads Tashi to exclaim “If I never left this place, and died right here with you, I would not die unhappy.” Norbu thus effectively supports the idea that meaning and purpose can be found in real connections with others, and that consequently individuals can find the strongest sense of belonging in relationships such as these. Through this relationship, he also inquires further into the reasons why relationships can lead to a individual feeling that they truly belong. By suggesting that the positive outcomes which the human psyche correlates with attaining a sense of belonging, such as understanding, stability and care manifest themselves in relationships, Norbu advocates and supports the almost inextricable link between belonging and relationships.
Whilst there may be an almost inextricable link between belonging and relationships, not all relationships ultimately lead to individuals finding a genuine sense of belonging which manifests itself in positive outcomes for their lives. Some relationships can be driven by the quest to maintain control, have power and maintain authority over others or by the decisively one sided benefits to one of the individuals involved. In these relationships, it is more likely that individuals find themselves not belonging, isolated and disaffected rather than finding a true sense of belonging. This idea is expanded on by Norbu in Travellers and Magicians. The relationship between Deki and Agay is characterized by Agay’s domination of his young and beautiful wife. This is emphasized through low shots which place the vertically challenged Agay in a position of power over Deki and his statement to Tashi that he makes her live in the isolated hut with him because “We may grow old, but our jealousy stays young.” Deki is thus presented by Norbu as isolated in her relationship; she does not feel the strong connection with Agay that conventional notions of being in the marriage relationship would suggest. Thus through the negative consequences for Deki of being in a relationship with Tashi, and her strong sense of isolation and the feeling she does not truly belong, Norbu communicates the idea that relationships are not always central for individuals trying to find a true sense of belonging. Shakespeare through the representation of a relationship in which love is unrequited similarly challenges the connection between relationships and a true sense of belonging. Whilst Phoebe ends up marrying Silvius, there is a lot of ambiguity in whether she truly loves him and thus has attained a genuine sense of belonging in this relationship. When they marry, all Phoebe comments is “I will not eat my word now thou art mine Thy faith and my fancy to thee doth combine.” A rhyming couplet draws emphasis to this section of the play, where it is not resolved whether Phoebe truly commits her whole self into this relationship, and thus whether Silvius will experience the positive outcomes of the relationship he has desired throughout the play. In this ambiguity, Shakespeare supports the notion that individuals do not always find the greatest sense that they belong in relationships, especially relationships which are unequal and result in negative outcomes for individuals.
Individuals can find a true sense of belonging outside the confines of a relationship in connections to ideas such as culture, place or even within themselves. As each individual is intrinsically different, so are the ways in which they fulfill the fundamental human need to belong. Norbu presents the ideas that individuals can find contentment and fulfill the need to belong through connection to traditional culture and village life. In the first scene, a series of quickly changing mid shots show the activities of daily life in their rural setting. The villagers all wear traditional Gho’s and shrieks of joy emphasized through an echo when practicing archery suggest they are content with these repetitive activities. Essentially, they conform to the expectations of their traditional culture and life and find a true sense of belonging and fulfillment in this connection. Norbu thus demonstrates in this connection that a true sense of belonging and its positive outcomes can be found outside relationships. Duke Senior in As You Like It, can similarly be described as finding a genuine sense of belonging and contentment with his place and environment, the Forest of Arden. He asks Amiens and the audience “Are not these woods More free from peril than the envious court?” In the use of the words “free from peril,” Shakespeare suggests that in this place Duke Senior feels comfortable, content and untroubled and thus has developed a true sense of belonging with this place. The character of Jacques also finds an inner contentment within his meaningless existence.. At the end of the play, Jacques states “I am for other than for dancing measures” and retires to Duke Senior’s “abandoned cave.” He deliberately chooses not to belong in relationships with his comrades, instead he finds his own sense of contentment within himself, and thus Shakespeare demonstrates that a true sense of belonging can be found within an individual.
The complexity of the concept of belonging often means that individuals find belonging in different places to other individuals. Whilst many individuals can attain a true sense of belonging in relationships, due to the nature of these connections and the positive outcomes they have for individuals, there are some relationships in which individuals experience the opposite from truly belonging. Furthermore, there are many circumstances outside the confines of relationships in which individuals can attain a genuine sense of belonging, including culture, place and within themselves. Analysis of a range of texts including As You Like It and Travellers and Magicians inquire into these ideas and foster an appreciation for the need to consider different circumstances and individuals before making assumptions about the multifaceted concept of belonging. Ultimately, relationships are often the connections in which individuals find the truest sense that they belong, but the fulfillment of the fundamental need to belong is not strictly limited to the confines of a relationship.