You have read broadly. You have read narrowly. Now you must form your answer to the essay question.
Before you begin to write, you will need to go over your notes, and refer back to the essay question to clarify (make clear) your answer to it. You should state your position (or answer to the question) briefly in writing, in one or two sentences, before you begin to write the essay answer. This will help you to keep your essay focussed. This will also form the basis for the position or thesis statement you need to include in the introduction to your essay.
Taking a position
You may be expected to take a position in your essay assignment (formulate an argument/adopt a point of view) and support your view. For example, the essay question may be...
Discuss the evidence of both sides of the controversy surrounding Euthenasia.
At some point in your research, you should begin to clearly see what position you can legitimately argue in regard to the essay question. As you gather information, you will need to make sure that your view is a valid (appropriate) one. You should also understand and evaluate any other possible views. You will need to gather enough evidence to successfully support the view you decide on.
An essential part of planning an essay is making a list of key points related to the topic. Once you have researched the topic, you can produce a list of ideas. These do not have to be in any logical order. They are just the key ideas from your early research.
Here is a list of key points based on the following essay topic:
'Fire is a vital influence on Australian biotic patterns. What adaptations do Australian plants and animals have to survive in periodically burned landscapes?'
The position taken on the topic is that:
Fire serves a number of purposes in maintaining certain species of flora and fauna.
The list of key ideas include:
Different species of flora react differently to fire;
Fire maintains biodiversity;
Plants are more susceptible to fire than animals;
Plants adapt to regular fire because they are immobile;
Plants that adapt to fire dominate fire dependent environments;
Some plants survive fire;
Some plants die but reproduce after a fire;
Stage of growth determines survivability;
Number of fires in a plant's life-time determines survivability;
Underground storage methods (underground buds, root buds and rhizomes);
Orchids only bloom after fires;
Some animals flee or burrow;
Some animals need fire for their habitat;
Some animals clear area around colony;
Some animals attracted to fire where female lays eggs in charred trees;
Seed regeneration when closed over foliage is cleared through fire; and,
Animals like new growth.
Organising your material
Now you have a list of points, you will need to organise your material to form an 'organising chart'.
Find the logical groupings in your list of key points and organise them into categories
Label these categories with headings (for example The role of fire); and
Develop an organising structure, or taxonomy (see below) to show the groupings and their headings. This is the basis of the structure of your essay.
STRUCTURING AN ESSAY
In other sections of this booklet you have been introduced to the different ways that cultures approach knowledge and learning. One of the ways cultures differ is in the ‘pattern’ or ‘structure’ of their writing. Some cultures, for example, will spend a lot of time at the beginning of a piece of writing providing background information for the reader. They might use many examples and stories in their writing. They might wait until the very end of the piece of writing to state their point of view.
In Western universities the ‘pattern’ or ‘structure’ of writing is quite different to the one described above. At the beginning of the essay (the introduction) only a small amount of background information is given, and the writer’s point of view is stated quite clearly. This means that the reader knows exactly what they will find in an essay simply from reading the introduction –there should be no surprises! The rest of the essay is spent providing evidence to support the writer’s point of view.
There are clear ‘rules’ and guidelines for the way essays need to be structured in a Western university. It is most important that you learn what this structure is and follow it precisely. You will need to do this to be successful in essay writing at UTAS. This section is designed to help you understand what that structure is.
What does an essay in a Western University look like?
Quite simply, an essay has four parts – Introduction, Body, Conclusion and Reference List. The rest of this section will look at each one of these four parts in more detail. On the next page you will see a visual representation of an essay structure. It is a diagram which shows how the different parts of an essay fit together.
(Modified from James Cook University, 2004)
The Introduction usually consists of 5-10% of the total essay
The function of the Introduction is to serve as a 'map' of the essay, outlining the main argument and points which you will develop in your essay.
The Introduction should start with broad, general points and move to specific points. A good introduction (in the following order):
provides a brief background to the essay topic;
introduces the specific essay topic and links this to the background ;
states the essay's thesis (this means you clearly state your point of view or ‘position’ on the essay question)
briefly outlines how your argument is presented in the rest of the essay (this means that you give the reader a ‘map’ of your essay).
It may contain:
brief definitions of key concepts; and,
any limits to the essay (how you may have narrowed the topic).
The reader should not have to read several pages before finding out what the essay is about, and the key issues or argument should be outlined in the same order as they appear in the body of the essay.
You don't have to support or ‘argue for’ your position in the Introduction (just state what it is). You have the whole essay to provide the evidence.
An example of an introduction
Fire is a vital influence on Australian biotic patterns. Discuss the adaptations that allow Australian plants and animals to survive in periodically burned landscapes.
Fire plays a natural and often vital role in ecosystems across many parts of Australia. Some plants and animal communities are extremely sensitive to the destructive force of fire and within others it is not only tolerated but also often essential for maintaining biodiversity of species numbers. (These two sentences have provided a brief background to the topic). Fire helps to determine the types of flora and fauna found in Australian biotic communities and influences their evolutionary adaptations to survive the impacts of periodic fires. Australian flora and fauna display many adaptive traits that allow them to survive periodic fires. (These two sentencs introduce the specific essay topic and link it to the background). Major adaptations such as underground bud storage and aerial buds allow plants to survive and succeed in periodically burned landscapes, while animals utilise avoidance and other behavioural traits. (This sentence outlines the main argument presented in the rest of the essay).
The body of the essay is where you present your evidence for the position you have taken on an issue. This is a good place to start writing your essay. The body is made up of a series of paragraphs.
Each paragraph within the body of an essay deals with one main point only.
The main point in each paragraph needs to be clearly stated in the form of a topic sentence.
If you read all the topic sentences in the body of an essay, you should be able to get an overall understanding of the argument presented in the essay.
Each paragraph has one topic sentence only. This is usually the first sentence in the paragraph.
The rest of the sentences in the paragraph provide evidence and examples to support the main idea presented in the topic sentence.
There is often a concluding sentence for each paragraph
** You can probably see from the three points above that each paragraph is like a ‘mini essay’ – each paragraph has an introductory sentence, a body of sentences that provide support/evidence/examples and a conclusion.
When you are writing an essay it is like taking your reader on a journey. You want that journey to be easy for the reader, therefore you must be clear about the direction of your ideas. When journeying by car, you can follow road signs. In writing you can use special words (such as therefore, in addition, on the other hand) to signal the direction an argument or idea is going.
An example of a paragraph
There are many animals that are adapted to fire prone environments yet do not necessarily have specific traits to allow survival of fire. (This is the topic sentence). For example, the Ground Parrot of southeastern Australia and southwest Western Australia lives in the coastal heath, which becomes uninhabitable if not periodically burned (Brown et al, 2000). Another fire prone environment specialist is the rat kangaroo, Bettong penicillata, which prefers the Casuarina species as its habitat. This habitat requires fires every seven or so years to be maintained (Anders, 1995). (This is the supporting evidence/examples). Research indicates that certain species that are adapted to these specialised niches would not survive should fire disappear from their area (Chandler et al, 1991). (This is the concluding sentence).
The conclusion usually consists of 5-10% of the total essay.
You should summarise the main points of your essay.
You should restate the thesis (argument/point of view) you presented in the introduction.
Often there is a final, concluding sentence which is linked to/’answers’ the essay question.
Your conclusion should not:
introduce new information
present a different thesis/argument to the one you presented in the introduction.
An example of a conclusion
Most animals living in fire prone areas might be better thought of as opportunistic rather than truly adaptive. In contrast, the previous discussion shows that plants have developed remarkable adaptations to surviving and even encouraging fire. (These sentences summarise the main points of the essay). Whether through adaptations or simply opportunistic behaviour, there are countless examples of animals and plants that live and thrive in fire prone environments. (This sentence restates the thesis). Historical evidence suggests that fires have been shaping the land for many thousands of years and in this time the flora and fauna have evolved to survive and utilise fire. (This is the concluding sentence which is linked to the essay question).
The reference list
At the end of each essay you must provide - on a separate page - a list of all the books, articles, websites etc. that you have used in your essay. Please refer to the section in this booklet titled ‘Referencing’ for further details on how to do this.
For more help with structuring an essay visit the following sites:
UniLearning – Essay Writing
UniLearning – Effective Writing
A SAMPLE ESSAY
In the Essay Writing section of this booklet one essay question (adaptations of Australian plants and animals to fire) has been used to provide examples. That complete essay is printed below.