|Structure of Academic Essays
By Joanna Clark
There are many different kinds, or genres, of writing, and each different kind has different rules or conventions that apply to it. For instance, in creative writing, pretty much anything goes – you can have realistic scenarios and dialogue, or you can have magical scenarios with a language you create. Business writing tends to be very “cut and dried” – it contains pared down main points without a lot of flowery language.
Academic writing is the primary genre you’ll encounter during college, and it has conventions of its own that set it apart. The main purposes for academic writing are to demonstrate your understanding of material, issues, concepts, or ideas and in some way, most of the time, to show what you think. Sometimes, you’ll be reporting information just to let others know what’s going on. Sometimes, you’ll be persuading someone to change something or to do something. Sometimes, you’ll be suggesting something within a proposal to see if you can pursue the idea further. There are many subgenres within academic writing (argument, analysis, and report to name a few), but all of them revolve around understanding and thinking.
Whatever your focus and purpose for the writing task, most academic essays follow a traditional superstructure: introduction, body, and conclusion. What you say and how you organize what you say within each of these parts is up to you and the needs of the particular subgenre you’re working within, but all academic essays need these three sections within them to help the reader process what you have to say.
The introduction “sets up” the reader for the subject and major ideas within the essay. Generally, it’s good to start your introduction broadly and narrow it down to your thesis statement. Think of your introduction like an upside down triangle. Your first line should be very broad, like the broad line of the triangle. Your subsequent lines should narrow down gradually to discuss your subject and focus for the essay with more specificity. The point of the triangle is your thesis statement, the part of your essay where you clearly state what you’ll be covering within the essay.
With the body of the paper, you should be providing clear, in-depth information about the subject of the essay, but how you build or present the body depends on choices you make as a writer. Just as our physical bodies can have different shapes and postures, the body of your essay can present material in different ways using strategic word choices to reveal your essay’s “posture.”
For example, think about a time when you were relaxing comfortably, lying on the couch reading. Then, you hear a noise out in the yard, so you sit up and listen intently. After you listen and think about it for a minute, you figure out that it’s the neighbor’s dog getting into your trash. So, you get up from the couch and go out to do something about the situation. The body of an essay can have the same sort of “movement” within it. No, your paper doesn’t actually come alive and move and the words on the page don’t form shapes, but what you say and how you say it can indicate differences in tone and action to your reader.
Let’s say that you’re writing an academic essay on recycling. In the first discussion section, you decide to provide some statistics and to talk about the common ideas and misconceptions that many people have about recycling. So far, you haven’t done much – just provided information for your reader to see and think about in a non-threatening manner (lying down on the couch).
In the second discussion section, you point out a problem or an inconsistency that has you concerned. Maybe the statistics indicate that recycling is catching on, but you’ve noted that the statistics for your town don’t match the national trends. Or, maybe the experts in recycling recommend a particular program that your city has decided not to follow. Whatever the case may be, you are presenting something that could present a potential problem or something that needs some sort of action (sitting up on the couch, listening, and thinking).
In the last discussion section, you offer a solution to the problem or inconsistency, and your solution requires people in your community to take some sort of action. They may have to agree to take their recyclable materials to designated “drop stations” in the city rather than relying on curbside pick-up. Or, they may have to adopt a plan to pay a small deposit on recyclable consumer goods that would be refunded when the items are turned in. Whatever your solution may be, you’re presenting material and asking your reader to do something with the material (get up and go out).
Let’s take a different scenario. Have you ever had to defend something – maybe a chocolate cake from hungry six year olds? Most of the time when you defend something, there isn’t just one attempt to get past you and then the person (or people) gives up. No, there are usually multiple attempts to take what you’re defending, and you have to move around and block those attempts in different ways. Six year olds, with their eyes on the prize of chocolate cake, will ask you to move away and look at something, or will send in a decoy while another kid goes in for the “kill,” or will do anything else they can think of to weaken your defenses and achieve the objective (lots of chocolately goodness).
The same thing happens within academic writing. Let’s say that you have to present a position and defend it, much like you would do in an argumentative essay. It isn’t enough to just state your case and leave it at that. You have to anticipate the “attacks” (questions, problems, scenarios) that others will make on your position and provide some defense. So, in your presentation, you may have to say, “I know a lot of people have this perception of this problem, but really, it works differently” (you want me to look somewhere else, but I’m focusing on my position). Or, “This solution should make sense except for this other problem we keep running into” (the decoy solution isn’t working).
Clearly, the “posture” of the body sections is going to work very closely with the overall aims and purposes you have for the essay.
The conclusion of the academic essay can fulfill several different purposes, but its ultimate goal is to wrap up the paper and bring it to a logical end. Some conclusions are a great place to provide your own opinions and commentary about a topic. Other conclusions are a good place to offer alternative solutions or to encourage action from the reader. Whatever you do in your conclusion, it should be structured like a regular triangle, pointing to the clear focus of the paper and then broadening back out to leave the reader in roughly the same place that you found him/her. Often in conclusions, it’s a good idea to re-state your thesis, to remind the reader of the focus for the paper. Then, you should build your sentences so that they gradually treat the focus and subject more generally until you can comfortably end the paper.
Like all kinds of writing, academic essays take practice, and the more you write, the more you will learn how to structure and organize your essays. So, now it’s time to stop reading about how to write and to start actually writing!