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The Basic Structure of an Academic Essay

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The Basic Structure of an Academic Essay


Your main “claim” for your paper – this is what you are trying to prove. Your thesis must take a position that can be genuinely argued from more than one side. It should not be factual. It should not be so broad that it cannot be adequately supported in the scope of your paper, or so narrow that it cannot support a full analysis.


Supporting reasons WHY your thesis is true. Each reason must be supportable by facts.


Proof that supports your main idea. Each main idea must be supported by convincing evidence. Acceptable evidence includes quotations, examples, statistics, or other factual information.

Thesis statements:

The thesis statement is the most important part of your paper because it states your purpose to your audience. In your thesis statement, you explain what your paper will prove. The form of your thesis statement will vary depending on the form of your writing; however, for most academic writing, your thesis should identify your subject and make an assertion or claim regarding that subject. A strong thesis statement will serve as mini-outline for the structure of the essay. The thesis should be explicitly stated somewhere in the opening paragraphs of your paper, most often as the last sentence of the introduction. Often a thesis will be one sentence, but for complex subjects, you may find it less awkward to break the thesis into two sentences.

Keep revising your thesis
Many students feel they need a “perfect” thesis before they can start writing their paper. However, you probably won’t even fully understand your topic until after you’ve written at least one draft. Keep testing and revising your thesis as you write.

To check your thesis statement:

  • Have you identified your subject?

  • Is your subject narrow or broad enough for the scope of your paper?

  • Have you made a truly debatable claim regarding that subject?

  • Does the structure of the thesis statement give the reader an idea of the structure of your paper?

Thesis Statement Help:

U. North Carolina Writing Center


Purdue U. Online Writing Lab (OWL)


U. Wisconsin Writer’s Handbook:



ample thesis statements:
The United States government should not fund stem-cell research because such research is not ethical, cost-effective, or medically necessary.

In A Tale of Two Cities, Charles Dickens shows the process by which a wasted life can be redeemed. Sidney Carton, through his love for Lucie Manette, is transformed from a hopeless, bitter man into a hero whose life and death have meaning.

America’s use of the atomic bomb at the end of World War II was an unnecessary action that caused unprecedented civilian casualties for purely political ends.

Main ideas and support theses:

As you develop your thesis statement, you also identify a number of main ideas, or reasons why your thesis is true. Each of these reasons is called a main idea, or support thesis. Your major thesis states what you will prove in your whole paper, while your support thesis states what you will prove in each paragraph or section. Each paragraph (or set of paragraphs, for longer papers) is organized around one of your main ideas:

Sometimes your main ideas will be stated in the major thesis, as in this example. The reader will expect to see these main ideas treated in this order in the writer’s paper:
The United States government should not fund stem-cell research because such research is not ethical, cost-effective, or medically necessary.

1 2 3
Sometimes the main ideas are implied by the major thesis, as in this example:

In A Tale of Two Cities, Charles Dickens shows the process by which a wasted life can be redeemed. Sidney Carton, through his love for Lucie Manette, is transformed from a hopeless, bitter man into a hero whose life and death have meaning.

  1. Sydney Carton is a hopeless, bitter man.

  2. Sydney Carton is transformed by his love for Lucie Manette.

  3. Sydney Carton’s death redeems his wasted life.

Sometimes the main ideas are not directly stated in the major thesis, and must be provided for the reader as the essay progresses, as in this example:

America’s use of the atomic bomb at the end of World War II was an unnecessary action that caused unprecedented civilian casualties for purely political ends.

  1. Conventional invasion casualties

  2. Firebombing casualties

  3. Nuclear explosion and fallout casualties

  4. US loss of moral high ground

  5. US political and strategic rationale

Evidence and concrete detail:

Each of your main ideas must be supported by specific evidence, also called concrete detail. This evidence must be both factual and convincing to the reader. It should clearly connect your main idea to your thesis by proving your point. Acceptable evidence includes:

  • quotations from literature

  • expert opinion

  • historical facts

  • statistics

  • specific examples

  • other factual data.

Start collecting evidence as soon as you know what topic you are going to write about, even if you don’t have a thesis statement or specific idea for your paper yet. Ways to collect evidence include:

  • note cards

  • sticky or Post-It notes

  • notes from class discussion

  • notes from lab experiments

  • charts or graphic organizers

  • dialectical journals

  • learning logs

  • highlighting reading material

It is considered plagiarism to:

  • use another writer’s exact words w/o quotation marks.

  • use another writer’s ideas or line of thinking w/o a citation

  • use another writer’s key terminology or even sentence structure in your paraphrase, even WITH a citation

When you integrate your evidence into your paper, often you will use direct quotations, especially when writing about literature. (See the sections on Parenthetical Documentation and Incorporating Quotations into your Writing for more on how to do this.) However, you may also paraphrase, or put the information into your own words. Remember to always cite the original source and page of the information, even if you do not use a direct quotation.

Direct quotation:

When Carlton and Darnay first meet at the tavern, Carlton tells him, “I care for no man on this earth, and no man cares for me” (Dickens 105).



Grammar note:
Whenever you include a quotation from another source in your own writing, you must make sure that it fits grammatically into your text. Your quotation should be so smoothly integrated that it is impossible to tell where your voice leaves off and the quotation begins, were it not for the quotation marks!
Desdemona tells her father, “I saw Othello’s visage in his mind,” confirming that she loves Othello willingly and has not been seduced (1.3.248).

ccording to Barton Bernstein, President Truman and his administration did not even pursue alternatives to dropping the atomic bomb on Hiroshima (Bernstein 288).


Commentary refers to your explanation and interpretation of the evidence you present in your paper. Commentary tells the reader how the concrete detail connects to your main idea and proves your point. Commentary may include interpretation, analysis, argument, insight, and/or reflection. (Helpful hint: In your body paragraph, you should have twice as much commentary as concrete detail.)


Carton makes this statement as if he were excusing his rude behavior to Darnay. Carton, however, is only pretending to be polite, perhaps to amuse himself. With this seemingly off-the-cuff remark, he reveals a deeper cynicism and his emotional isolation.

Rather than attempt other, more conventional, methods such as non-nuclear bombing raids and ground force invasion, the United States pushed forward a devastating attack on essentially civilian targets. The Truman administration simply wanted to prove the power of the Allied forces to cause extreme damage to innocent civilian populations. This action was intended to prove American strength and willingness to use its power not just to the Japanese, but the USSR as well.
When writing commentary, you must always keep your audience and purpose in mind. Consider the following questions as you look at your evidence:

  • Why is this example particularly apt or fitting?

  • What does this example reveal about your topic?

  • What do you want your reader to gain or understand from your use of this example?

  • How does this example prove or illustrate the main idea of your paragraph?

  • How does the example prove your thesis?

  • How does this example relate to other examples that you have already discussed, or plan to discuss later in your paper?


Transitions are words that help the audience follow your train of thought. Transitions help the reader connect new information to what he or she has just read.
Transition words can be used to
Show location: above, across, near, between, inside, below, throughout

Show time: after, as soon as, finally, during, then, when, next

Compare: also, likewise, as, similarly

Contrast: although, however, but, even though, yet

Emphasize: this reason, especially, in fact, in particular

Draw conclusions: as a result, finally, therefore, in conclusion, thus

Add information: additionally, for example, besides, moreover, also

Clarify: that is, in other words, for instance
Lead-ins are special transitions that provide context for the reader when introducing evidence or concrete detail. A lead-in should include the essential information needed to make sense of the example that follows it. Information in a lead-in may include:

  • speaker’s name, title, or qualifications

  • location, time, or setting of the quotation

  • situation or occasion when the quotation was made

Notice in the following examples how the lead-ins provide context for each quotation, but also include some of the writer’s own interpretation to help the audience understand the purpose of the quotations:

Later, however, when the confident Sidney Carton returns alone to his home, his alienation and unhappiness become apparent: “Climbing into a high chamber in a well of houses, he threw himself down in his clothes on a neglected bed, and its pillow was wet with wasted tears” (Dickens 211).
Desdemona truly loves Othello. She tells her father in front of the Duke, “I saw Othello’s visage in his mind / And to his honors and his valiant parts / Did I my soul and fortunes consecrate” (1.3.248-250).


An introduction is like a first impression; you want your audience to think your paper is interesting enough to be worth their time. Most people form first impressions very quickly, so it is important to catch your reader’s interest from the start with an attention-getter or creative opening:

Save the first for last:
While it is important to have at least a working version of your major thesis as you start to write, you can usually save the introduction for later. That way it will truly introduce what you actually have written, instead of just what you had intended to write. In addition, you can tie your introduction more effectively to your conclusion by writing them both at the same time.

Attention-getting openings:

  • A startling fact or bit of information

  • A meaningful quotation

  • A universal idea related to your thesis

  • A rich, vivid description or image

  • A fresh analogy or metaphor

  • An interesting anecdote, story, or dramatic episode

  • A thought-provoking question

  • Beginning in the middle of the action

Openings to avoid:

  • Dictionary definitions of words your reader should know.

  • “Did you know?” or “Have you ever wondered?” rhetorical questions

  • “This paper will be about …” “In this paper I will prove”

  • Beginning too far away from your actual topic (“There are many novels, all of which have characters. Some characters are heroes, and some are not.”)

  • A “book report” list of irrelevant facts (William Shakespeare lived in the Elizabethan era in England. He wrote many plays. One of these plays was Hamlet.)

When previewing main topics in your introduction, make sure you list them in the order in which they appear in your paper.

Once you have your reader’s attention, you should provide essential background about your topic and prepare the reader for your major thesis. The best introductions function as road maps for the rest of the essay, previewing major ideas and posing important questions that you will consider in your paper. Finally, end your introduction with your major thesis. Because the major thesis sometimes sounds tacked on, make special attempts to link it to the sentence that precedes it by building on a key word or idea.


Your conclusion wraps up your argument and leaves the reader with some final things to think about. Your conclusion should stem from what you have already written. Effective conclusions therefore often refer back to ideas presented in a paper’s introduction.
In general, your conclusion should echo your major thesis without repeating the words verbatim. However, since your paper has already proven your thesis, your conclusion should move beyond it to reflect on the significance of the ideas you just presented. It should answer the question, “OK, I’ve read your paper, but so what?” In other words, why are these ideas important?
Effective conclusions

  • Reflect on how your topic relates to larger issues (in the novel, in society, in history)

  • Show how your topic affects the reader’s life

  • Evaluate the concepts you have presented

  • Issue a call for action on the part of your audience

  • Ask questions generated by your findings

  • Make predictions

  • Recommend a solution

  • Connect back to introduction, esp. if you used a metaphor, anecdote, or vivid image

  • Give a personal statement about the topic

Conclusions to avoid:

  • Beginning with “In conclusion …”

  • Restating your thesis and all your main points without adding anything new

  • Bringing up a new topic

  • Adding irrelevant details (esp. just to make a paper longer)

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