How to Structure an Essay

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Did you know that the structure of your essay is just as important as its content? That said, you should feel confident in your ability to structure an essay.

But what if you’re not? Where should you start? Well, you should learn how to:

  1. Arrange your paragraphs sensibly
  2. Forge links between your paragraphs

Many students can do the first point, but fewer can do the second. By far the easiest way to link paragraphs together is through a technique called ‘signposting’ – as we’ll explore!

The importance of good structure

When it comes to writing an essay, the structure is important. In fact, the structure of your essay can make-or-break it. This is because well-structured essays tend to be:

  • Clear – easy to follow and enjoyable to read.
  • Convincing – because the argument is scheduled to be revealed in stages.
  • Balanced – because the correct amount of words are allotted to each section of the essay.

On the other hand, if your essay lacks proper structure, your argument won’t be clear. And if your argument is unclear, you’ll struggle to achieve the best grades. So, learning how to structure an essay should be the top of every student’s to-do list.

The basics of structuring an essay

Here are some basic building blocks which are fundamental to all essays:

  • A title – Don’t fall at the first hurdle by forgetting to title your essay. Your tutor will want to see that you’ve clearly focused on the essay question, so you should always title your work. If you’ve been given the freedom to choose your own topic, it’s all the more important to title your work.
  • A strong introduction – The introduction tells the reader what is going to be argued in the essay, and in what order. For more details, check out our guidance on how to write an introduction for an essay.
  • Paragraphs – The main body of your essay must be split into paragraphs. You should only discuss one key point per paragraph – more on this later!
  • A strong conclusion – The conclusion should revisit the essay question and summarise (but not repeat) the points made in the essay.
  • Reference list or bibliography – If you have cited other people’s ideas in your essay, you must include these in a reference list or bibliography.

These are the basic building blocks of an essay. However, when planning the structure of your essay, you should go into a bit more detail.

An example of how to structure an essay

Essays do differ in their requirements. However, most essays require you to put forward an argument, provide evidence to support that argument, and then conclude your key points. As such, most essays will be loosely based upon the following structure:

Introduction

  • Engage with the essay question
  • State your position/argument
  • Outline the structure of the essay

Paragraph 1

  • Introduce one point/theme and state its relevance to your argument/position
  • Discuss this point in more depth (I.e. provide evidence, examples etc.)
  • Play devil’s advocate and consider how your point might be criticised, but then rebut this criticism
  • Conclude by restating the main point, and link to the next paragraph

Paragraph 2

  • Introduce one point/theme and state its relevance to your argument/position
  • Discuss this point in more depth (I.e. provide evidence, examples etc.)
  • Play devil’s advocate and consider how your point might be criticised, but then rebut this criticism
  • Conclude by restating the main point, and link to the next paragraph

Paragraph 3

  • Introduce one point/theme and state its relevance to your argument/position
  • Discuss this point in more depth (I.e. provide evidence, examples etc.)
  • Play devil’s advocate and consider how your point might be criticised, but then rebut this criticism
  • Conclude by restating the main point

Conclusion

  • Revisit the essay question and re-state your position/argument
  • Summarise the points from each paragraph but try not to repeat yourself
  • Offer a slightly new perspective and leave a lasting impression

Essays that follow the above structure tend to be clear, convincing and balanced.

You might be wondering why some of the sections are highlighted in red. Well, these are examples of ‘signposting’. Signposting can seriously improve the ‘flow’ of your essays!

What is signposting?

In short, signposting is a nifty trick that stops your reader from getting ‘lost’.

Remember we said that ‘structure’ isn’t just about the arrangement of your paragraphs, but about the relationship between paragraphs, too? Well, signposting helps you forge strong links between each of your paragraphs.

Why is this important? Well, it tells the reader what came before, what’s coming next, and why it’s relevant. All in all, signposting helps the reader to understand how all your points link together.

A compelling essay should drip-feed the argument bit-by-bit, leading to the crescendo (conclusion). Signposting facilitates this process because it keeps the reader engaged throughout.

Not to mention, signposting tell the reader that you’ve spent time planning your essay, which is bound to earn you extra marks.

How to signpost effectively in your essays

If you want to try signposting for yourself, just take a look at the red highlighted sections in the above example. You’ll notice that signposts tend to be placed in the following locations:

  • In the introduction – You should clearly state what position or argument you are going to take (and refer back to this in later paragraphs). Also, you can outline the basic structure of your essay to help direct the reader.
  • The beginning of each paragraph – Here, you should state what the paragraph is about and link it back to your argument (I.e. how is this point relevant?)
  • The end of each paragraph – The last few lines of the paragraph should (1) summarise the key point of the paragraph, and (2) link to the next paragraph. This will help your reader stay on track.
  • Conclusion – You should link back to the key points made throughout the essay and re-iterate your argument.

As mentioned, signposting helps to draw connections between paragraphs. In turn, this will make your essay more cohesive.

How to structure your paragraphs

Most of us know what a paragraph is, though many of us overload our paragraphs with too many points. According to the Cambridge English Dictionary, a paragraph is,

‘A distinct section of a piece of writing, usually dealing with a single theme and indicated by a new line, indentation, or numbering’.

That said, try to keep your paragraphs clear and concise! It’s fine to include several sub-points in one paragraph if they relate to one over-arching point. However, if you include more than one key point, your reader may get confused.

To make your paragraphs as clear as possible, here’s a tried-and-tested formula you can use:

  1. State the key point you will be making in the paragraph, and why it is relevant to your position/argument.
  2. Provide more details about this point, i.e. include references, examples, rebut any criticisms in relation to this point.
  3. Provide a concluding statement for the point made in this paragraph and link it back to your argument.
  4. Link to the next paragraph.

To make things a bit clearer, check out the colour-coded example below!

Example paragraph
(Assume you’re arguing for the health benefits of caffeine in this essay)

To appreciate the overall health benefits of caffeine, it is first necessary to acknowledge the benefits of caffeine for mental health. More specifically, it is important to recognise the link between caffeine and mood. According to research from Smith (2015), when caffeine is ingested at a rate of 75mg per four hours, mood is significantly improved. At a time when 1 in 4 people experience persistent low mood (Hans, 2018), this suggests that caffeine could have a beneficial role to play in enhancing mental health. It must be remembered that excessive caffeine intake can negatively impact mood by increasing anxiety. However, a moderate intake of caffeine enhances mood and perhaps even protects against the development of depression (Allan, 2019). Therefore, the health-promoting capacities of caffeine cannot be ignored. However, it is not only mental health that caffeine can benefit but also physical health too, as shall be explored in the following section.

If you stick to the above paragraph formula, you should find it quite easy to structure and develop your argument.

Should I use sub-headings in my essays?

A common question students ask is, should I use sub-headings in my essays? Unfortunately, there is no straightforward answer to this question. Some tutors do appreciate sub-headings, though others abhor them. So, it’s best to take guidance from your tutor.

If you do use sub-headings, make sure that your essay would still make sense if the sub-headings were removed. This will demonstrate that you are still capable of structuring a cohesive essay without the use of sub-headings.

Also, it’s worth remembering that sub-headings contribute to the overall word count, so keep them short and sweet.

So, there you have the basics of how to structure an essay. Remember, it’s not just the arrangement of the paragraphs that’s important, but it’s the links between the paragraphs, too! Strong links can be achieved through effective signposting.

Finally, remember to plan the structure of your essay before you start writing. Need some help with the planning stage? Check out our practical guide on how to plan an essay!

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