If you’ve made the time to do some planning and developed an outline for your argument, you should have a good idea about how it will break down into your essay structure. If you haven’t yet decided on your claim and supporting premises/key points, go back and read my posts about Writing an Argument and Planning and Outlining, because that will help a lot!
The reason we need to know our argument is that it forms the backbone of our essay. Each premise or key point that supports your claim will become a main body paragraph. Sometimes, in a longer or more complex essay, each premise/key point might be broken into two paragraphs, but for now let’s keep it simple and look at how its constructed!
I find it really useful to think about an essay as a skeleton.
We have the skull – your introduction. The skill contains all the vital information about the essay and controls how that information is delivered.
Then we have the spine. The spine is your argument, which is absolutely vital to your structure. Without a strong spine, your essay can’t hold itself up!
From the spine, the ribs branch out. These are each of your key points/premises. While they are independent, and contain their own unified idea, they are still strongly connected to the spine. They have to be – you don’t want your ribs just floating loosely around the body!
Each rib leads us down towards the hips and legs – your conclusion. While we don’t want to introduce any new information here, they can point us forward, just like feet do. They tell the reader how the points all come together (the hips) and where we go from here.
So now let’s break that down even more.
The introduction makes up about 10% of your total word count (generally speaking).
Remember, your introduction is your reader’s first impression of your work. It should give them a clear idea of exactly what your essay will cover, and allow them to situate your essay in context.
I like to think of introductions as a triangle.
Background: We begin broad, and then become narrower and more specific. Start with any important background or contextual information they may need to know. What is the overall issue? How long has it been a problem? Are there any current or ongoing debates?
Significance: Then we tell the reader why this issue is important or significant. Is it a timely issue? Does it have impacts on particular groups or situations? This tells the reader why the problem is one worth reading about, and helps to support and foreground your argument.
Definitions: Sometimes, you may also need to clarify or define some key terms. This doesn’t necessarily mean provide a dictionary definition though! It might be an introduction to a theory or concept, or a brief background about an idea.
Thesis Statement: This is the really important bit! The thesis statement shows your position on the topic, and how you are approaching it. Basically, it is your argument in a sentence. If you struggle with this, return to the question and turn it around into a statement that includes your specific argument as an answer.
Key Points/Structure: Following this, you provide a roadmap for your essay, and introduce your key points. Be specific about this: tell the reader exactly what each key point will cover, and present them in the same order as they will appear in your essay. If you find this difficult, think about the single main idea of each paragraph, and present that as a mini-statement.
Having this triangular structure is very important for orienting your reader. Remember, they are not in your head. They need to be given a big picture view of the whole topic before you can start to narrow in on anything, otherwise they won’t know what you’re talking about! Also, there are also no spoilers in an introduction! Give it all away right up the front. That’s why it’s useful to think about your claim as being your conclusion: this is what you want your reader to be convinced of by the end of your essay.
In your introduction, you can include language such as: ‘this essay aims to …’, ‘this essay argues …’, ‘firstly, this essay will demonstrate …’. These will help you structure your introduction, and make content very clear to the reader.
Your body will be broken down into several key points. Often, each paragraph will make up one of the premises that support your claim. Or, you may have several key points related to a single premise.
In a basic essay, this will break down into three connected paragraphs that each develop a single and unified idea.
Importantly (seriously, this is so important), each paragraph should be made up of one single, unified idea. Each of these ideas is developed logically and clearly using evidence and examples to back up your discussion.
Start with a topic sentence. A topic sentence clearly states the main idea of the paragraph. We sometimes call this the controlling idea, because it controls the rest of the paragraph and guides the reader.
This is followed by a discussion that develops that idea. It should:
- Cover background or contextual information (define and position what you’re talking about)
- Integrate evidence to support your ideas
- Draw out implications (why is it important? What does it mean?)
You then conclude your paragraph and use a linking sentence to connect it logically to your next point. This will show the reader how your premises are connected and demonstrate a clear and logical line of reasoning.
In a longer essay, you may need to break up your premises into multiple paragraphs. Think about where you can create sub-ideas, or have progressive points (something that adds to what you’ve just discussed), or contradicting points (an alternative position connected directly to what you’ve just discussed). Use these to logically break up your main point into subpoints, and thus individual but connected paragraphs.
Similarly, sometimes in longer essays, or in essays in particular disciplines, you may be required to begin with some background or historical information, or by outlining a theory. Treat this as its own unified paragraph, and consider how it fits in with your argument.
Remember, each paragraph is a united piece of writing and it should read like one!
Developing Each Point
As I wrote in Writing an Argument, you must develop each premise/paragraph logically and deeply. Consider how your reader will be guided through your paper, and make it clear to them how each idea is connected, and why it is significant.
Use evidence to demonstrate why something is the case, or how something occurs. Don’t simply describe: analyse and justify!
To do this we use discourse markers:
- Because of…, Given that…, Not only… But also …, Since…, If… Then…, Due to…, Thus…, It follows that….
To effectively integrate evidence and supporting points into your argument, use terms such as:
- According to …, Smith states …, This is supported by …, Research findings by Smith indicate that …
You can add more supporting points to an argument by using:
- Consequently…, Furthermore …, In support …, Additionally …, This implies that …, This extends this idea by …
And you can introduce an opposing idea or show disagreement by using:
- Despite this …, However …, Whereas …, Yet …, Contrary to …, Although …, Nevertheless …
Remember, each point is leading us towards the conclusion. This is why its useful to think about your claim as your conclusion: each point is leading us towards believing your claim more and more until we get to the end, where they should be fully convinved!
Your conclusion brings everything in your essay together, but it is not simply a restatement of what is in your introduction. This is your final chance to really nail your point home. It draws together all of your premises and demonstrates how they come together to support your claim. This means you should briefly revisit each key point, but more importantly, show that they are strongest together.
A good conclusion should:
- Synthesise your key points (brings them together)
- Answer the question! (restate your thesis and show how it answers the question)
- Draw out implications (why is it important, what does it mean?)
- Indicate areas for further research, or any recommendations (if relevant)
- Contain no new information!
An essay is ultimately a persuasive piece of writing. Leave your reader with no reason not to believe what you’ve told them!