How to Structure & Layout Your Essay
MSt, Women's, Gender & Sexuality Studies (University of Oxford)
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Key Elements of Essay Structure
A clear, organized structure can make all the difference for an essay, helping your argument become more understandable and persuasive. The overall structure of your essay should look like this:
- Introduction: Introduce your topic and state your argument.
- Body: Present each of the main points that prove your argument, backed up with evidence.
- Conclusion: Reiterate your argument and conclude your paper.
The Body of the essay is the bulk of your paper; in a five page essay, you might dedicate one or two paragraphs each to your introduction and conclusion, and the rest of the paper to proving your points with evidence.
Let’s look at these sections more closely so we can learn how to structure each of them.
Your introduction sets up your reader’s expectations for the essay. You introduce your topic, your argument, and your voice as a writer. In general, follow this structure for your introduction:
- Hook the reader: Start with a sentence or two to capture the reader’s attention. A good hook is catchy and relevant to your argument.
- Orient the reader to the topic, context, and key terms: Introduce your reader to the topic at hand and offer any background or contextual information they might need to understand your essay. Define key terms or technical words you’ll be using throughout your essay.
- Ask your research question: Your essay should be a response to a puzzle/problem/contradiction that you can phrase as a question. State it so your reader knows what you’re trying to figure out.
- State your thesis: Finish your introduction by presenting what you intend to argue.
More in-depth information about all of these elements can be found in our guide to writing an effective introduction.
Your introduction can also forecast the structure of your essay. Particularly when dealing with long papers, theses with multiple logical steps, and essays with distinct sections (historical context, literature review, etc.), outlining the path of your paper in the introduction can help your reader follow your argument and anticipate what is to follow.
The body of the essay is where most issues with structure tend to arise. How much evidence do you need? How often do you include scholars’ perspectives versus your own? How many points are you making — and what are they really saying? As a writer, you have a lot to balance. But if you follow these tips and tricks, your body paragraphs will be clear and organized, working together to build your argument.
One paragraph = one main point.
You should be able to summarize each body paragraph with one main point that ties into your larger argument. This point is typically stated in a topic sentence at the start of the paragraph. If you look only at the topic sentences of your body paragraphs, you should have an outline of your argument.
Read over a body paragraph. Can you summarize what you argue in that paragraph in one bullet point? If not, split up the paragraph so you can.
Paragraphs should build, not repeat.
When first learning how to write an essay, you might have written body paragraphs that each essentially proved the same point through different examples. For example, in an essay arguing that Shylock is actually the hero of Shakespeare’s The Merchant of Venice, each paragraph may have been dedicated to an instance when Shylock was presented sympathetically. If you’re making the same point in each paragraph, just with different examples, your essay can quickly get boring and your thesis appears too obvious (even if it’s not).
Instead, think of your essay as building on itself, each paragraph making a slightly different point that all work together to prove your overarching argument. A lawyer wouldn’t just introduce evidence that shows motive in a trial; they must introduce evidence showing means, motive, and opportunity — and show how they all connect — in order to prove a case.
To give an overly simplistic edit to the Shylock essay, you might argue that Shylock is the hero of The Merchant of Venice because he exhibits all the qualities of a tragic hero, delivers the most rhetorically complex speeches, and is the titular character. This version of the essay will make a different point in each paragraph with different examples, but they all bolster the overall argument.
An even more advanced essay would consider how the points build on each other and be structured so each paragraph is necessary for the next, growing the argument throughout the paper.
Although in the Shylock example, it seems like there are three main points which support the overall assertion (that Shylock is a hero), do not feel like you need to make your argument with only three main points. The “five paragraph essay” (one paragraph introduction, three body paragraphs, one paragraph conclusion) can be helpful when learning how to build an argument, but there is no need to hold yourself to only three points! Even the example above might require more than three body paragraphs: when discussing how Shylock exhibits the qualities of a tragic hero, the writer might need a few paragraphs to introduce what those qualities are and how Shylock exhibits each of them.
Balance evidence and analysis.
In your body paragraphs, it’s important to present evidence supporting your thesis and analyze that evidence for your reader, tying the pieces together into a cohesive argument.
Strategically engage with other scholars.
The hamburger method focuses on analyzing primary sources, the raw materials you’re working with (a data set, a poem, an artwork). But as you advance as a writer, you’ll also be working with secondary sources, what other scholars have written. It can be tricky to figure out how much you should rely on the voices of other scholars versus your own to make your argument. You don’t want to be drowned out by a sea of other voices.
When dealing with secondary source material, always ask yourself: what is this doing for my argument? Are you bringing up a scholar’s perspective to help you make a larger point? Or are you setting them up to be refuted by your new interpretation of the evidence? You can agree with scholars throughout your paper, but your larger argument should say something slightly new.
Secondary source material can work in your essay as cheese and toppings on the burger, helping you analyze the primary evidence you’ve introduced (though don’t get too carried away with toppings that you lose the burger itself!). You can also treat secondary source material as the meat of the burger if you’re trying to work through what another scholar said or want to point out a gap in the literature.
Whenever you introduce material outside of your own voice, from primary or secondary sources, be sure to explain to your reader how it connects to your argument.
Signal your structure to the reader with signposts and transitions.
A good structure makes your argument as clear as possible to the reader. It helps to guide the reader through your essay with words that signal where they are and transitions that show how points fit together. Here are some words and phrases you might use:
- based on this evidence…
- looking at this passage…
- it seems like… but upon further investigation….
- before addressing…let’s understand…
- with an understanding of…this essay now turns to…
TOOL: The X-Ray, or the Reverse Outline
An x-ray or reverse outline is a helpful tool for diagnosing structural problems. Once you’ve written a rough draft, use this tool to see where your structure might need to be improved and whether the analysis in your body paragraphs is reflecting your thesis and main points.
Read your essay. Next to each paragraph, try to summarize the main point of that paragraph with a heading, bullet point, or short sentence.
- Are there multiple points in this paragraph? If so, it should probably be two paragraphs, not one.
- Is the point of this paragraph implied rather than stated? Do I have a topic sentence that makes the point of this paragraph clear to my reader and a concluding sentence that reminds the reader what the main takeaway is?
- Does the evidence in this paragraph prove the point I’ve written down? Is there any evidence that doesn’t seem to fit in this paragraph?
- Do I explain through analysis how this evidence relates to the main point of the paragraph?
For a more advanced version of the x-ray, along with the main point of each paragraph, write down its purpose or contribution to the larger essay (key terms/definitions, counter-argument, explanation of methods, evidence/analysis, etc.).
The conclusion is the final part of your essay, the place to establish the major takeaways for the reader. There are three parts of a conclusion; typically, conclusions begin with part one, and parts two and three can come in either order, sometimes intertwined.
- Review your argument. Restate the central argument and main points for your reader.
- Place your argument in a new light. Take the essay one step further, considering where your argument might go from here or the questions your essay opens up.
- Show why it matters. Re-emphasize the “so what?” of your argument, what new perspective it offers or what larger stakes it has.
For more on crafting a conclusion, check out our guide to writing an essay conclusion.
In general, an academic essay is laid out like this:
- Essay (Introduction --> Body --> Conclusion)
The exact layout will depend on what citation style you’re using (APA, Harvard, MLA). If you’re using a style with in-text citations, cite your sources after each piece of evidence in parentheses within the text. If you’re using a citation style with footnotes, add a small reference mark, usually a number, corresponding with a footnote at the bottom of the page.
The citation style will also determine whether you title your list of sources “Works Cited” or “Bibliography.”
Regardless of citation style, you want to use standard margins, text size (usually 12 pt font), and font style (usually Times New Roman, Arial, or another professional, unobtrusive font). Your essay should be double spaced (2.0) with the start of each paragraph indented from the left. Page numbers are usually placed in the top right corner; whether these appear with your last name before the number depends on citation style.
MSt, Women's, Gender & Sexuality Studies (University of Oxford)
Paige Elizabeth Allen has a Master’s degree in Women’s, Gender, and Sexuality Studies from the University of Oxford and a Bachelor’s degree in English from Princeton University. Her research interests include monstrosity, the Gothic tradition, illness in literature and culture, and musical theatre. Her dissertation examined sentient haunted houses through the lenses of posthumanism and queer theory.