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teaching tips: how to structure an essay

Updated on August 13, 2014

An essay is like a house – it holds people and is organized to guide the visitor from the front door to the back door. And the best way to think of an essay’s structure is the same.

For a house, the first thing you build is the foundation. This supports the rest of the building. In an essay, this foundation is the opening paragraph. Just as a house should have ‘curb appeal’, so should the opening paragraph, for this is your one and only opportunity to open the door for the reader and make the reader want to come in. This introduction should define the purpose of the essay – the topic to be discussed and why it should be discussed. It may be offering an hypothesis to be proven.

Once the foundation is built, the house gets framed out. This is akin to the outline an author should make to keep the essay content organized. Choose the rooms to be built and frame them out. Sometimes this is simply a listing of the topics to be covered, but if the essay is to lead to a proof, the order of the items should be determined at this time to build to the conclusion. This is the time to determine the wiring and plumbing in the house. And in the outline, this is the time to find the relationships between the items to be discussed and consider what information collected should be left out.

In newspaper writing, the structure is to headline the main purpose of the article, and open with the most important facts, then adding facts around the main event in order of importance, ending with the more prose-y information. This allows an editor to clip off sections in an effort to save space without killing the purpose of the article. Any somewhat-related information is run as a “side bar”, so it can be added or deleted as space demands.

The newspaper approach does not work for essays. An essay should stand by itself, supplying organized information which is relevant to the topic. It should not contain any information which is not salient to the point of the essay simply to fill out space. And it should wrap itself into a single entity.

After framing, a house’s rooms are built. Based on the outline, each paragraph is built as a unique entity in an essay, Just as a kitchen would need different carpentry from the den, each paragraph of the essay should inform the reader of a different aspect of the topic, opening with a sentence which guides the reader to the purpose of the paragraph. Proper décor in a home commands consistency, drawing the eye from one room to another and maintaining a theme. This is also true of an essay. Each paragraph should be able to perform its purpose while guiding the reader on to the next one.

While we speak here of paragraphs, there is no reason why an introduction or coverage of information should be held to one paragraph each. A paragraph should be a unified thought, and there may be more than one thought to be introduced or covered. In our house analogy, it may take one paragraph to show how the design makes for easy food preparation, but you would also want to demonstrate how this utilitarian room melds with the décor of adjoining rooms.

Once the house is built, a roof needs to go on. This is the essay’s conclusion. The conclusion is as important as the opening introduction to the paper, and the most common instance of weak writing. Students will often just reiterate the opening sentence, or leave the reader hanging, waiting for more information. The conclusion should provide closure. If the essay is a proof of some kind, the conclusion should show how the preceding paragraphs develop the proof. If not a proof, the conclusion should indicate why the paragraphs in the body of the essay achieve the purpose of the introduction.

© 2014 Bonnie-Jean Rohner

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