An essay is a piece of continuous, flowing, paragraphed text that is (usually) uninterrupted by headings, so it can appear to be unstructured. In fact, good essays need to be very carefully structured indeed.
Exactly how an individual essay is structured is very much the choice of the individual writer. There is no prescribed ‘recipe’ for structuring essays. Most essays, however, do follow the same very basic pattern. This pattern is described below.
There are four parts of an essay:
- An introduction
- The body of the essay
- A conclusion
- A reference list this does get its own heading
Additionally, essays you submit for your course will have a title page and author declaration. You may need to add other sections – check task instructions, or your course or unit handbook, for further details.
- Introduction – one of the first parts of an essay
The introduction to an essay usually has two purposes:
- It ‘sets the scene’ by providing just a little background information about the topic – in other words, it contextualises the topic.
- It tells the reader what the essay is going to do. This is known as signposting.
You should aim to restrict your introduction to one or at most two paragraphs.
- Body – the second part of an essay
The body of the essay is the part that addresses the title. It should be organised into paragraphs. Each paragraph should deal with a different aspect of the issue, but each paragraph should also link in some experienced academic writers. Don’t expect to be able to paragraph perfectly when you are new to academic writing!)
There are many ways to successfully structure and use paragraphs in an essay. Here’s one:
- The first sentence might show a link to the previous paragraph (a kind of retrospective signposting – see the handout Better essays: signposting).
- Another sentence introduces the main theme of this paragraph (this is often called the topic sentence). This topic sentence can also come first in the paragraph.
- The next few sentences elaborate the point, perhaps by explaining more, giving supporting evidence or demonstrating differences or alternatives.
- The last sentence summarises the main point made in the paragraph.
3. Conclusion – part of an essay
The conclusion often does three things:
- It reminds your readers what the essay was meant to do.
- It provides an ‘answer’ to the title.
- It reminds your readers how you reached that answer.
The conclusion should normally occupy just one paragraph.