Writing an academic essay means fashioning a coherent set of ideas into an argument. Because essays are essentially linear—they offer one idea at a time—they must present their ideas in the order that makes most sense to a reader. Successfully structuring an essay means attending to a reader's logic.
The focus of such an essay predicts its structure. It dictates the information readers need to know and the order in which they need to receive it. Thus your essay's structure is necessarily unique to the main claim you're making. Although there are guidelines for constructing certain classic essay types (e.g., comparative analysis), there are no set formula.
Answering Questions: The Parts of an Essay
A typical essay contains many different kinds of information, often located in specialized parts or sections. Even short essays perform several different operations: introducing the argument, analyzing data, raising counterarguments, concluding. Introductions and conclusions have fixed places, but other parts don't. Counterargument, for example, may appear within a paragraph, as a free-standing section, as part of the beginning, or before the ending. Background material (historical context or biographical information, a summary of relevant theory or criticism, the definition of a key term) often appears at the beginning of the essay, between the introduction and the first analytical section, but might also appear near the beginning of the specific section to which it's relevant.
It's helpful to think of the different essay sections as answering a series of questions your reader might ask when encountering your thesis. (Readers should have questions. If they don't, your thesis is most likely simply an observation of fact, not an arguable claim.)
"What?" The first question to anticipate from a reader is "what": What evidence shows that the phenomenon described by your thesis is true? To answer the question you must examine your evidence, thus demonstrating the truth of your claim. This "what" or "demonstration" section comes early in the essay, often directly after the introduction. Since you're essentially reporting what you've observed, this is the part you might have most to say about when you first start writing. But be forewarned: it shouldn't take up much more than a third (often much less) of your finished essay. If it does, the essay will lack balance and may read as mere summary or description.
"How?" A reader will also want to know whether the claims of the thesis are true in all cases. The corresponding question is "how": How does the thesis stand up to the challenge of a counterargument? How does the introduction of new material—a new way of looking at the evidence, another set of sources—affect the claims you're making? Typically, an essay will include at least one "how" section. (Call it "complication" since you're responding to a reader's complicating questions.) This section usually comes after the "what," but keep in mind that an essay may complicate its argument several times depending on its length, and that counterargument alone may appear just about anywhere in an essay.
"Why?" Your reader will also want to know what's at stake in your claim: Why does your interpretation of a phenomenon matter to anyone beside you? This question addresses the larger implications of your thesis. It allows your readers to understand your essay within a larger context. In answering "why", your essay explains its own significance. Although you might gesture at this question in your introduction, the fullest answer to it properly belongs at your essay's end. If you leave it out, your readers will experience your essay as unfinished—or, worse, as pointless or insular.
Mapping an Essay
Structuring your essay according to a reader's logic means examining your thesis and anticipating what a reader needs to know, and in what sequence, in order to grasp and be convinced by your argument as it unfolds. The easiest way to do this is to map the essay's ideas via a written narrative. Such an account will give you a preliminary record of your ideas, and will allow you to remind yourself at every turn of the reader's needs in understanding your idea.
Essay maps ask you to predict where your reader will expect background information, counterargument, close analysis of a primary source, or a turn to secondary source material. Essay maps are not concerned with paragraphs so much as with sections of an essay. They anticipate the major argumentative moves you expect your essay to make. Try making your map like this:
- State your thesis in a sentence or two, then write another sentence saying why it's important to make that claim. Indicate, in other words, what a reader might learn by exploring the claim with you. Here you're anticipating your answer to the "why" question that you'll eventually flesh out in your conclusion.
- Begin your next sentence like this: "To be convinced by my claim, the first thing a reader needs to know is . . ." Then say why that's the first thing a reader needs to know, and name one or two items of evidence you think will make the case. This will start you off on answering the "what" question. (Alternately, you may find that the first thing your reader needs to know is some background information.)
- Begin each of the following sentences like this: "The next thing my reader needs to know is . . ." Once again, say why, and name some evidence. Continue until you've mapped out your essay.
Your map should naturally take you through some preliminary answers to the basic questions of what, how, and why. It is not a contract, though—the order in which the ideas appear is not a rigid one. Essay maps are flexible; they evolve with your ideas.
Signs of Trouble
A common structural flaw in college essays is the "walk-through" (also labeled "summary" or "description"). Walk-through essays follow the structure of their sources rather than establishing their own. Such essays generally have a descriptive thesis rather than an argumentative one. Be wary of paragraph openers that lead off with "time" words ("first," "next," "after," "then") or "listing" words ("also," "another," "in addition"). Although they don't always signal trouble, these paragraph openers often indicate that an essay's thesis and structure need work: they suggest that the essay simply reproduces the chronology of the source text (in the case of time words: first this happens, then that, and afterwards another thing . . . ) or simply lists example after example ("In addition, the use of color indicates another way that the painting differentiates between good and evil").
Copyright 2000, Elizabeth Abrams, for the Writing Center at Harvard University
In an argumentative essay, you want to convince someone to agree with your idea or opinion, using research-based evidence.
Writing an argumentative essay is a skill that anyone in school needs to know, though it can be useful outside of the classroom, as well. With today's Common Core standards, learning to write an essay that intelligently proves your point is an essential part of your education.
You will need to select solid argumentative essay topics that you can work with, create an argumentative essay outline and write, revise, and polish before you turn the argumentative essay in. It’s worth checking out an argumentative essay sample or two, just so you have a good idea of how the whole thing works. You can learn a lot from what other people have already done.
Choosing Argumentative Essay Ideas
As you look at argumentative essay examples, you’ll notice that there is a specific argumentative essay structure that is followed. It’s easiest to work with this structure if you choose easy argumentative essay topics.
Good argumentative essay topics are interesting and relatively easy to defend. They should fit into your argumentative essay outline fairly easily and will be something you can write on without doing ridiculous amounts of research. You don’t necessarily need to know everything about the topic, but having some base knowledge will help you as you do your research and write the essay.
Ideally, you’ll select interesting argumentative essay topics to work with, which will keep your writing fresh and on point. It’s difficult to write on a topic you don’t enjoy, so selecting one that you can really get into will show in your work.
How to Write an Argumentative Essay
It’s helpful to look at a good argumentative essay example to get some ideas before you begin. This section will show you how to write an argumentative essay that will wow your teachers.
Before you even get started on the actual essay, take some time to create an argumentative essay outline. This will help you follow proper argumentative essay structure and can be useful for ensuring that your work stays on track and makes sense. An outline is an essential part of any essay writing process.
If you find it difficult to create your own outline, an argumentative essay template may come in handy for structuring the essay. A template will include everything you need to get started, including the format, so you just need to fill in the blanks with your own information.
How to Start an Argumentative Essay
The argumentative essay introduction is where you present your topic and your thesis. It should include a hook in the first few sentences. A hook will grab the reader's attention and keep them reading.
Once you've laid the basis of the argumentative essay topic out for the reader, give them a bit of background information to clarify things.
What is the issue you're addressing? Why should anyone care? Where is the issue prevalent? What is your opinion on the topic and why do you feel that way? The answer to this final question will be your thesis, or what you will try to convince the reader of throughout your essay.
Your topic should be something you know is debatable and this can be mentioned in the intro. The first paragraph, according to good argumentative essay format, should include your main point or thesis statement.
As you state your thesis, make sure it is concise and use confident language to write it out. You should summarize your rational, ethical and emotional supporting arguments here. Keep in mind that the opening paragraph should only be a few sentences long in most cases, so keep it concise.
Develop Your Argument
By this point in the argumentative essay example, it's obvious what the point of the essay is, but you have not yet convinced the reader. You need to develop your argument. Each body paragraph should contain a topic sentence introducing a claim, which should support your thesis statement. You may have as few as one claim, but it's a good idea to aim for at least three or four supporting arguments.
Argumentative essay prompts are handy for helping you think more deeply about your chosen topic and will allow you to work on creating
Just stating something doesn't make it fact, so you also need to present evidence in favour of your opinion. Your own personal experience does not stand as a reputable source, so look for scientific studies and government resources to help back up your claims. Statistics and specific data can also be helpful as you argue your main point.
Look at the Opposing Viewpoint
In order to truly convince readers of your point of view, the argumentative essay must also look at the opposing views. What do those on the other side of the issue have to say? Acknowledge these views and refute them with facts, quotes, statistics or logic. The more evidence you have, the better your essay will be.
It's not enough to simply disagree with another point of view or opinion. If you really want to get people to see things your way, you need to convince them with evidence and facts. This requires some research and possibly a little creative thinking. If you’ve chosen a good topic, however, it will be obvious what the opposite view is.
Most argumentative essay prompts will have you cover opposing views in the second or third body paragraph, but it can be used as the intro to the body, as well, with your point at the end. Include every source in your reference section so the reader can double check the evidence for themselves.
Create a Conclusion
Finally, every argumentative essay example finishes with a conclusion. Yours will do the same. Restate your main points and cover the basics of the supporting evidence once more. This is essentially a summary of your entire argument. How has the argument evolved throughout the paper? Give the reader a brief look back over everything.
Before you sign off on your essay, restate your topic and stress the importance of your opinion. Keep this part to one or two paragraphs at the most, since it is simply a recap of the previous points.
If you have done your job and written a convincing argumentative essay, your reader will now either be completely on your side or thinking seriously about their views on your topic. This is the end goal, to shake up those beliefs and help others see your point of view. Doing this in a calm, professional manner will work far better than being too passionate. Use lots of examples and reputable sources to give solid evidence for your side of things and you’ll see good results.
Polish and Revise
Once your essay has been written, it's time to polish it. Go back over the whole essay and look for any spelling or grammatical errors. You should also keep an eye out for pieces that can be better written or tightened up to make better sense.
Now, it's up to the reader to make up their mind. If you've done a good job, they will see things your way and your essay will be a success.
Using a template for your argumentative essay can also help you work through the essay faster and ensures you'll meet common core standards and improve your essay writing skills. Choose a great topic, use prompts and a template and you’ll have a winning argumentative essay by the end.