Structuring an essay

How best to structure your university essays

Once you’ve thoroughly prepared your essay by researching the topic widely and identifying key facts, quotations and arguments, you can to begin to map out a loose structure for your essay, which you will refine as you go along. Follow these five tips to ensure your essay structure is as solid as it can be so that your essay flows.

Allocate Words

If you have an essay of 2,000 words to write, you might allocate up to 200 words for the introduction, and up to 200 words for the conclusion, leaving 1,600 words or four fifths of the essay to explore the major arguments and themes. As a rule of thumb, your introduction and conclusion, although essential, should not take up more than one fifth of the essay.

Identify Key Arguments and Themes

Taking the example of a 2,000 word essay, with 400 words allocated to the introduction and conclusion, 1,600 words remain to explore the key arguments and themes. However, you will also need to provide a context for the essay, or some background information, usually following the initial introduction. You may also need to define key terms, so another 400 words or one fifth of the essay may be used to provide a brief history and/ or key definitions. This leaves 1,200 words, or three fifths of your essay, for the juicy bits. If you decide you want to explore three key points, you have 400 words for each one, or 300 words if you want to explore four key points, and so on. If one section is 250 words and another is 450, there’s nothing wrong with this, just so long as the arguments adopt a logical progression.

Use Direct Quotations Selectively

Book report plagiarismIn an essay of 2,000 words you don’t have many words to get your points across, especially if as well as an introduction and conclusion, you have also placed the essay in context and fully explored all the key definitions. Again, as a rule of thumb, don’t devote more than one fifth of your essay to direct quotations, and ideally, paraphrase arguments into your own words, ensuring you fully reference these accordingly. Failing to do this could lead to an accusation of plagiarism.

Write in Instalments

Some students find the task of sitting down for four or five hours to write an essay difficult. If this applies to you, once you’ve mapped out your structure, consider spreading the drafting of your essay out over a week. If you can write 400 words in an hour, and you have a 2,000 word essay, once you’ve mapped out each section you might write just one an evening for five evenings. If you adopt this approach, don’t be tempted to revisit what you wrote the previous night, but instead move on to the next section. Another useful approach is to leave your last sentence unfinished, so when you return the next day you immediately have somewhere to begin.

Get a Second Opinion

Your essay will make sense to you, but make sure it makes sense to other people before you hand it in. As you read over your essay again and again, your mind remembers what’s coming, so you will subconsciously skip over parts of it, missing the occasional typo, and thinking the argument has been made. It’s surprising how much can be overlooked, even by well-versed writers, so get a second opinion. Ideally, have some time away from your essay. If you’ve started and finished it early, leave it in a drawer for a couple of weeks then come back to it with fresh eyes: you may be glad you did.

There are many different types of essay and your essay structure may depend on which type you have been asked to write. See this guide to ‘types of essay’ for more help.

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