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
Whenever you read an essay, use the following questions to guide your response.
First, keep in mind that, although you may not be a writing expert, you are THE reader of this essay and your response is a valid one. I have found that almost every reader, regardless of experience, can identify the primary strength and weakness in an essay, although their method of describing those issues may be different. The author will welcome your response and your ability to explain your reaction in a new way. Although the author is not required to, and really shouldn’t, respond to everything you say, he or she will take your comments seriously and consider how the essays has enlightened or confused you. Therefore, comment freely, although respectfully. Keep in mind that it is better to begin by noting the strengths of the essay before pointing out the areas that need improvement. I would always include a personal response to questions like the following: What about the essay most connects with your experience? Moves you? Provokes you? Entertains you?
So that is how to respond. So how do you critique? For every essay, regardless of the mode, consider the broad categories of content, organization, style, and correctness.
- Content: Consider the topic (its appropriateness and interest for the assignment as well as a clear focus suitable to essay length) and the way the topic is developed (clarity sufficiency of its argument, its scope, subcategories, amount and type of examples, anecdotes, evidence, etc.).
- Organization: Consider how the essay is introduced and concluded (especially looking for a “frame” to the essay, where the intro and conclusion refer to the same idea), whether the thesis is located in the most helpful place (direct or implied), how the essay is structured, whether the order or extent of development is successful, as well as how individual paragraphs are organized (clear topic sentences, appropriate and concrete evidence, logical organization of evidence).
- Style: Style can refer to the overall style of an essay: whether the tone is appropriate (humorous, serious, reflective, satirical, etc.), whether you use sufficient and appropriate variety (factual, analytical, evaluative, reflective), whether you use sufficient creativity. Style can also refer to the style of individual sentences: whether you use a variety of sentences styles and lengths, whether sentences are worded clearly, and whether word choice is interesting and appropriate.
- Correctness: Correctness refers to grammar, punctuation, and form of the essay. You do not need to know the exact grammatical term or rule to know when a sentence is not correct. Even though you may not know the term dangling modifier, you could identify that the following sentence is not correct:
Rolling around in the bottom of the drawer, Tim found the missing earring. [certainly the earring was rolling, not Tim!]
You could also easily tell that the following sentence actually contains two sentences that need punctuation between them:
The new manager instituted several new procedures some were impractical. [You need to add punctuation (period) after “procedures” and capitalize “some.”]
Feel free to mark the essay at the point of the error with a specific recommendation (“run-on sentence”) or a general comment (“this sentence sounds wrong to me”). You can also simply put an “X” by any sentence that seems incorrect. See the back of WR for commonly used Correction Symbols.
Further Directions for Specific Assignments
Below are more detailed questions to consider when responding to individual types of essays. First, make sure that you have reviewed the description of the essay mode in the Essay Assignment Guidelines. Use at least one or two of these when responding to an essay. Do not simply answer yes or no; offer specific evidence from the text and elaborate on the reasons behind your answer.
Personal Essay Critique:
- Does the writer have a clear but understated purpose to the essay?
- Does it avoid being overly moralistic or heavy-handed?
- Does the essay contain suspense or tension that is resolved in some way?
- Do you have any suggestions for organizing the essay, such as focusing in on one event rather than many, providing more background, turning explanation into action, etc.?
- Does the essay make good use of concrete description, anecdote, and dialogue?
- Does the essay help you to feel the emotions rather than just describe the emotions of the author?
- Does the essay reveal a significant aspect of the writer’s personality?
- Does the writer seem authentic?
- Is this a passionate piece? Is it creative?
Critical Review Critique
- Does a direct thesis convey both the subject and the reviewer’s value judgment?
- Does the review provide a summary or description to help you experience the film, music, event, etc.? Note places where the author provides too much or too little detail.
- Does the essay clearly identify relevant criteria for evaluation? Are they appropriate, believable, and consistent?
- Are any important features of the reviewed subject omitted?
- Logos (logic, content): Does the essay provide sufficient, relevant, and interesting details and examples to adequately inform and entertain?
- Ethos (author): Does the author’s judgment seem sound and convincing?
- Pathos (emotional appeals): Does the author responsibly and effectively utilize emotional appeals to the audience?
- Does the author include adequate reference to the opposition and respond to that opposition appropriately?
Information Essay Critique: The questions posed about an informative essay will vary, depending on the purpose and strategy of the essay. The SMGW suggests evaluating for the following issues:
- Is topic clearly explained and sufficiently focused?
- Does the content fit the audience?
- Is it organized effectively?
- Are definitions clear?
- Are other strategies (classification, comparison/contrast, analysis) used effectively?
- Are sources used sufficiently, effectively, and appropriately?
You might also assess the following criteria:
- Does the author utilize vivid detail, interesting examples, and lively language?
- Does the essay avoid emphasizing judgment over explanation?
- Does the essay have a clear focus or implied thesis?
Comparison/Contrast Essay Critique
- Is the purpose for a comparison or contrast evident and convincing?
- Does the essay identify significant and parallel characteristics for comparison?
- Does the author adequately explain, analyze, or reflect on the comparison or contrast?
- Does the author provide appropriate transitions words to indicate comparison and contrast?
- Is the treatment of each side of the comparison or contrast in balance?
- Does the essay provide sufficient, relevant, and interesting details?
Feature Article Critique
- Does this article interest you? Do you think it will interest the intended audience? Can you suggest ways to increase interest?
- Can you tell what the “angle” or implied thesis is? Does the author avoid editorial judgment on the subject while still keeping the purpose clear?
- Has the writer done sufficient research? What questions have gone unasked or unanswered? Whose point of view or what information would add further to the completeness of the feature?
- Is the subject presented vividly with sensory images, graphic detail, and figurative language? Do you have suggestions of details or images to include?
- Does the writer use an appropriate mixture of anecdote, quotation, description, and explanation? Would more or less of one of these improve the essay?
- Are the beginning and ending paragraphs interesting and appropriate for the specific audience? Consider the need for a “lead sentence” if intended for a newspaper.
Documented Argument Critique
- Is the thesis clear, argumentative, and effective? Why or why not?
- Are the topic and thesis are reasonable for the assignment, audience, and context of the essay?
- Does the author define his or her terms and provide sufficient background information? What ideas or terms are undefined or inadequately explained?
- Is the thesis supported by clear reasons? Are the reasons clearly worded and supported sufficiently?
- Do the reasons fit logically together and are they placed in the right order?
- Does the author adequately address the opposition? What is another opposing argument he/she should or could have addressed?
- Has the author done adequate research?
- Are the works cited adequately introduced and explained before citing from them?
- Does the paper contain an appropriate blend of well-placed quotations within a context of the author’s own words and paraphrases from other sources?
- Is the writer clearly in charge, naturally introducing and interacting with sources rather than merely reporting on them?
- Do you find the argument convincing? What might you add or omit?
Business Writing Critique
- Does the memo begin with the most important information?
- Does the memo build rapport by involving the reader in opening paragraph?
- Does the memo provide sufficient, relevant, and interesting details? Is it focused and brief?
- Does the memo focus each paragraph on one idea?
- Is the memo informed, accurate, demonstrating the author’s grasp of the situation?
- Is the final paragraph calling for a specific action? Is it brief? Does it build good will?
- Is the memo form correct, with concise subject line, initialed name, correct spacing?
- Is the information arranged (indentations and numbering) in a way that makes it easy to skim and still get central information?
- Does the first paragraph identify who the author is, briefly state why he/she is writing, and refer to how he/she found out about the job?
- Does the second paragraph highlight specific strengths, special abilities, or features of the résumé to be noted?
- Does the third paragraph make a specific request of the reader or address what action is to be taken?
- Does the letter provide sufficient, relevant, and interesting details to make the request convincing?
- Is the letter brief and focused? What elements could be eliminated?
- Does the writer achieve his or her purpose? Does it make you want to consider the résumé more carefully?
- Is the tone of the letter courteous without being too formal, relaxed without being too familiar?
- Is the letter’s form appropriate (heading, spacing, greeting, salutation)? Is the letter addressed to a specific person rather than a general “Dear Madam/Sir”?
- Does the résumé contain the necessary features for the position (name/address, position desired, education, work experience, achievements, relevant personal information, references)?
- Does the résumé contain only essential, relevant information for the position required?
- Does the résumé emphasize the applicant’s strengths?
- Does the résumé emphasize what is unique about this person’s experience? Does it demonstrate a common interest or ability (leadership, teaching experience, dedication, creativity, etc.)?
- What additional information might you like to have about this applicant?
- If you were leading an interview based on this résumé, what are two questions you might ask?
- Does the résumé look neat (appropriate spacing, clear headings, good quality paper)?
- Is the résumé easy to read?
- Is the information presented as concisely as possible?
- Are the elements of each section of the résumé presented in a parallel format and style (begin w/ active verbs, put date in consistent place, use of parallelism for elements, consistent underlining or italics)?