Why Is Structure Important In An Essay

The Importance of Structure

See also: Grammar

Developing a simple framework for your writing before you start can save considerable time and will prevent the text from meandering.

You will often be able to use the titles of the main sections as headings and subheadings within the text since these help the reader to navigate through the piece.  However, even if the section titles are not desired in the finished piece, they still help you as author to structure your writing to the desired framework.

There is no one set structure or framework that covers all possible forms of written communication, except perhaps that writing should start with an introduction and finish with a conclusion.  There are however many examples of structures for different forms of writing available on the web and within study guides.

Two examples of common structures for writing different types of communication are provided below.  Many variations on these frameworks, as well as other frameworks for different purposes, exist but if you have been given a framework to follow you should use this instead.  Whatever structure you choose for your writing, start by beginning to flesh-out, in note form, the section headings with the main points that you wish to include.

Examples of Structures:

A Written Report

See also: How to Write a Report

Reports are always presented in sections and subsections since they contain a lot of information which needs to be organised in a way that makes sense to the reader.

Sections are often numbered and long reports should include a title page and then a table of contents which lists the section headings and subheadings, preferably with page numbers.

Example Structure:

  • Title Page
  • Contents Page
  • List of Illustrations (optional)
  • Acknowledgements (optional)
  • Abstract/Summary/Executive Summary
  • Introduction
  • Background/Literature Review
  • Research Methods/Methodology
  • Findings/Analysis
  • Conclusion
  • Recommendations (optional; in some business situations, this section may be included at the beginning of the report)
  • Further Research
  • References/Bibliography
  • Appendices

A Press Release

See also: How to Write a Press Release

A press release is a written statement to the media and could be used by an organisation to generate a news story. 

Since journalists receive numerous press releases every day, the key aim is to capture their interest quickly and provide them with contact details so that they can follow up the story.  Note that the headings and subheadings provided below should not be included within the press release but are provided to help you structure the text.

Example Structure

  • Statement “For immediate release” or “Embargoed until (date and time)” as appropriate
  • Headline (a short, attention- grabbing summary of the story)
  • Photo opportunity (optional)

Body Copy:

Paragraph 1 Lead Sentence:  Summarise the story - who, what, where, when and why.  All key information needs to be in this paragraph and it needs to continue the reader’s interest from the headline.

Paragraph 2: Include more details to flesh out the story that you outlined in the first paragraph

Paragraph 3: Quotes from someone relevant to the story.   Each quote should make one point.  If you wish to include more than one point here, use quotes from different people.

Paragraph 4: Any additional relevant information

Contact Information
Note for Editors (background information; whether you can offer interviews or additional pictures; any additional relevant information)

Developing a structure or framework for your writing will ensure that the most important points are covered at the appropriate point in the writing.

A framework such as the Written Report Structure, above, will also allow you to break down the daunting task of writing a report into more manageable sections. 

For example, being asked to write a 10,000 word report is an intimidating prospect.  However, if you decide to adopt this framework, you should then allocate an appropriate number of words to each section.  Writing a 500 word introduction is much less daunting a task than writing a 10,000 word report.   Adhering to your framework will also prevent you from writing too many words for one section and then having to delete these as you need “those words” for another section.

Whatever structure you choose to use, you should constantly check that you are adhering to it: if you find that your structure does not work then revisit it and research to see whether another structure might be more appropriate.   

You should also check the flow of your text as paragraphs should flow from one to the next and you should conclude one subject area before introducing another.  Hopping from one topic to another with no clear structure confuses the reader and demonstrates a lack of clarity.

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

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