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 a persuasive essay, you want to convince the reader to align with your viewpoint on an issue. You will need to develop a series of arguments in which you provide specific evidence to support your claim.
Writing a persuasive essay is much like talking to a friend and trying to convince them to see things your way. By putting it all in writing, you are attempting to sway the thoughts of anyone who is reading the essay. When writing a persuasive essay, you should be very strongly opinionated in one particular direction, whether positive or negative. You can be for or against an issue, but not in between. Sitting on the fence will only cause problems when it comes to trying to persuade people.
Preparing for the Essay
Before you even start writing, you have a lot of work to do on a persuasive essay. You can’t write one without some excellent points to make and it’s essential to include evidence to support those points. This means you’ll need to spend some time doing research and investigation before writing.
Start with a handful of points you want to make. If you’re not sure which points you will be using in the essay, write down as many ideas as possible, then start to research them. Only the most convincing ones will be used in the end.
Decide on your thesis statement, or the point you are trying to convince people of. Every main point in the essay will need to support this, so knowing what you want to convince them of will help you choose the top three arguments to use. Each point should have at least one or two pieces of evidence that will back it up.
Creating the Outline
Once you have your evidence, complete with reputable sources, it’s time to create an outline. Many people prefer to just write the essay flat out, but an outline will help you keep it structured and will make the writing flow.
An outline should include your main points, along with the supporting evidence below them. With a good outline, you can simply fill in the information for each section and you will have an amazing persuasive essay.
Create a Killer Introduction
The intro to your essay will be where you state your viewpoint. Catch the reader's attention with a well-crafted intro sentence and then explain the issue at hand. You will want to provide some context, so have background information that you can present. This is where the research you did prior to writing the essay will come in handy.
Within this first paragraph, share your thesis sentence, or what you want to convince the reader of in the essay. This will set the tone for the entire paper, so be concise and clear. There should be no doubt about what the essay is going to cover. Take a strong position for or against the subject and stick to it.
Remember that the intro paragraph should not be too long, so condense everything into 3-4 sentences if possible. You want to give the reader a reason to keep reading, rather than reveal everything right from the start.
Add Supporting Paragraphs
The body of the essay will contain information to support your thesis statement. Each paragraph should give the reader a reason to believe what you're saying and to show the reason behind what you are stating.
Most academic essays are created using the five paragraph essay format. This includes the introduction, conclusion and three main body paragraphs. It’s an easy format to follow and generally works very well for a persuasive essay.
Every paragraph should start with sentence that supports the thesis and provides an argument for your point of view. The remainder of the paragraph should offer evidence that will support the first sentence. Use quotes, scientific or educational studies, and news sources that are reputable to give wings to your argument. Your paragraphs should be made up of sentences that are short and stick to the main point. Going off on a tangent is never a good idea when you're trying to convince someone of something.
Wrap It Up in the Conclusion
The final paragraph of your essay should be a summary of everything you've covered in the body. Restate your thesis and the biggest supporting evidence to drive your point home. While this section should be relatively short, it is your last chance to make an impression and to convince people to see things your way.
Tips to Help Persuade
There are certain methods to help incline people to believe you. These include:
Social proof, where you use quotes from people, can help your readers feel that they need to consider your side of things to fit in socially. It's similar to peer pressure and very useful for an persuasive essay.
Repetition is also a time-honored method of convincing people to pay attention. When you repeat the same information over and over again (in this case, your thesis), it will eventually sink in.
Exposing the problem and then going into great detail about how bad it can be is another method of persuasion. Once you have gone beyond the usual and shown people how horrible the issue can become, you will be able to offer them a solution and your point of view. More will be interested in seeing the end result when they realize just how terrible things can get.
The final step in writing your essay is to proofread it. Let it sit for a day or two so you can look at it with fresh eyes or have a friend take a look at it. It's easier to catch mistakes when you haven't been working on the essay non-stop.
Writing an persuasive essay is a part of common core standards, so it’s an important skill to have. However, beyond academic purposes, writing a persuasive essay is a skill that can help you in life. When it comes to making a sale, asking for a raise, or even just suggesting an improvement in your workplace, a little persuasive writing can go a long way.