essay

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. Writing an academic essay means fashioning a coherent set of ideas into an argument.
Although there are guidelines for constructing certain classic essay types (e.g., comparative analysis), there are no set formula. 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.
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Answering Questions: The Parts of an Essay
A typical essay contains many different kinds of information, often located in specialized parts or sections. Background material (historical context or biographical information, a summary of relevant theory or criticism, the definition of a key term paper) 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. Introductions and conclusions have fixed places, but other parts don’t. Even short essays perform several different operations: introducing the argument, analyzing data, raising counterarguments, concluding. Counterargument, for example, may appear within a paragraph, as a free-standing section, as part of the beginning, or before the ending.
(Readers should have questions. It’s helpful to think of the different essay sections as answering a series of questions your reader might ask when encountering your thesis. If they don’t, your thesis is most likely simply an observation of fact, not an arguable claim.)
To answer the question you must examine your evidence, thus demonstrating the truth of your claim. «What?» The first question to anticipate from a reader is «what»: What evidence shows that the phenomenon described by your thesis is true? If it does, the essay will lack balance and may read as mere summary or description. But be forewarned: it shouldn’t take up much more than a third (often much less) of your finished essay. 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. This «what» or «demonstration» section comes early in the essay, often directly after the introduction.
«How?» A reader will also want to know whether the claims of the thesis are true in all cases. (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. 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.
It allows your readers to understand your essay within a larger context. This question addresses the larger implications of your thesis. «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? If you leave it out, your readers will experience your essay as unfinished—or, worse, as pointless or insular. 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.

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