Writing an essay may not feel daunting at first. But when you’re met with a single question and several sheets of blank paper, knowing where to start can be tricky.
Figuring out how to structure an essay effectively will get you top marks, and it’ll help you work more efficiently and truly understand the points you’re trying to make.
There’s no one-size-fits-all approach to writing essays. But, sectioning your thoughts and creating an argument that’s easy to follow will make you popular with whoever’s marking your work.
If you’ve just received an essay topic at school, college, or university and have no idea how to start an essay or how to structure your argument – we’ve got you covered.
Whether you’re trying to write a complex dissertation, a multi-layered college paper, or a convincing argument for your History GCSE, we’ll guide you through how to structure an essay with confidence.
Sounds perfect, right? So, let’s dive right in!
The basic structure of an essay
Okay, as Maria von Trapp would say, “let’s start at the very beginning”.
So, your basic essay structure contains three important parts: the introduction, the body, and the conclusion.
The average student essay is made up of this reliable trifecta. There are a few academic papers that may include funky things like abstracts.
Most student essays don’t contain subheadings (until you write longer dissertations), and they typically flow nicely from the introduction through to the main body and conclusion.
This simple structure has been around for decades, and it’s held up throughout the years as it just works. It gets your point across in an easily digestible way, and it allows you to weave supporting arguments through the body before rounding things off in the conclusion.
Tip: Before I dive into the separate sections of your essay in more detail, it’s worth mentioning that: you shouldn’t allocate equal words to each section when you’re writing.
Overall, the core ideas for your essay should appear in the main body. This should take up between 80% and 90% of your word count.
The introduction and conclusion aim to set the context of your essay and the conclusion ties things up in a neat little ribbon for the examiner.
Nice and simple.
A deeper dive into each section of your essay structure
So what should each section of your essay include? Let’s find out …
The introduction of an essay gets everything off on the right foot. This is where you’ll introduce your topic, lay out your central argument, and briefly summarize the main points that you’ll consider throughout the piece.
(Just for reference, your main argument is known as the thesis of an essay, and it should always be clearly stated in your introduction.)
The best introductions aren’t full of waffle or fluff. They simply lay out a response to the question before moving swiftly on. And they use a lot of signposting so the reader knows what to look out for.
Depending on whether you’re writing a university assignment behind a computer screen, or are racing against the clock in the exam room, you may want to leave the introduction until last.
This might seem odd! But your introduction must contain your central thesis and link back to the body and structure of the essay. It’s often easier to write this once you’re clear on that thesis and structure.
You can certainly write your introduction as a springboard instead, but make sure you keep referring to it when you’re writing the main section of your essay (or you risk befuddling the examiner with an unclear argument!).
You must start strong, so don’t rush this section.
The second section of the essay is called the body. It’s typically the longest part.
You aren’t strictly limited to how much you write here – hooray! Every paragraph should have a purpose and support your main argument.
If you’re writing an essay that weighs up two different sides to an argument, allocate 50% of the body to each side.
Believe me, agonizing over one part and then rushing through the other probably won’t help your grade if you’re trying to compare and contrast!
Paragraphs in the body of an essay usually have a basic structure and each paragraph should either directly link to the previous one or introduce a new idea.
For shorter exam-based essays, it’s best to stick to the “one paragraph per point” guideline. This should keep your work organized and clear to follow.
If you need to use more than one paragraph for a single point, remember to shift the focus slightly or go into more specific detail on the point you’re making. Don’t just repeat yourself.
Every secondary paragraph on the same point needs to have a clear link to the previous paragraph – so be careful here!
Remember to use transitions to link your paragraphs and create a clear path through your argument for your reader.
If you’re not sure how long your paragraphs should be, familiarise yourself with our recommendations for school and academic essays and papers.
What should I include?
If you’re wondering what to include when it comes to the actual content of the body, just remember to keep all your points relevant – avoid tangents!
For example, History essays should contain plenty of facts and figures to back up your point. Geography essays work incredibly well when you use synoptic links. Trying to write an English essay? It will always benefit from a quote or two.
Just remember – if you’re answering the question, constantly referring to your central thesis, and supporting your argument with relevant information, you can’t go far off-piste.
Unsure of whether one of your points should be included? Check your thesis and see if the detail supports your argument. If not, leave it out!
A quick aside – the importance of signposting
Before I move on, I thought I’d quickly mention the beauty of signpost sentences.
No, we’re not talking about directions here, but I promise that signposting is extremely useful for examiners and will help them follow your argument easily.
Signpost sentences set out the main point that you plan to explore in a paragraph and often refer to the original question.
For example, if you were talking about Hitler’s rise to power, you may say:
One important reason for Hitler’s rise to power was his willingness to use violence to progress his political career.
The most important factor in Hitler’s rise to power was the desperation of the German people after the Great Depression.
You’d then use this clear sentence to move into a big, juicy paragraph. Learn more about how to start a paragraphwith our handy guide full of vocab and tips.
Signposting is as easy as that, and it can help to keep your writing and argument on track.
For a more in-depth exploration of the benefits and clarity that signposting can bring to your essays, check out our article full of signposting tips and vocab.
So, you’ve reached the final hurdle on your essay-writing journey. The conclusion!
In your essay’s conclusion, you’ll want to summarize the main points you’ve made in the body and draw your argument to a close.
As you’ll have spent quite a bit of time detailing your argument, your conclusion needn’t be longer than a couple of sentences or a short paragraph.
You don’t want to repeat anything you’ve already mentioned in detail. All you need to do is concisely draw together the key points you’ve made and call it a day.
Oh, and don’t add anything new in here – it’s not the time or the place. You’ll just confuse your reader and weaken any argument you’re trying to make.
How to structure an essay: some common essay writing mistakes
This article should have given you a decent idea of how to structure an essay. However, if you’re looking for some parting words of wisdom, just sit tight.
These are some of the common mistakes I’ve seen students making, so try and avoid them if you can.
- “Walking through” your points: I’ve seen this a few times, and it means that students are just telling rather than showing. There’s lots of description in these essays, but very little argument going on.
- To avoid this, always make sure that each of your points is driving your thesis forward. Most essays don’t have room for fluff, so keep describing off the table.
- Too many arguments: it can be tempting to try and cover every base, but you simply can’t discuss every single thing relating to a topic.
- To avoid this, stick to a strong, single argument that directly answers the question.
- Poor paragraph division: Examiners need to be able to follow your argument clearly, so try not to muddle your paragraphs or mesh points together without a clear reason.
- Make sure you know the rules on when to start a new paragraph.
- An unclear thesis: The thesis is the crux of your argument, and no examiner will be able to grade your work highly without a clear and coherent thesis.
- Before diving into your essay, take some time to think of a clear thesis that you can support (and directly answers the question!) – creating an outline can be really helpful.
Okay, I’m with you on the essay structure side of things – but how do I get started?
Now that you know how to outline a basic essay, you may be wondering how to get started with your essay.
It’s never wise to dive into an essay without a plan. I highly recommend jotting down a rough plan (an outline) on your exam paper, computer, or whatever you’re working on.
A plan will help you keep your head clear when you’re writing an essay. It doesn’t have to be super comprehensive (especially if you’re pressed for time)!
It’ll take a bit of trial and error, but soon you’ll be churning out excellent essays with the best of them.