Office of Academic Support - Learning Resources
Essay Writing Study Guide
What is an essay?Essays take many different forms depending on the purpose and audience for which they are written. For example, an essay in the sciences may look different than an essay in the humanities. The audiences in these two distinct fields may have different expectations, and thus the essay may need to be arranged in a different order for each audience. Therefore, if you are writing an essay for a specific class, first check with the instructor of that class to get precise information on the type and structure of essay he/she would like.
Furthermore, you can choose one of many ways to organize an essay. For example, an essay can be arranged in comparison/contrast format, five-paragraph format, etc. The organizational structure largely depends on your topic and once again your audience. For example, if your topic were to look at two computers and determine which is the best for your company, you would want to select comparison contrast structure because it allows you to easily evaluate two topics.
There are many different ways to organize an essay, but some aspects of essay structure remain constant. For example, regardless of whether your instructor wants you to put an explicit statement of purpose/thesis at the beginning or the end of your essay, you still need to have one. In addition, essays of varying natures all need some sort of introduction and conclusion. This module is designed to focus on these big picture elements of the essay. These are listed in the following bullet points.
What are the main components of a basic essay?
Paragraphs or more that include facts, examples, statistics, stories, quotes, descriptions, or any other material that backs up and illustrates the thesis. This will comprise the majority of your essay. It is the "meat" of your essay.
Ways of Organizing Essays and Papers
The general shape of an essay shouldn't change too much from assignment to assignment: An introduction of some sort, a body, and a conclusion. Depending on your content and purpose, however, you may decide to set up the body of your paper any one of several different ways.
Chronological: Some types of essays - usually narratives - more or less lay out the organization for you by being organized most logically in a chronological or time sequence. A personal narrative, an account of an event, and an explanation of a process are examples of types of papers that usually would work best by being organized chronologically from the first event, moment, or step to last event, moment, or step.
Spatial: A descriptive paper often is best organized spatially, literally starting with one part of the item being described and moving to the next part and the next part and so on. For instance, a paper describing a car might start with the front end, then move to the engine and hood, the dash, and the front and back seat areas, then finish with the trunk and rear bumper. Depending on the topic - description of a place, building, person, etc. - arrange the details of your essay by describing the item from top to bottom, left to right, inside out, outside in, most prominent part to least, or whatever spatial way seems to work for your topic and audience.
Persuasive Structures: In a persuasive paper, you may want to intentionally build toward a climax, your most important point, or a dramatic and convincing conclusion. A paper about the need for improved homeless shelters, for example, might be organized by describing conditions in three different shelters, saving the most dramatic and disturbing scene for last to provide a strong and compelling climax. While saving the most dramatic point for last will usually serve you well, occasionally you may want to start with the most dramatic idea; as long as you have more compelling ideas coming afterward, starting with your most arresting image or thought may get your reader's attention and make the following evidence seem even more compelling.
Where your thesis or main idea goes is also a consideration in establishing your persuasive structure. In what is generally referred to as a>Support Structure, the paper develops from the central idea: An assertion, generalization, claim, or thesis is made early on in the paper and is then supported or backed up with the rest of the paper. On the other hand, when a writer uses what is called a Discovery Structure, the paper builds toward a generalization, thesis, or solution, moving from one point to the next until the readers have been led to the thesis or conclusion. A Pro-and-Con Structure (also called Exploratory) can be used with either a support or discovery structure. In a pro-and-con structure, the writer investigates the subject by considering its strengths and weaknesses, its advantages and disadvantages, its positives and negatives. Linking the various points carefully with transitions, the writer goes back and forth between one side of an issue and another, leading, through careful consideration of both sides, to a conclusion. This type of organization not only effectively presents all sides of an issue, it establishes credibility with the reader by showing that the writer is neither biased nor uninformed.
Here is a visual breakdown of how these types of Persuasive Structures are generally arranged:
Pro-and-Con Structure (Example 1)
Pro-and-Con Structure (Example 2)
How to Organize Using a Comparison and Contrast Structure
To compare two items or subjects is to draw attention to their similarities as well as their differences. To contrast is to narrow the scope, focusing only on ways the items are different. When presenting a Comparison and/or Contrast paper, there are two main ways of shaping your work. First, the two subjects may be treated one at a time, separately, Block style. For instance, a paper comparing two Southern presidents, Jimmy Carter and Bill Clinton, could begin with an introduction, then go into a section about Carter, broken down into several points about him, followed by a section highlighting several respective points about Clinton, and ending with a conclusion. Second, the two subjects may be treated together, as your paper proceeds inPoint-to-Point style. Using the same example from above, a paper comparing Carter and Clinton could begin with an introduction, then go into a section about foreign policy decisions, one about military spending, and one about personal character, with both presidents discussed in each section. It may be helpful to see how these strategies lay out in outline form:
Perhaps you have a specific paper to write and a specific subject to write about, but you don't know which of these structures will work best for your particular assignment. Here's a handy list that breaks down some of the most common types of papers you may need to write and what organizational strategies might work best with them.
Outlining - Before and After
Outlining has been taught for years as a necessary strategy for mapping out the organization of a piece of writing before it is written, though many writers today feel pre-draft outlines can be just as inhibiting or constricting as they can be helpful. Still, it's always a good idea to be organized, and if you allow yourself to break from the outline to go in a direction that might work better than your original idea, then the pre-draft outline can be a very useful tool in getting you started and shaping your paper. If your essay goes off in a slightly different direction than you originally planned, so be it. Many a great work has ended up as something wholly different than what the writer initially envisioned.
Oddly enough, though, it might be after you have written your first draft that outlining might prove most beneficial. Once you have a written draft, distance yourself from it and look at its organization. Jot down an outline as you notice the different sections of your essay. Perhaps you will surprise yourself when you see the tight and logical structure of your paper, how all the points and sections seem to be in the right place. But if the order of your paper is not logical, the post-draft outline will reveal it, giving you the opportunity to revise your structure and improve the paper's overall effectiveness. Post-draft outlining can also give you the opportunity to spot missing links, those places in your paper where you shift your focus from one idea or section to another without providing proper transitions to help smoothly guide your reader from one point to the next. By post-outlining your work, you can find the places where you need to fill in these often awkward black holes of writing.
MCNY (60 West Streeti, New York, NY 10006 · 463 East 149th Street, Bronx, NY 10455)
(800) 33 THINK | 212 343 1234
© 2016, Metropolitan College of New York