Ask the most successful students how they approach writing essays, and each will likely give you a slightly different response. Writing is a subjective beast, and hard, true answers do not really fit. Still, were you to examine the writing of the best essay writers, and some structural commonalities would surface. This article will attempt to articulate an approach to writing a solid essay, one that will hold up at the high school or the college level. While I recognize the importance of grammar, spelling, sentence structure, and all the other nuts and bolts of writing, this article will focus on the macroscopic, structural elements that go into a good essay.
Always think of the essay as an argument. Whether you are writing about the subversion of sociological norms in The Backyardigans or Shakespeare’s contrasting of light and dark in Macbeth, you are taking a position and defending it. More importantly, you are defending it in a way that seems perfectly fair, but is in fact entirely unfair. This begins with your introduction. Conceptually, I have often seen the introduction pictured as an inverted triangle. While this has some rudimentary appeal, I think a better visual is a funnel. Either way, the key to the whole paragraph – and indeed the whole essay – is a strong, concise thesis statement. The thesis is a statement of exactly what you are going to show in this paper, the point of it all. Everything that comes before should be narrowly tailored to lead to this point. As with either the triangle (I lean isosceles if we must use triangles, but you can visualize an equilateral if you prefer) or the funnel, the top is much broader. You are describing the general subject matter here – and doing so in such a way as to guide the reader toward the point of view you will express in the thesis. As the paragraph focuses in, it should direct the reader more strongly toward the thesis. On my preferred funnel, there is a point at which the curve goes from being convex to concave, and suddenly drives the introduction quickly to the thesis. I like to utilize a turn here, highlighted usually by a “however” or an “although,” that moves the reader in a clear direction to meet your frame of mind in the thesis. There are other ways to get there, but a good transition about two-thirds of the way through the paragraph is helpful.
An important consideration as you set up the introduction is the audience for whom you are writing. As a student, this means you should know your teacher or professor to some extent. How does s/he tend to think about this subject matter? What approach(es) might lead him/her to relate to your perspective? Is this professor someone who enjoys disagreement, or someone who would lower your grade for a “wrong” perspective? As you shape your introduction – and in fact, your whole essay – constantly revisit these questions so you can create something that will work for the situation you have.
After the introduction, the next step is to support your thesis. Depending on the type of essay, this can include anecdotes, passages of text, or scientific data. In any case, you need to show you have thought through your thesis enough to be able to sustain an argument. If you ever learned the Five Paragraph Essay, you know that there should be at least three strong points to support your thesis. However, this is often not enough to carry the day. To beef up your argument, think of two main types of body paragraphs: the “pro” paragraph and the “con” paragraph.
A con paragraph begins by addressing a potentially differing viewpoint, or possible quibbles over aspects of your thesis. You could even cite to a published account of such quibbles. What this does is show that you have in fact considered alternate views regarding your thesis. Once you acknowledge such a view, you should of course crush it, explaining in cold, calculated language why the holder of this viewpoint is a fool. Bonus points may come if you cite to a comment made by your own teacher/professor – provided, of course, that said teacher/professor is not petty enough to dock you for this.
A good rule to remember is that you should have at least three pro paragraphs for each con. A pro paragraph is simply a paragraph giving a supporting point for your thesis. In each such paragraph, you should first state your main supporting point in one sentence. From there, develop by explaining how it is relevant, why it is significant to your argument, etc. Flesh out your paragraph; if it is wider than it is long, the teacher has a visual hint that your thoughts lack depth. Whether it is true or not, you do not want to give that impression. Do not try to avoid this problem with fluff, or with crazy margins and spacing. If you are stuck on how to develop the paragraph, ask three questions: Why? How? So what? Answer those questions fully, and you will have a developed paragraph.
If we are envisioning the introduction as a funnel, the body should be seen as a set of interlocking, upright triangles. They expand from a statement of support to a broader, fuller understanding of that point from the paragraph’s beginning to its end. Moreover, the point of the next triangle is connected to the base of the previous. By using transitional words or phrases, you should show that the entire essay is connected, the thoughts tied together in a powerful argument supporting your thesis. If a transition phrase does not work neatly, repeat a phrase from the last sentence of the previous paragraph to show their connectedness. If you don’t think the points are connected, then they probably do not both tie back well to your thesis. If they do, then think harder to create the appearance of this connection.
The conclusion is, of course, where the fun begins. You should first restate your thesis, in not the same words, but just as strongly while reflecting contribution of the body of your essay. Next, summarize the supporting paragraphs briefly, emphasizing the coherence of thought you have so ably demonstrated throughout the essay. Once you have done this, do something more with it. Say something broader about your points than you have dared to this point. You have argued masterfully, so let loose with it. Don’t turn it into an editorial on society at large (unless, of course, the essay was heading in that direction anyway), but answer that “So what?” one more time, emphatically and defiantly. You’ve gone to the trouble of writing a great essay, so do something with it.
Adding the Title: Go for the Colon!
Don’t bother titling your paper until you have written it. Often, in thinking through and developing your points, you find you are ending up somewhere different from what you intended. This is a good thing. Once you recognize the new (or more likely, slightly adjusted) position, you must first revisit the thesis. Make sure it still says what you want it to say. Make sure as well that the body paragraphs still support this tweaked thesis. If you need to make adjustments, do so. Your paper will be better for acknowledging your shift.
All this completed, you can now add an appropriate title to your paper. I am a firm believer in colons in academic essays. They have a wonderful way of making the writer look smart before a single word of the essay itself is read. There are two cautions here, though: make sure your teacher/professor likes them as much as I do, and use them appropriately. For the former, if the teacher/professor commonly rants about the pretentious tendencies of writers, or often laments the loss of the simple times of simple titles that existed long ago, save your colons for another class. Otherwise, feel free to break it out.
As for how to use it, a basic form goes a long way. To the left of the colon, write something witty, such as a pun, an apt quote from your subject matter, or a generally clever turn of phrase related to your thesis. To the right of the colon, write a concise phrase showing what you actually will discuss. For instance, pulling from the subjects discussed at the beginning of this paper, you could use, “Hey, I Know What!”: Uniqua’s Grammatical Subversion of the Traditional Leadership Model,” or “Staying Away from the Light: Dark’s Place and Displacement in Macbeth.” Have fun with this, and you can add a little pompous flair to your brilliant essay.