Different Ways Of Writing An Essay

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

Four types of essay: expository, persuasive, analytical, argumentative

For our academic writing purposes we will focus on four types of essay. 

1) The expository essay

 

What is it?
This is a writer’s explanation of a short theme, idea or issue.

The key here is that you are explaining an issue, theme or idea to your intended audience. Your reaction to a work of literature could be in the form of an expository essay, for example if you decide to simply explain your personal response to a work. The expository essay can also be used to give a personal response to a world event, political debate, football game, work of art and so on.

What are its most important qualities?
You want to get and, of course, keep your reader’s attention. So, you should:

  • Have a well defined thesis. Start with a thesis statement/research question/statement of intent. Make sure you answer your question or do what you say you set out to do. Do not wander from your topic. 
  • Provide evidence to back up what you are saying. Support your arguments with facts and reasoning. Do not simply list facts, incorporate these as examples supporting your position, but at the same time make your point as succinctly as possible. 
  • The essay should be concise. Make your point and conclude your essay. Don’t make the mistake of believing that repetition and over-stating your case will score points with your readers.

 

2) The persuasive essay


What is it?
This is the type of essay where you try to convince the reader to adopt your position on an issue or point of view.

Here your rationale, your argument, is most important. You are presenting an opinion and trying to persuade readers, you want to win readers over to your point of view.

What are its most important qualities?

  • Have a definite point of view. 
  • Maintain the reader’s interest. 
  • Use sound reasoning. 
  • Use solid evidence. 
  • Be aware of your intended audience. How can you win them over? 
  • Research your topic so your evidence is convincing. 
  • Don’t get so sentimental or so passionate that you lose the reader, as Irish poet W. B. Yeats put it: 
    The best lack all conviction, while the worst
    Are full of passionate intensity
  • Your purpose is to convince someone else so don’t overdo your language and don’t bore the reader. And don’t keep repeating your points! 

  • Remember the rules of the good paragraph. One single topic per paragraph, and natural progression from one to the next. 
  • End with a strong conclusion. 

 

3) The analytical essay


What is it?
In this type of essay you analyze, examine and interpret such things as an event, book, poem, play or other work of art. 

What are its most important qualities?
Your analytical essay should have an:

  • Introduction and presentation of argument 
    The introductory paragraph is used to tell the reader what text or texts you will be discussing. Every literary work raises at least one major issue. In your introduction you will also define the idea or issue of the text that you wish to examine in your analysis. This is sometimes called the thesis or research question. It is important that you narrow the focus of your essay.
  • Analysis of the text (the longest part of the essay) 
    The issue you have chosen to analyze is connected to your argument. After stating the problem, present your argument. When you start analyzing the text, pay attention to the stylistic devices (the “hows” of the text) the author uses to convey some specific meaning. You must decide if the author accomplishes his goal of conveying his ideas to the reader. Do not forget to support your assumptions with examples and reasonable judgment.
  • Personal response
    Your personal response will show a deeper understanding of the text and by forming a personal meaning about the text you will get more out of it. Do not make the mistake of thinking that you only have to have a positive response to a text. If a writer is trying to convince you of something but fails to do so, in your opinion, your critical personal response can be very enlightening. The key word here is critical. Base any objections on the text and use evidence from the text. Personal response should be in evidence throughout the essay, not tacked on at the end. 
  • Conclusion (related to the analysis and the argument)
    Your conclusion should explain the relation between the analyzed text and the presented argument.

Tips for writing analytical essays:

  • Be well organized. Plan what you want to write before you start. It is a good idea to know exactly what your conclusion is going to be before you start to write. When you know where you are going, you tend to get there in a well organized way with logical progression.
  • Analytical essays normally use the present tense. When talking about a text, write about it in the present tense. 
  • Be “objective”: avoid using the first person too much. For example, instead of saying “I think Louisa is imaginative because…”, try: “It appears that Louisa has a vivid imagination, because…”. 
  • Do not use slang or colloquial language (the language of informal speech). 
  • Do not use contractions. 
  • Avoid using “etc.” This is an expression that is generally used by writers who have nothing more to say. 
  • Create an original title, do not use the title of the text. 
  • Analysis does not mean retelling the story. Many students fall into the trap of telling the reader what is happening in the text instead of analyzing it. Analysis aims to explain how the writer makes us see what he or she wants us to see, the effect of the writing techniques, the text’s themes and your personal response to these.

 

4) The argumentative essay


What is it?
This is the type of essay where you prove that your opinion, theory or hypothesis about an issue is correct or more truthful than those of others. In short, it is very similar to the persuasive essay (see above), but the difference is that you are arguing for your opinion as opposed to others, rather than directly trying to persuade someone to adopt your point of view.


What are its most important qualities?

  • The argument should be focused
  • The argument should be a clear statement (a question cannot be an argument)
  • It should be a topic that you can support with solid evidence
  • The argumentative essay should be based on pros and cons (see below)
  • Structure your approach well (see below)
  • Use good transition words/phrases (see below)
  • Be aware of your intended audience. How can you win them over?
  • Research your topic so your evidence is convincing.
  • Don’t overdo your language and don’t bore the reader. And don’t keep repeating your points!
  • Remember the rules of the good paragraph. One single topic per paragraph, and natural progression from one to the next.
  • End with a strong conclusion.

 

Tips for writing argumentative essays:
1) Make a list of the pros and cons in your plan before you start writing. Choose the most important that support your argument (the pros) and the most important to refute (the cons) and focus on them.

2) The argumentative essay has three approaches. Choose the one that you find most effective for your argument. Do you find it better to “sell” your argument first and then present the counter arguments and refute them? Or do you prefer to save the best for last?

  • Approach 1:
    Thesis statement (main argument):
    Pro idea 1
    Pro idea 2
    Con(s) + Refutation(s): these are the opinions of others that you disagree with. You must clearly specify these opinions if you are to refute them convincingly.
    Conclusion
  • Approach 2:
    Thesis statement:
    Con(s) + Refutation(s)
    Pro idea 1
    Pro idea 2
    Conclusion
  • Approach 3
    Thesis statement:
    Con idea 1 and the your refutation
    Con idea 2 and the your refutation
    Con idea 3 and the your refutation
    Conclusion

3) Use good transition words when moving between arguments and most importantly when moving from pros to cons and vice versa. For example:

  • While I have shown that.... other may say
  • Opponents of this idea claim / maintain that …            
  • Those who disagree claim that …
  • While some people may disagree with this idea...

When you want to refute or counter the cons you may start with:

  • However,
  • Nonetheless,
  • but
  • On the other hand,
  • This claim notwithstanding

If you want to mark your total disagreement:

  • After seeing this evidence, it is impossible to agree with what they say
  • Their argument is irrelevant
  • Contrary to what they might think ...

These are just a few suggestions. You can, of course, come up with many good transitions of your own.

4) Use facts, statistics, quotes and examples to convince your readers of your argument
 

 

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