See this as a YouTube video: http://bit.ly/structureanessay
Many of us have been taught in high school all of these weird acronyms, like KISS and SEXY (sentence, example, explanation or some crap), but I personally found these acronyms to be all weirdly sexual and not helpful in the slightest. Over my years at university, and now as a lecturer having marked thousands of essays, I have figured out the simplest technique as to how to write a great academic essay, and there are no sexual acronyms involved.
1. First, your introduction.
All you have to do for an introduction is state off the bat what you are going to argue or do in your essay. In journalism we call this the nutgraph, it’s basically like, if you were to explain to your best friend what your essay was about in a nutshell, what would you say. For example, in the essay I wrote about 16-year-olds voting, I started in my first sentence that “this essay will argue that 16-year-olds should be able to vote”. It’s simple and I’m stating my argument straight away. The reason I think this sentence should ideally go first is because markers are generally busy and do not want to spend more than 10-15 minutes grading your paper. So if you state straight away what you are going to argue, then you don’t leave them waiting and they know you have a clear point and what that point is. I usually start every essay with “This essay will” as I find that is the simplest and easiest way to express what you are about to do immediately.
Then, all you have to do is write the building blocks of your argument, i.e. how you are going to prove your first statement. And all you have to do for that is say what point you are going to make in every paragraph. You don’t want to make it like a table of contents as in “in paragraph one I will discuss ABC,” but if you’re like “The essay will first explain ABC, then argue ABC, then look at this counter argument, then overcome it” that would be great. So it is saying what you are going to do in every paragraph but not in a blunt way. That’s personally what I love marking as already in the first paragraph I know exactly what the student is arguing and I know how they are going to argue it. it’s very simple, clear, and it helps me when I’m feeling lazy while marking to know exactly what is happening. I find it super effective, and I recommend sticking to roughly this strategy rather than getting fancy.
2. Body paragraphs
When writing the main body paragraphs, you want to do what I call ‘holding your lecturer’s hand’. You want to explain what you are about to argue in every paragraph before you start the paragraph and tell your lecturer how this paragraph links to the overall argument or point of your essay (which is what you stated you would do in your first sentence). So if you were arguing the voting age should be lowered to 16, you would start off a paragraph about voting being representative by going like this: “First, modern democracy’s function must be analysed to show why 16 and 17-year-olds should theoretically be allowed to vote in New Zealand.” It’s linking back to the main point of the essay and it’s explaining to your reader exactly what your paragraph will be about and why it’s in your essay. Some people call this a ‘topic sentence’ but I personally call it ‘holding your lecturers hand and explaining how the paragraph will link to your overall essay’.
Once you’ve done this just lay our your argument how you normally would argue something. This is usually by starting off with an explanation and backing that explanation up with a few examples. Most people do this part of essays really well, it’s just the first sentence and linking it to the overall point of their essay that I find students struggle with. So if you focus on how each paragraph links to your essay, I think this arguing part won’t be a problem. But if it is leave a comment and I can make another post/video about it.
Counter arguments: Remember, if you are doing an argumentative essay and are writing a counter point, you still need to link that into your overall essay. Like you don’t just want to say 16 year olds should be able to vote, some say they shouldn’t because they’re too young. You want to link in why even though there is a counter-argument (as there usually always is) that your point of view is still on balance more logical. So for example, you could say something like this “One opposition to the above argument is that people below age 18 are not politically mature enough to vote in ways that would represent their interests, thus corrupting the representative system. However, this proposition can be challenged.” So it’s acknowledging that there is a counter argument, but it’s overcoming it. this is important to do to make sure your essay flows and argues one consistent thing and makes sense. It also shows you have considered other points of view but still think yours is best.
Your conclusion should be a mirror paragraph to your introduction. All you want to do is repeat what you’ve already told people, i.e. repeat your first sentence but do it in past tense (“this essay argued that...”) and then repeat what arguments you made in each paragraph to make this point. Then, the only extra thing you need on top of what you already have in your introduction is some sort of ‘statement of general importance’ to finish the essay off. Usually I always end with something like “this topic is important and needs further study” because generally topics are important (at least to your lecturer) if you have been assigned to research it. For example: “Ultimately, in light of the arguments put forward in this essay and many other points that were not mentioned due to word constraints, New Zealand must continue to discuss youth suffrage and whether the laws are still fair in today’s democratic and social climate.”
And that’s it! Then you will have a simple and straight forward essay that your lecturer will generally like as it will be easy for them to read and will flow and make sense. I used to think of essays like one piece of string, it all needs to be linked and the same thing, but each paragraph is just a different colour of the string. It all needs to tie together and flow, so I hope these steps can help you get there.
If you would like any more tips on how to structure individual paragraphs in more depth let me know. Otherwise please leave a comment if you enjoyed this and like and subscribe to my YouTube channel (link in 'About' above). Bye!
See this as a YouTube video: http://bit.ly/avoidprocrastinationandwrite
1. Start straight away with a mind-map
I used to always put writing essays off until the last minute and it worked ok. But I’ve found that if you start generating ideas on your question as soon as you get the question, even if you don’t start writing until the night before, you have had at least a few weeks for the topic to mull around in your brain, which is great. You’ve also been to class and have heard a few ideas that you think might link to your essay, so it’s really helpful to start immediately. I usually will do a mind map the day I receive an essay, and that’s because the longer you leave it the more likely it is you won’t do it (this is the law of diminishing intent).
In regards to how I mind map, I usually do it in a pretty standard way where I write the question topic in the middle and branch off with different ideas. I think the key to a successful mind map is to let your brain go absolutely wild and to not censor yourself. Write down absolutely everything you can think of, even if you think it’s stupid or not related. That way you’ll fully flex your brain muscle and come up with every possible avenue to explore. And in my experience, I find the ideas that seem the most out there are actually the deepest and best for your essay.
2. Start taking notes
Once you have a few ideas from mind map, if you want you can highlight some of the better ideas you come up with and can start searching those terms. This gives you a place to start. So for example, in the article above I started thinking about how the arguments against 16 year olds being able to vote are sort of similar to the arguments against women being able to vote (which was that they’re not mature enough and can’t think for themselves, etc.). So with that thought in mind, I started Googling ideas related to this topic.
I usually go to Google Scholar to begin with, read through the abstracts and then save anything I think might be related into a folder.
Then, once I have a few things saved, the first thing I do is open a word or Google docs and split the document into subheadings. So for example, for the essay about voting I had one subheading labelled ‘women’s suffrage arguments’. I had another about politics being representative, not about intelligence, which was an idea I came up with in my brainstorm. Then, once you’ve found a few articles that are relevant, I usually write down the title of it and give it a unique colour. Then, if I read something in the article that links to representation, I make a note of it and put it under the relevant subheading in the colour I assign to that article. That’s because usually articles aren’t just about one thing and may have a few pieces of information that will relate to your topic. That way you start forming the basic structure of your essay and you know where all the information is from.
Also, practically, you can keep the information about the reference and its colour at the top of the page. Or, if the article if mainly about one topic, you can colour it and put the information under the relevant subheading, as long as you’ll know where to find it afterwards.
3. Write that shizz (a crappy first draft)
Then, once you have read around 5-10 things, and it’s all listed under subheadings, what you can do is organise the subheadings into a logical order and start writing out a paragraph based on that subheading. And the way I get around writers block, and what I always tell my students is to start by writing a crappy first draft. What I mean by this is just get some words onto paper even if it’s terrible and in a stream-of consciousness rampage. In journalism we often said ‘blank page is the enemy’ and that’s especially true in writing assignments. Once you have some clay to work with you can start moulding, but when you’re staring at a blank screen you’re pretty much feeling terrible and stressed. Plus, although you think you should wait to write something when you really feel like you’re in a good headspace to write, I’ve found that even if you write something you think is bad, it’s usually not far off from the end product you come up with. Also, when you have no pressure to write something good, you overcome that feeling of pressure and anxiety that we often have when writing assignments.
That’s why it’s best to just go for it, write something crap, and then edit the shit out of it later. I usually write at least five drafts for each assignment I do, and that’s because I start by writing an absolute hunk of junk and then spend time moulding it. I usually save other drafts just in case what I write the second time around is worse then my first draft. This helps me overcome that feeling you get when you don’t want to delete a paragraph.
And that’s it! I hope you find this useful. I definitely spent my first few years at university leaving things to the last minute and feeling so stressed about it for weeks, which was not health or productive, and my grades were worse than they could have been. These techniques of mine have been fine-tuned over the years and I find they really work for me, so I hope they also work for you.
Let me know how you find it in the comments. Happy studying!