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
“I want to tell you about the time I almost died.”
I really don’t have such a tale to tell, but I bet I piqued your interest, didn’t I? Why? Because it’s a great opening line that makes you want to learn more. You keep reading because you want to know how the story ends.
This line is actually the first line of the movie Fallen(1998), and whether or not you like the movie, you have to admit that the opening line is killer.
A killer opening line and catchy introduction are exactly what you want for your essay. You want to write an essay introduction that says, “READ ME!”
To learn how to write an essay introduction in 3 easy steps, keep reading!
Why You Need a Good Introduction
First impressions are important!
Think about how many times you start reading an article and don’t read more than a line or two because you lose interest just that fast.
Readers are going to approach your paper in the same way. If they aren’t interested in the first few lines, they’ll stop reading. (Of course, your professor will keep reading even if she’s not very interested, but that’s not the reaction you’re hoping for.)
Without a good introduction, your paper will fall flat.
Like anything it takes a bit of time and practice to craft the perfect introduction, but it’s worth it! So let’s talk about how to write an essay introduction in 3 easy steps.
How to Write an Essay Introduction in 3 Easy Steps
Step 1: Write a catchy opening line
What do all good essay introductions have in common? They have memorable opening lines.
These opening lines (sometimes called hook sentences) grab readers’ attention. They provide just enough information to leave your audience wanting more.
What your opening line looks like will depend on what type of paper you’re writing.
You might try using a shocking quote, an interesting statistic, an anecdote, or a question you’ll answer in the essay.
If you’re writing a problem/solution essay, for example, you’ll likely be writing about a serious topic. Your tone and opening lines will reflect this, and a shocking quote or statistic might be your best option.
Here’s a quick example:
Bad opening line for a problem/solution essay: Parking on campus is terrible, and they definitely need to do something about it.
This broad, uninteresting statement doesn’t work well as opening line. The language is too informal, and readers aren’t sure who “they” might be.
Better opening line for a problem/solution essay: A 2014 Student Government survey revealed that 65% of commuters have been late to class in the past semester due to lack of available on-campus parking.
The opening line works much better. Not only is the tone much more serious, but it includes a statistic that reveals that the problem actually exists.
If you’re writing an evaluation essay, you’ll likely be writing in first person. Because this essay is more informal, you have more options for an opening line. You might use a personal story or anecdote, but might also find that a quote works just as well.
Let’s look at a few sample opening lines from an evaluation essay.
Bad opening line #1: I think Michael Keaton was a good Batman.
The most appropriate reaction to this line would be: So what?
This opening line tells readers almost nothing. It isn’t interesting and doesn’t grab readers’ attention at all.
Bad opening line #2: According to dictionary.com, Batman is “a character in an American comic strip and several films who secretly assumes a batlike costume in order to fight crime”.
This is a horrible opening line! Don’t use dictionary definitions to start your paper. Dictionary definitions are dull and boring, and in most cases, readers already know the word you’re defining, so the strategy isn’t effective.
Bad opening line #3: Ever since the days of the cavemen, we’ve told stories about our heroes.
This type of introduction makes a broad, sweeping statement that doesn’t offer any connection to the real content of your paper. Avoid such statements that start with the beginning of time.
Better opening line:Even though Christopher Nolan’s Batman has been critically acclaimed, the fact remains that the most successful Batman ever made was Tim Burton’s version starring Michael Keaton (Aspen).
This opening line cites a credible source and offers readers an arguable statement.
This type of statement will work well if readers are fans of Keaton or if readers are fans of Nolan, as they’ll want to read on to see why you think Keaton is so much better.
Step 2: Introduce your topic
Think about what readers need to know to understand the focus of your paper. Think about how narrow or how broad your introduction should be and what you’ll include in your opening paragraph to help readers understand what you’re writing about.
If you’re writing an evaluation essay about Michael Keaton’s portrayal of Batman, including details about the entire Batman franchise is too broad. Instead, focus your introduction more closely on only Michael Keaton’s interpretation of Batman.
Here’s an example.
Bad strategy to introduce the topic: Batman debuted in comic books in 1939 and has been popular ever since. Batman was a television show in the 1960’s and was also remade into many feature-length movies. These movies include Batman & Robin, Batman, Batman Returns, Batman Forever, and The Dark Knight Trilogy.
This example discusses the history of Batman and lists various movies, but the focus is broad, and it doesn’t even mention Michael Keaton. Remember, you’re writing an evaluation essay about Michael Keaton, so he should probably be mentioned in the introduction!
Better strategy to introduce the topic: Since Batman’s comic book debut in 1939, Batman has been portrayed in the 1960’s hit television show (starring Adam West) and in a number of feature-length movies, with A-list actors such as Michael Keaton, George Clooney, and Christian Bale starring in the lead role. Though all of these actors brought their own unique style to the caped crusader, Michael Keaton’s performance stands out among the others.
This example still includes an overview of the history, but it focuses on the men who starred as Batman. This strategy narrows the focus of your introduction and tells readers that you’ll be focusing on Michael Keaton, rather than the history of Batman or the other actors.
Step 3: Write a clear, focused thesis statement
A thesis statement is essentially a mini-outline of your paper. It tells readers what your paper is about and offers your opinion on the topic.
Without a strong thesis, your essay introduction pretty much falls apart.
It’s like putting together a TV stand but deciding to not use all 500 tiny screws in the plastic bag. Without all of those screws in place, the stand will fall apart once you put your TV on it.
So take the time to write a focused thesis. It will help hold your paper together.
Check out this example.
Bad thesis statement: In this paper, I’ll prove that Michael Keaton is the best Batman.
There are so many things wrong with this thesis that I don’t even know where to start.
First, in most types of writing there’s really no need to announce statements like, “In this paper…” Readers should understand the thesis without such announcements.
Second, your essay won’t “prove” the Michael Keaton is the best, so avoid such absolute wording.
Finally, the thesis is vague. How will you define “best”? What does it mean to be the “best” Batman? A thesis needs to be far more specific.
Better thesis statement: Michael Keaton’s comedic timing, on-screen presence, and ability to deliver flawless lines makes Keaton’s version of Batman one of the most effective on-screen portrayals of the character to date.
This thesis statement is much better because it gives readers a quick overview of the paper. It also tells readers that you’re writing about Michael Keaton’s portrayal of Batman, and you’re evaluating Keaton on three specific criteria.
It’s strong enough to stand on its own and strong enough to hold your paper together.
Here’s what your completed essay introduction looks like.
Even though Christopher Nolan’s Batman has been critically acclaimed, the fact remains that the most successful Batman ever made was Tim Burton’s version starring Michael Keaton (Aspen). Since Batman’s comic book debut in 1939, Batman has been portrayed in the 1960s hit television show (starring Adam West) and in a number of feature-length movies, with A-list actors such as Michael Keaton, George Clooney, and Christian Bale starring in the lead role. Though all of these actors brought their own unique style to the caped crusader, Michael Keaton’s performance stands out among the others. Michael Keaton’s comedic timing, on-screen presence, and ability to deliver flawless lines makes Keaton’s version of Batman one of the most effective on-screen portrayals of the character to date.
Not bad, is it? It hooks readers with a catchy opening line, provides a brief introduction to your topic, and includes a strong, focused thesis to let readers know what your paper is about.
Write the Introduction Last (and Other Crazy Ideas)
Even though the introduction is the first thing your audience reads, the introduction doesn’t have to be the first thing you write.
You should always start with a solid focus for your paper, but you can start writing the body of your paper first. Sometimes it can be easier to think of a clever line and strong thesis once you’ve written the main arguments of your paper.
You might also try writing the body and conclusion of your paper (minus the introduction). Once you’ve written the conclusion, think about how you might rework your concluding ideas into an amazing introduction.
Yes, this means you’ll need to write a second conclusion, but sometimes revised conclusions make the best introductions!
If you’re one of those procrastinators and need a bit of help actually starting your paper, read How to Write an Essay Fast and Well.
You might also want to read this to help with formatting.
If you’re still not sure if you know how to write an essay introduction that works, why not have one of our Kibin editors take a look at your paper?
Psst... 98% of Kibin users report better grades! Get inspiration from over 500,000 example essays.