Structuring an Essay

One of the most important things to master before going into your exams is how to effectively structure an essay. Unfortunately, you can know absolutely everything there is to know about a novel, drama or a set of poems and you’re still not guaranteed a great mark. On the other hand, if you know your way around writing essays you can make more limited knowledge go a lot further.

This was always my skills when I was at school, particularly at GCSE level and then when I got to A-level I figured out how to create effective/detailed notes for all my texts to. Knowing how to structure your work makes it that much easier to put your ideas across in a clear and meaningful way to your examiner.

In this post you should find some tips for construction and also a couple of essays that aim to demonstrate this structure (sorry if these take a while to provide links to).

What should they look like?

Here is a skeleton of an essay (apologies for my waffle):

Introduction – address the task or question head on. Explain what you think the answer is/your opinion and very briefly the main points you are going to discuss to prove this.

Do not tell me who wrote the book/poem, when or why… it’s simply irrelevant nonsense and wastes time away from your analysis and ideas about the text.

Analysis Paragraph 1 – once you’ve given me an overview in your introduction, we’re going to dive into your ideas in detail in the main body of your essay.

Start with your strongest opinion or idea relating to the question. Make sure you are focused on one clear point and do not mix unrelated ideas as this will confuse your examiner.

I break each main point paragraph down for my classes into 4 different elements:

Point  – what is this paragraph about? Try and use the words of the question to keep your paragraphs on track.

Evidence – back up what you’re talking about. Depending on the exam and question you’re answering this may be quotation based or textual reference based. For closed book exams and non-extract questions a well chosen specific reference can be just as effective as a quotation and you’re not being marked on your ability to remember the entire book.

What is a specific textual reference? Well, try to be exact with the part of the text you want the examiner to think about. E.g. we can see this when Arun makes excuses to avoid the Indian society – this is clear enough to understand the part of the book being discussed and the specific element of the story that is relevant to my point.

If this is unclear, have a look at one of my example essays.

Explanation – this is the hardest element to explain, seemingly as I’m often faced with baffled looks and continued questions.

You must make sure that when you use a quotation or reference the text that you explain clearly why it is relevant to the point you are making. Don’t include a reference that you cannot explain as it won’t do you any favours.

Hopefully this extremely simple example below will make it clearer:

(POINT) Arun comes across as being very introverted.(EVIDENCE) In the text we see how he avoids his university room mate and tries to find accommodation where he can be alone. (EXPLANATION)This shows that Arun prefers to be alone and does not feel comfortable being around and talking with others. 

Analysis/Anchor – this is in a way similar to explanation, but should also take your paragraph to the next level.

An anchor is something that holds a ship in one place on a turbulent sea and if you can’t see why that analogy is appropriate for an essay written in the pressure environment of an exam then let me enlighten you.

In an exam most people panic and are so stressed about writing something vaguely impressive they often lose track. Some of the hardest working students are left scratching their heads when they get lower than expected grades despite having written throughout the exam and it is often down to deviation. We start making a point relevant to the question and then go slightly off track… then we can’t even see the question because they’ve just followed a train of thought.

An anchor is used at the end of each analysis paragraph to make sure that it is clear to the examiner how you’ve actually answered the question. You might want to use the words of the question again to focus yourself. Explain exactly how what you’ve mentioned in the paragraph answers the question.

Again, check out the examples to see a working example of this.

Analysis Paragraphs 2,3,4 and 5 – all your paragraphs should follow the pattern above, but you may find that they gradually get smaller as your points should become progressively smaller. A well structured essay should evaluate points based on their strengths and should initially talk through the most important aspects before discussing additional, supporting points. The only exception to this rule might be if points are interlinked and it makes sense to discuss one idea immediately after you’ve dealt with another.

If you are taking two sides of an argument, I’d organise your work so that you make all of one argument first (the one you think is most convincing) and then talk about the other side.

E.g. To what extent is Arun’s life subject to restrictions?

1. Restriction – father’s expectations 2. Restriction – introverted nature – can’t break free 3. Restriction – traditional values of India 4. No Restriction – comparison with Uma – opportunities

How many analysis paragraphs?

Don’t worry! There is not a set amount of paragraphs you need to write for any exam and the length of your paragraphs will be a key determiner of how many you write.

However, think about the time you have to answer each question. My GCSE students have 45 minutes to answer each, a time that I associate with a minimum of around a page and a half of writing and four well developed paragraphs, while my Year 12s have 1 hour and thus 2 pages is my minimum and five analysis paragraphs.

Writing pages and pages does not guarantee higher marks, but writing less than these minimum expectations is probably going to make your examiner knock you down a band or two.

Conclusion – this is your ultimate anchor and I always used to think is your most important paragraph. It is a chance to sum up everything that you’ve discussed and analysed previously and use it to explain your overall answer.

Don’t repeat yourself, but do refer to what you’ve already written.

So it is clear that Arun’s life is restricted by a number of cultural and family expectations, but that it is ultimately his introverted personality that prevents him from attaining any degree of freedom. Although Arun’s dad and Indian society puts pressure on him to succeed and makes his childhood joyless, Arun lacks the assertiveness and confidence to stand up against these expectations to do what he wants, even when afforded the opportunity of studying abroad. 

Notice that I’ve not explained any of the points (in bold) or provided any evidence, I’ve done that already. All I have done is brought them all together for one last bash to deal with the question once and for all.

Author: Mr Sir

Although I've only been teaching Literature since 2011 and did my degree in History, I think that makes me better placed than many Lit teachers to provide notes that make sense and aren't garbled and wrapped up with inaccessible terminology and effluent nonsense. After adventures in Uganda and Uzbekistan, I am now settling down in the Netherlands. However, currently I am just about as unsettled as I have ever been, with a new job, a new baby, a new country and a hundred other things going on! Ask me a question, collaborate or abuse me.

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