Markers of essays often complain that student essays lack a clear structure. What they mean is that the material presented isn’t connected in a logical way. It isn’t uncommon to read essays that contain relevant content, but which are written in a haphazard, almost scattergun way, with disconnected sentences and paragraphs jumping from one point to another with little linkage between them. The way to create a clear structure is through the correct use of paragraphs, especially the correct use of topic and linking sentences. To ensure that your essays are put together logically, you need to know what essay structure is all about.
Developing essay structure is really quite easy, but it takes practice. The trick is to treat each paragraph in your essay as a micro-essay. Just like your essay, each paragraph should have an introduction, body and conclusion:
- The introduction to your paragraph is known as the topic sentence. Topic sentences simply summarise or introduce what you are going to say in your paragraph.
- The body of the paragraph then expands on this sentence by providing definitions, evidence and further explanation. Often the body of the paragraph contains an example to emphasise the main point introduced in the topic sentence.
- The conclusion of the paragraph is known as the linking sentence, which simply links the paragraph to the next paragraph. You normally do this automatically, but when dealing with complex information and issues, and especially when cutting and pasting sentences and paragraphs from one part of your essay to another, it’s easy for the logical structure of your micro-essays (the paragraphs) to disappear.
It follows from the above that paragraphs cannot be one or two sentences long. The use of many one- or two-sentence paragraphs is a tell-tale sign that the micro-essay structure is missing. Conversely, paragraphs should not be a page or more in length. Each paragraph should contain one main point which is defined, clarified and supported with evidence.
Subheadings: A word of caution
The use of subheadings in an essay is a matter of individual preference. In general, avoid the use of subheadings for relatively short essays (below 3000 words). Subheadings are best used to break up lengthy text, especially when it may not all be read in one sitting. The danger in using subheadings is that you might fail to provide proper topic and linking sentences, making your essay disjointed and losing you marks. Even when you use subheadings, your microessay structure should stay intact—that is, your paragraphs should still be linked together in a logical way. The rule of thumb when using subheadings is not to use them as an excuse for not linking what comes before and after the heading. The essay must still maintain a clear structure.