Essay Structure

The Academic Essay - Helpful Sites - Marking Notes & Symbols

The Academic Essay

— The title gives your reader a general idea about the topic.

— The introduction takes your reader from a general state of awareness to your particular argument.

— The thesis statement tells the reader exactly what you’ll be arguing about your subject; it presents your overall argument in 1) a condensed form and 2) in a way that clearly links to your topic sentences.

— The topic sentences show your reader how each subsidiary point you are making advances your overall argument.

— The conclusion highlights your overall point, and either completes any scenario you developed in your introduction or suggests further avenues of enquiry. In very short essays a conclusion is optional; in such a case, try to end on a concluding note.

Butter Cup Structure

The parts of an essay can be seen as parallel (//) to the parts of a Reese’s peanut butter cup:

- Outside wrapper//  Title

- Tray//  Thesis statement: gives overall shape or structure to the contents

- Paper wrappers//  Topic sentences: define the shape or structure of each part

- Chocolate pieces//  Paragraph content: what you bite into and digest

Remember that while Reese’s peanut butter cups come in threes, you can also buy the large size, which has four cups. Topics can be divided in two, three, four, or any number of parts. The ‘three-paragraph essay’ is an easy way to talk about essay structure, yet you don’t have to bend your ideas to fit into this structure.

Block & Splice

 There are two methods of approaching a text in terms of its arrangement on the page.  The first is the block method, where you deal with the text block by block, or section by section (a block or section is any number of consecutive words or paragraphs). The other is the slice method, where you analyze one aspect as it appears in different parts of the text, and then relate this to another aspect which appears throughout the text. 

Hockey Night in the College

In a block analysis you would analyze how the teams played in each period, how the play changed from one period to the next, and what was the resulting overall pattern of play:

Period   Paragraph      Analysis

1            1               Goals, strengths, weaknesses, offence and defence, strategy, etc.

2            2               Goals, etc., plus how play compared to 1st period

3            3               Goals, etc., plus how play compared to 1st and 2nd periods

In a splice analysis, you’d compare different aspects — such as A) goalie performance throughout the game and B) defence performance throughout the game:

Period    Paragraph    Analysis 

1-3         1               Goalie performance throughout game

1-3         2               Defence performance throughout game

1-3         3               Relation of goalie performance to defence performance

The Title

Generally, the last thing to decide on is the title, as it often comes from the most insightful argument, angle, scenario, or analogy you come up with. Working titles, however, are a good idea, as they help to focus your thinking.

Try to find a title that’s creative, thought provoking, humorous, sums up your argument, or points your readers in the direction you want them to think.

A title can be straightforward or it can be ambiguous or obscure if your aim is to intrigue you reader. Once you get into the first sentence of your introduction, however, you need to avoid any type of ambiguity or obscurity.

The Introduction

Once you figure out your argument, you should find an interesting way of introducing your subject — that is, of taking your reader from the world around us to the specific focus of your topic. In your introduction, you want to do the following:

— Introduce the main elements of your subject.

— Grab the reader’s attention. Find a challenging, provocative, informative, imaginative or intriguing way of moving into your topic. You should also think about how you’ll return to your opening in your conclusion.

— Make sure your argument is clearly stated in your thesis statement, which should be placed at the end of your introductory paragraph.

The thesis statement should be detailed and should show the relation between the different aspects you'll be examining. For instance, instead of writing the author uses imagery and conflict, write the author uses nature imagery to suggest a tension that is then explored in terms of a conflict between lovers.

— Put your thesis statement in the second paragraph only if your first paragraph develops a context or analogy which is more effective without a thesis statement tacked on at the end.

There are at least two ways of doing an introduction:

1)  You can start with the context in which the poem is written. This could be historical, biographical, political, philosophical, etc. This way tends to be drier, yet it's very consistent with the analysis that follows it. Be careful, however, not to go over information which is too basic or too easily accessible. Don't pad your introduction with historical or biographical information. For example, instead of explaining that 1) homosexuality was unacceptable to many in the 1970s, 2) Freddie Mercury was gay, and 3) "Bohemian Rhapsody" may be about him coming out (all of which are fairly easy to see), note alternate interpretations of the lyric, and explain why this particular angle (about him being gay) makes more (or less) sense in light of your reading of the lyric. This will require more thinking on your part, and will end up being more insightful.

2)  You can start with a personal situation, movie or TV reference, analogy, quotation, popular theory, misconception, etc. This tends to be more interesting for general readers, yet is sometimes more difficult to integrate into the analysis that follows. 

Often you’ll write your introduction after you have figured out your thesis statement and main points. This way, you can pick the type of introduction that works best with the final shape of your argument.   

The Body

Start each paragraph with a topic sentence that clearly connects to your thesis statement. The reader shouldn’t have to guess the relation of a topic sentence to the thesis statement. It’s often helpful to use in a topic sentence the same word or phrase (or a variant of the word or phrase) that you use in the thesis statement.

— Don’t link paragraphs using the last sentence of the paragraph. Use the topic sentence to make that link—as in “Another example of ____,” or “Such ____ [use a word or phrase which sums up the last paragraph] stands in opposition to ____.”

— Give the details of your argument in each paragraph. Your argument must contain proof in the form of logical arguments, textual references, illustrative examples, etc. Your argument must be rigorous. It must be a product of analytical thought, that is, of a process which has taken the components of the subject apart, analyzed them, and then configured them into a new, distanced, critical understanding.

Underline or italicize books, magazines, journals, films, plays, TV shows, and albums. 

— Use quotation marks for essays, articles, short stories, chapters, TV episodes, and songs.

Avoid long quotes. If you use a long quote, make sure to explain the key elements in it. Offset quotes of more than two lines. Indent, single space, and omit quotation marks.

Integrate shorter quotes into your sentence structure. The use of short quotes (as opposed to long quotes) is the most efficient and readable way to prove your point. Short quotations by nature integrate tightly into the contours of your argument and thinking; the reader does not have to go from your point, to a long quote where they have to make the link to your point, and then back to your point. Using short quotes, you make your point and prove it immediately, thus allowing your reader to get connections more quickly and move on to your next point.

 Avoid long quotes. If you use a long quote, make sure to explain the key elements in it. Offset quotes of more than two lines. Indent, single space, and omit quotation marks.

 Integrate shorter quotes into your sentence structure. The use of short quotes (as opposed to long quotes) is the most efficient and readable way to prove your point. Short quotations by nature integrate tightly into the contours of your argument and thinking; the reader does not have to go from your point, to a long quote where they have to make the link to your point, and then back to your point. Using short quotes, you make your point and prove it immediately, thus allowing your reader to get connections more quickly and move on to your next point.

— Don’t worry about repeating a term or word. Often it confuses your reader if you switch terms. In academic writing (as opposed to literary writing), content is more important than style. For this reason, using a thesaurus is often not a good thing.

— Write in a direct and formal manner. This doesn’t mean, however, that you have to be dry or boring. Spice up your writing with well-chosen words and phrases. For take-home papers, add photos, pictures, or coloured graphs and charts to liven up the presentation of your ideas.

— Write simply and directly, avoiding jargon. If you’re a very good writer you can write in a slightly more creative manner. If the instructor can’t understand your creative moments then you’re probably not communicating in an academically effective manner. Consult the instructor before trying a style that’s unconventional.

— Avoid choppy sentences. They are not good. No one likes reading them. They sound too blunt. It's Ok to use one. But don't use two. (Get the picture?). Link complete thoughts with conjunctions and subordination. Also, try to vary your sentence length.

— Don’t use point form in essays for English courses, except in outlines. (Point form may be fine in other disciplines). All English essays must be in sentences and paragraphs — unless you are labeling a chart, photo, etc.

— It’s often easier to use they than he or she; avoid he/she or s/he. — Use italics and exclamations marks for emphasis, but not too often. — Use / to show the end of a poetry line, as in “across the water / With his galleons and guns.” — Don’t directly address your audience, and avoid commenting on your own writing. — You may use contractions, but not slang. Avoid big words when small words will do.

The Conclusion

-- Make your reader think about what you’ve argued. Don’t simply restate your introduction or your main ideas. Suggest a further direction or ask a provocative question. Or return to your opening by advancing or commenting on your initial position. For instance, if you started with a historical or biographical introduction, you might want to return to that, and expand on what happened afterwards. For example, after a biographical introduction to Freddie Mercury, you could touch on the different climate for gay singers today.

Helpful Sites

 You’re not required to use other sources (articles, books, etc.). If you do, however, you must cite them according to MLA format. For citation and bibliographical information, see Purdue University’s OWL (Online Writing Lab). Start at “Research and Citation” at

The University of Richmond has a very extensive and user-friendly site, which covers a wide range of topics, including writing in other disciplines:

St. Cloud State University has an excellent site, which tends to use graphics helpful to visual learners:

The University of Wisconsin at Madison has an excellent handbook:



Most Common Errors

pmc  proofread more carefully

pmc throughout (plus downward arrow)  proofread more carefully for the remainder

   of the essay (grammar errors won’t all be marked from here on in)

th st argthesis statement is not an argument, but is an observation or statement

ts arg  topic sentence is not an argument, but is an observation or statement

th st <-> ts  topic sentence is not clearly linked to thesis statement

Format: Italics or Quotes?

Academic writing differs from everyday writing in that titles are given a particular format. Since students are often confused about when to use italics and when to use quotes (and since it is quite easy to fix these errors) I’ll supply a brief run-down.

Put in single quotes: quotes-within-quotes, an uncommon use of a word or phrase, ironic or doubtful statements, inexact quotations, approximations, and idioms which might otherwise cause confusion. The following are correct: She told him, “You mispronounced ‘to be or not to be,’ but you acted very well.” She wasn’t exactly what communists call a ‘fellow traveller.’ I suspect he is ‘around the bend.’

Put in double quotes: direct quotations, short texts, articles, chapters, short poems, lyrics, short stories, and TV episodes. The following are correct: He said, “the poor need to pay more tax because they are all lazy.” The short story “Under the Volcano” was expanded into the novel Under the Volcano, which was made into the 1984 film Under the Volcano. The song “Paranoid Android” is from the 1997 Radiohead album OK Computer.

Put in italics (or underline if writing): long texts, movies, documentaries, journals, books, novels, TV shows or series, TV seasons, long poems, and novellas. The following are correct: Bowling for Columbine is a film about gun violence (handwritten); Bowling for Columbine is a film about gun violence (typed). The episode “My Maserati Does 185” from Entourage is very funny. Also use italics to highlight a word or oppose it to another — as in the following: assertiveness is different from aggression.

Marking Symbols

// or //ism  parallelism: Error: She came, she saw, and she is eating doughnuts. Correction: She came, she saw, and she ate the doughnuts.

¶   paragraph.   

^   insert.

(  )  omit, usually to avoid awkward or redundant wording, as in “the (big) huge cat.”

 Circling means that there is something wrong; try to fix it.

✓ check mark = good   ✓✓ = very good   ✓✓✓ = excellent  

agr  agreement, usually subject-verb or singular-plural: Error: They loves TV dinners. Correction: They love TV dinners.

awk  awkward: Error: Then she saw that when he was very happy she thought she’d leave. Correction: When she saw that he was very happy, she decided to leave.

cap  capitalization: Error: the Myth of white picket fences. Correction: the myth of ‘white picket fences.’ Note: Use capital letters for ultimate or unique versions of Heaven, Hell, God or Devil, but small letters for metaphorical usage or for cases in which there are more than one heaven, hell, god or devil.

coh  coherence; confused syntax or ideas: Error: It begins once not every single time in separate ways. Correction: Sometimes the show begins in a different way.

conj  conjunction: Errors: She hated him, while she never told him this. It was a nice day, although the sun was shining. Corrections: She hated him, but she never told him this. It was a nice day, and the sun was shining. 

cs  comma splice; two independent clauses with only a comma between them: Error: They like it, they want to buy it. Correction: “They like it, and they want to buy it.” You need to show the relation between the two clauses. Often, you need to use a conjunction, a semi-colon, a full colon, or a new sentence.

diction  too elevated or not elevated enough; improper, slang, colloquial: Errors: She wanted to eat the burger, but she was afraid that she couldn't masticate it very well.  She was pissed off when she fell ass over heels. Corrections: She wanted to eat the hamburger, but she was afraid that she wouldn’t be able to chew it very well. She was angry when she fell head over heels. Note: It is OK to use swear words when these are part of a quotation.

fc  full colon should be used before a list or an idea which follows or completes what comes before. The pattern is A: B, as in "He wants the following: cash, car, and endless credit." 

format  usually this is incorrect use of italics or quotes; see the section above, “Italics or Quotes?”

frag  sentence fragment; a sentence missing a subject or predicate: Errors: What he liked about it. Moved like a rat into his apartment. Corrections: What he liked about it was its colour. He moved like a rat into his apartment.

fs  fused sentence: two independent clauses lacking conjunction: Error: He drew she wrote. Correction: "He drew while she wrote" or "He drew and she wrote."

id  idiom or expression; this is a specific type of expression error, one which isn't necessarily illogical, but isn't common or acceptable. Error: He’ll make it to the top dog. I couldn’t fuse into the next lane. She’ll reach it to the top one day. I can’t stand on this weather! Correction: He’ll be top dog one day. I couldn’t change into the next lane. She’ll make it to the top one day. I can’t stand this weather!

integ  integration of quotation into your text or syntax: Error: “I love you!” This showed his passion. Correction: When he said, “I love you,” this showed his passion.

md  mixed discourse; confusion of direct and indirect discourse: Error: I said Hi, how are you? Correction: I said "Hi, how are you?” or I asked how you were.

mc  mixed construction; clashing syntax: Error: Although he saw it, then he knew. Correction: When he saw it, he knew. Note: mc often leads to errors in coherence or logic.

mm  misplaced modifier: Error: Grabbing the gun, it went off. Correction: When Jerry grabbed the gun, it went off.

mod modifier: either dangling, misplaced, or otherwise faulty. Dangling modifier errors: The best actor in the movie was John, lasting at least three hours. She said that she liked him, purring along the highway. Correction: The best actor in the movie was John, who acted brilliantly throughout the three-hour film. She said that she liked him, as the car purred along the highway.

pass  passive voice; unnecessary use of to be infinitive + past participle: it was believed. Note: sometimes you want to use pass, as when you want to indicate that something happened, but you don’t want to be specific about who did it. In most cases, however, you want to be specific. Ask yourself if you want your reader to know who the subject is.  Remember that if you are avoiding naming a subject, I’ll probably wonder why. When you write, “It is believed that three out of four men don’t understand women,” I’ll want to know who believes this.

poss  possessive: Error: She likes it’s texture. Correction: She likes its texture.

rep  repetitive

ref  reference: Error: The place was smoky and full. This seemed odd! To fix this, clarify what “this” refers to. “The place was smoky and full. It was odd that the room was full.”

sc  semi colon should be used for listing long items in a sequence (category A: item 1 in A; item 2 in A; item 3 in A, etc.) or for reworking (A; A): Error: He couldn’t stand it any longer; his brain exploding. Correct: He couldn’t stand it any longer; he felt like his brain was going to explode. Both sides of the sc must be complete sentences — that is, they must contain a subject and a predicate; otherwise, what you have is a fragment.

sp  spelling error

trans  transition, usually between paragraphs, but also between sentences

w ch  word choice error

ww wrong word


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