The standard essay format that you’re introduced to in middle school and high school has a three part structure: there’s an introductory section, a main body and a conclusion.
There are conventional rules for what to include and not include in each of these sections, and if you want to improve your academic essay writing there’s no doubt that you need to understand these rules.
But I think anyone who teaches essay writing, and anyone who wants to improve their essay writing, should acknowledge that not all essays are written this way, and that the conventional rules for academic essays can be quite restrictive — there is, for lack of a better term, an expressivecost to following the rules.
In this video I want to talk about the rationale for the conventional rules, and more specifically how and when the benefits of following them outweigh the costs.
The Standard Three-Part Structure
The most striking feature of the conventional academic essay format is how introductions and conclusions are written.
(1) Introductory Section
The introductory section of an academic essay is supposed to do three things:
First, we use it to introduce the subject of the essay, and more specifically, the issue with respect to the subject. The subject might be, say, the ethics of sport hunting. The issue might be whether hunting with bow and arrow is more or less humane than rifle hunting.
If the issue is somewhat complex or unfamiliar you may need to spend a bit of time on this introductory section, providing enough background and context for the reader to understand, in rough outline, what the issue is.
Second, we state the thesis of the essay. The thesis is the position or stance that the essay is going to take, on the issue in question.
And third, it’s often recommended that the author say something about how the rest of the essay is going to be organized, so the reader has some idea of what to expect and how the argument is going to unfold. This becomes increasingly important as essays become longer and more complicated.
(2) Main Body
Moving on to the main body of the essay, the structure of the main body will differ depending on the kind of essay you’re writing. Here I’ll just review the features of a standard argumentative essay.
The primary goal of the main body is to present the central argument of the essay. There are many ways of doing this, but an essential part of any argumentative essay is to consider natural objections to the main argument, and then present replies that defend the argument against those objections.
(3) Concluding Section
Now, in the concluding section of the standard academic essay, you’re expected to restate the main thesis, review and summarize the key argumentative moves you made in the essay, and if you want you can offer some final commentary on the topic. These elements of the concluding section become more important and more prominent as essays become longer and more professional. If you look at articles written for academic journals you’ll find that these elements are standard.
"Do I Have to Write Like This?"
So these are the conventional rules for organizing an academic essay.
I don’t want to generalize, but I think we have to admit that the style of essay writing I just described isn’t one we normally associate with engaging literary style. It can be dry and stiff and predictable.
I’ve had students ask me, in all seriousness, whether they have to write like this, like there’s something obviously unappealing about these writing conventions.
I think these questions have a point, I think they deserve to be answered. So let’s push the question further.
Many non-academic essay writing styles will try to invite or entice the reader to continue reading, but they won’t disclose the main point of the essay up front — they’ll save the “punchline”, as it were, until the end, for obvious reasons.
Telegraphing your punchline in the setup of your joke would ruin the joke.
Similarly, telegraphing the main point of your essay in the introduction makes it difficult to build a narrative with the potential to surprise the reader. If every essayist felt pressured to show all their cards in the opening paragraphs of their essay, they would rightly find that a burdensome restriction.
All of this is to say that there’s nothing in the nature of essay writing per se that requires this kind of style.
But then if it’s standard in academic writing then there must be some reason for it, some benefit that outweighs the costs.
So let’s talk about what these benefits are.
The Function of the Standard Three-Part Essay Structure
The standard conventions of academic writing only make sense under the assumption that you’re writing for a certain kind of audience whose interests are served by this format.
All of this makes more sense if you realize that at the highest levels, academia is a profession, and the primary currency that this profession trades in, is peer recognition and approval.
Whether I’m a physicist or a philosopher or an English literature expert, to participate in the profession you need to produce research, and in most cases this takes the form of written research articles that are published in professional academic journals, or it takes the form of longer, book-length monographs.
In either case, your work is subject to a process of PEER REVIEW, before it can get into the hands of the broader research community or the general public.
At the first level of the peer review process, your immediate audience is an editor of some kind. The job of a journal editor is to facilitate the process of academic gate-keeping and quality control.
The journal editor receives many submissions, more than they can publish. They have to quickly assess the the relevance of the submission for their audience, which is other professional academics in their field.
If it passes this first stage of assessment then the editor has to identify qualified reviewers within the field who will conduct a more thorough review of the submission.
Their reports are sent back to the editor, who then makes a decision about whether the submission should be published, accepted for publication conditional on making certain minor changes, sent back to the author with a recommendation to revise and resubmit, or reject the submission outright.
That’s your "level 1" audience. Ultimately what you want is that your academic peers get access to your work through publication in the standard peer-reviewed venues.
Your professional peers are your level 2 audience. But they face the same predicament as journal editors, in the sense that even if your submission finds its way into a journal that they regularly read, no one has the time or energy to read everything.
So everyone needs a strategy for deciding whether a given article is relevant to your interest and worth the time and energy to read all the way through.
And if you were in that situation, it would be very much in your interest that articles are written in a standard form and in such a way that in the first few paragraphs you can quickly judge whether the article is relevant to your own research.
This gets us closer to understanding why the standard academic essay format is what it is.
It’s a form of writing that makes it easy for a person who has limited time and energy, and who has a specific interest in certain topics, to identify whether the essay is relevant to those topics. Everyone in academia, from working professionals to editors to graduate students, benefits from the standardization that is built in to the conventional three-part essay format.
So, are there good reasons why the conventions are what they are? The answer is yes, there are good reasons. There are costs, in terms of predictability and a certain utilitarian dryness, but from the perspective of working academics, the benefits clearly outweigh these costs.
But Why Impose This Convention on Students?
Now, there’s an obvious question that this analysis raises.
If the justification for these academic essay writing conventions is that they’re important for professional academic writing, why are they so often taught as though they were basic to essay writing in general?
In writing instruction guides aimed at high school students, you often see some version of this three-part structure presented without any context, like it was part of a definition of what a “proper” essay should look like.
This is nonsense, there is no such definition. There are plenty of different models for successful essay writing.
So why is it so often taught as though it was the only model?
Well, if you ask high school teachers they’ll probably tell you that it’s a good model to teach students because
- it’s a model that students are expected to be familiar with when they enter college,
- it’s a model that can get you a good score on the essay-writing portion of college admission tests, and
- it’s a model that signalscompetency in essay writing — in other words, in many places it’s used as a standard for judging competency in writing skills.
And in their more cynical moods they’ll tell you that it’s challenging enough to teach justone model for essay writing, when so few students are good at even this one model.
There's obviously a lot of truth to these observations. But let’s at least acknowledge that these reasons have more to do with the practical realities of education than with good writing per se.
Good writers need to understand the rules of a conventional style and the reasons behind the rules, so that they can use them when doing so serves their communicative goals and break them when they don’t.
In the next video we’ll take a closer look at the concept of writing style, and how writing structure emerges out of a deliberate choice of style.
Writing an introduction can be hard; writing a conclusion is even harder. How does a student close a paper without summarizing what has already been said or introducing new material without time to fully unpack it? Below are two methods for writing effective conclusions:
The Circle Back / Echo (by Melissa Smith)
Ask students if they can identify an interesting word or phrase from the introduction or early in their first body paragraph that they can link back to in their conclusion. We certainly want to avoid regurgitating thesis statements and summarizing what’s already been stated; that’s not the goal of this strategy. The circle back method requires some finesse and stylistic nuance—because in order for it to be effective, it should only be a whisper or an echo from the opening. But when executed skillfully, the echo can give the paper a cyclical completeness, and possibly even serve as a wow-moment.
Here’s an example from a previous student’s college application essay (which is the type of writing I find this method of conclusion to work most wonderfully for)
This is his introduction:
With a grimace, I sat up in my bed as the doctor came in, my body groaning in protest.
My heart began to beat a little bit quicker as he greeted my mother and me. My stare locked on
to the papers in his hands, knowing they held the results of my latest blood samples. For two
weeks, the results had been coming back negative, condemning me to continue my hospital
stay, but each day, I managed to hang on to a sliver of hope. One day, I was sure, my numbers
would be high enough to resume life outside the lonely hospital. After an agonizing wait, the
doctor held up the paper and began to read.
And his conclusion:
The journey was wrought with adversity, but now as I look back with pride on the barriers
I passed and the things I accomplished, my failure has provided its final gift. I had no idea what
was coming when I accepted my own challenge in that hospital bed. Overcoming the struggles
and strife that were to follow has now given me the confidence in myself to know I can do what
is necessary to achieve my goals. My resilience after this failure has given me these three traits
that will help me finish high school, complete college, and enter the workforce as a productive
and impactful citizen.
AP Central also has a solid example in their posted exemplar essays online. This one is from 2010B and it scored an 8.
In the excerpt from Maxine Clair’s “Cherry Bomb,” the adult narrator recounts her memories of her fifth-grade summer. Through the narrator’s story of her private box and her cherry bomb, Clair captures the innocence and youthfulness of childhood.
By the ending paragraph, where the narrator says that she kept the cherry bomb as a “momento of good times” suggests the importance of embracing and treasuring those childhood moments and memories, when all that was dangerous and scary in the world was the Hairy Man and when all your secrets could be safely tucked away in a cigar box.
And one of my former students circled back to her introduction in an analysis essay of Mary Oliver’s poem “Crossing the Swamp.”
We all must cross a swamp of some sort during the course of our lives. Be it a challenge within the workplace, within your family, or within yourself, the waters may become so deep that we feel we will never resurface again. Mary Oliver uses structure, figurative language, and shift in tone to convey the speaker’s evolving relationship with the swamp in her poem “Crossing the Swamp.”
Sometimes we must fall in order to realize that we have the power to get back up.
No repeating full ideas—just an echo is all they need—to give their essay a sense of closure and show off their style and voice.
Universal Truths / Extend the Idea (by Susan Barber)
Another way to concluding an essay is to connect the essay to a universal theme. This includes big picture ideas which expand and extends the essay forward to push the reader to consider broad implications about humanity. When forming this type of conclusion, students should consider what universal truth they want the reader to be thinking about at the end of the essay then explain how the essay relates to this universal truth. These conclusions answer the “so what” and the “larger why” of the analysis.
Meredith Lawrence from Round Rock, TX has her students think about organizing essays using the following questions. This format lends itself perfectly to end with a conclusion about a universal theme.
What’s the answer to the question? (introduction)
How does the author develop this? (body paragraphs)
Why is this important? (conclusion)
Consider the following conclusions from exemplar essays:
“Igao’s cruelty is the cause of everyone’s, including his own, downfall, but he himself is not the only man responsible. His cruelty reveals more about his victims than it does about himself. It is shown through Desdemona that it is not necessary to become cruel when one has had cruelty done on himself, but many characters still fall prey to this. One cruel action fuels another, and the evil prevails when one has at least a hint of evil in himself. Cruelty functions in many ways, but it is nearly always guaranteed to bring more cruelty.”(FRQ3 – Cruelty AP Central)
Often the circle back and universal theme approach go hand in hand as seen in this college essay from a former student who is now studying at Notre Dame. I loved his essay about playing board games with his family which strongly showcased his voice. His conclusion effectively highlights a universal theme and also circles back to the introduction.
“I tossed the dice into the box lid, my brothers waiting on the edge of their seats. It was our second time of the day playing Settlers of Catan, and I was playing for back-to-back wins. Two and five made seven, so I got to steal a card! Being the good sport that I am, I chose to steal from my brother, Jack, as he was the only family member who’s settlement I had not already blocked. Sadly, my youngest brother Gus would beat me in the end.” (introduction)
“I realize that I can’t win every game. What I do know is that I can always keep improving my strategy. I know that stepping up to lead my peers makes life a whole lot more fun. I’m excited for my next opponent, whether it be Gus in chess or a disgruntled professor, and once it’s my turn, he’ll be in checkmate.” (conclusion)
In conclusion, avoid beginning conclusions paragraphs with the phrase “In conclusion.”
Don’t repeat the thesis verbatim in the conclusion.
Don’t throw in a random current event to make the paper relevant.
Avoid summarizing the paper.
There is no one right way to write a conclusion since conclusions are crafted from individual writers with different styles and voices. Our goal as teachers is to provide students with tools for writing effective conclusions through mentor texts, workshop, and specific feedback. In doing so, students will not view conclusions as an afterthought but rather a way to either bring closure to an idea or push the reader even further into thought. That’s all, folks. (Please tell your students not to end a paper this way).