How to Organize Your Essay
Hey. I’m going to help you organize your essay. Organization in an essay is actually pretty easy once you learn it.
You may be writing an essay about a work of literature, a research paper for your social studies class, or answering a writing prompt on a standardized test. argument — or explanatory. it doesn’t matter. They all require the same basic organization. Let’s make a quick distinction between those two kinds of essays. An argument essay, sometimes called a persuasive essay, contains a thesis. it’s an opinion that you’ll be supporting with evidence. On the other hand, an explanatory essay, sometimes called expository or informative, uses a topic sentence. it’s a factual topic that you’ll be explaining more about in your essay.
Yes, these two things are different, a thesis is an opinion while a topic sentence is factual. but the organization around them is pretty much the same. But be sure you know what kind you’re supposed to be writing. OK, now. Look at this diagram of what I like to call “The Machine.”
It’s pretty simple. The triangle on the top represents the beginning. It will open with your hook, and end with your thesis or topic sentence, represented by this little gold star here. I drew a star because the thesis (in an argument essay) or topic sentence (which is what you use in an explanatory essay) is kind of the star of the show. It is the single most important sentence in the entire essay because everything else in the essay is there to serve that sentence. The blocks in the middle are usually called the body of the essay. That’s where you support your thesis or topic sentence with evidence and arguments.
The word “proof” is a little strong, but it might help you to think that what you’re doing in the middle section of an argument or persuasive essay is proving your thesis. In an informative or explanatory essay you would say you’re developing your topic in more detail with examples and relevant information. The triangle at the bottom is the end, your conclusion. That’s where you remind your reader what the point of the whole essay has been, and explain why it matters. Think of this structure as a machine. You know how on a car, all the basic parts work together to achieve a single purpose? to drive you safely from point A to point B? That’s what the tires are for, that’s what the brakes and the drive shaft are for, that’s what all the parts in the engine are for. They all exist and work together to make one thing happen. This structure is like that. The hook smoothly introduces your thesis. The body of your essay supports or “proves” your thesis. Your conclusion restates your thesis and extends it a step further to provoke a thought or to show how that idea can be applied in real life. And that’s basically it. But let’s now look at the individual parts of this machine a little more closely. In the first paragraph, begin with a hook, or attention-getting intro. I made another video on exactly this topic, so I encourage you to check that out. You want to say something interesting here that makes your reader want to read on, and of course, it should relate to whatever it is you’re writing about. It’s wide up here, because the introduction is usually more general, broader.
At the bottom of the triangle, it’s narrow because that’s where you narrow it down to your specific point: your thesis or topic sentence, represented by this gold star. And since everything else in the essay serves this single statement, make sure you don’t mess this up. Look carefully at the prompt or your assignment and make sure your thesis or topic sentence is clearly and specifically addressing the assigned topic. If the prompt is to argue for or against deep fried candy bars in school lunches, then your thesis must do one of those two things: say that you support deep-fried candy bars in school lunches, or that you oppose them. It must be a clear answer to the prompt. If you don’t do that, your essay will be vague at best, or off-topic at worst. All your evidence will stand around uselessly with no claim to support.
The body, or middle, is the longest part of your essay. This is where you support or “prove” your thesis. So, you think that candy bars in school lunches is a bad idea? Here’s where you say why. You should have multiple reasons to support your position, and each one of those reasons gets its own separate paragraph. The classic “5-paragraph essay” requires exactly three supporting paragraphs, like a stool with three legs, but many essays require more. A few, like a letter to the editor, could require fewer. In some essays, like a compare/contrast essay, you might describe the first thing in one paragraph and the second thing in the next paragraph, then analyze the differences in the next one. Or maybe you could describe similarities between the two things here, and two differences here and here. But no matter how many supporting paragraphs you have, or even what’s in them, they all do the same job. They must support your thesis. If something is not helping you prove the thesis, take it out. So, this is how it works. If this was a trial, the defendant’s plea (not guilty) would be the thesis, and the evidence to prove his or her innocence would be the body of the essay. This middle section should be the longest part of your essay.
An explanatory essay is very similar. Rather than proving an assertion or claim, you explore different aspects of your topic in each of the body paragraphs. Let’s say your essay is about South African history. One paragraph might be about the colonial period, a second might be about 20th century conflicts under apartheid, and a third might be about its present political situation. Three legs of a stool. The body of the explanatory essay develops different aspects of your topic. Another subtopic is the counterclaim and your rebuttal, but I’ll put that on a separate video. At the end of your essay, you will remind your reader what point you’re trying to make, so you will paraphrase your thesis. Paraphrase.
Don’t use the exact words you used in the first paragraph. Restating your thesis is like you’re closing the deal. You’re sort of saying, “So, after all this, you can see that my thesis is true, right?” And then you add what I call the “broader significance.” That isn’t a term you’ll find in a textbook. it’s what I call it. But it’s where you explain why this idea matters, why it’s significant. It’s where you take your conclusion one step farther. It’s where you answer the question: “Yeah…so?” Using that candy bar example, in your conclusion, you might want to talk about how schools are places where kids can learn how to be adults, so schools have a responsibility to promote healthy lifestyles. You’re explaining why this idea matters. You broaden your perspective, like a camera pulling back to show the landscape, the bigger picture. That’s why I drew another triangle here.
This time you begin narrow and specific (you oppose deep-fried candy bars in school lunches), and broaden out to a wider, more general statement (schools have a responsibility to their students). It’s just like the first paragraph, but upside down. this time it starts narrow and ends broad, the opposite of your first paragraph. A second way to end your essay is to, again, paraphrase your thesis, then give a “call-to-action.” Tell your reader directly what he or she should do about all this new information you’ve given them. You might say, “So write to the school board and tell them that deep-fried candy bars have no place in our school cafeteria.” You’re telling the reader what he or she can do, what action to take, if he or she now shares your opinion. Before we finish, there’s one more thing.
The paragraph transition is a big topic, but briefly, look at the diagram again. See how these parts aren’t actually touching one another? They aren’t actually connected yet. You need to put a little link between each one so the machine runs smoothly. That’s a paragraph transition. Here, you might say something like, “First of all.” Here, you might write, “Furthermore.” here at the last supporting paragraph, you could put, “Finally.” and here you could say, “In conclusion,” or “So.” Those are pretty simple, mechanical transitions. They aren’t very clever, but they’ll do the job. They’ll tell your reader that you’re moving on to the next part of the machine, and it’s way better than not having transitions at all. To continue with our car analogy, a paragraph transition is like the oil that keeps the parts working smoothly without too much friction. The machine might work OK without them, but it would be clunky and awkward. For a better and fuller explanation, look at my video on paragraph transitions. here’s a link. That’s all there is to it.
Every essay you will write, whether it’s for English, Social Studies, Science, or a standardized test, argument or explanatory, will require some version of this basic structure: introduction, development, and conclusion. In more advanced classes, the structure of your essays will still be pretty much the same. they’ll just be longer, give more support, and the evidence might be grouped into categories of evidence, or have subordinate theses that support a bigger one. they might have an exploratory but still orderly flow of ideas from one to the next rather than center around a single thesis. but they’re still basically this shape: a statement, supporting evidence, and a conclusion. So what I call the “machine” is a good place for writers to start. Here are some time indexes so you can re-watch the parts you want. Once you’ve mastered essay organization, you’ll find your writing is easier because you’ll know what you’re supposed to be saying at any given point in your essay. Just remember the diagram and what the different parts do. Do that, and your organization will be clear, orderly, and effective. And remember this: people who can argue effectively, and who can show that they know what they’re talking about tend to get what they want in life. And that’s what I want for you. Happy essay writing.