Writing an academic essay means fashioning a coherent set of ideas into an argument. Because essays are essentially linear—they offer one idea at a time—they must present their ideas in the order that makes most sense to a reader. Successfully structuring an essay means attending to a reader's logic.
The focus of such an essay predicts its structure. It dictates the information readers need to know and the order in which they need to receive it. Thus your essay's structure is necessarily unique to the main claim you're making. Although there are guidelines for constructing certain classic essay types (e.g., comparative analysis), there are no set formula.
Answering Questions: The Parts of an Essay
A typical essay contains many different kinds of information, often located in specialized parts or sections. Even short essays perform several different operations: introducing the argument, analyzing data, raising counterarguments, concluding. Introductions and conclusions have fixed places, but other parts don't. Counterargument, for example, may appear within a paragraph, as a free-standing section, as part of the beginning, or before the ending. Background material (historical context or biographical information, a summary of relevant theory or criticism, the definition of a key term) often appears at the beginning of the essay, between the introduction and the first analytical section, but might also appear near the beginning of the specific section to which it's relevant.
It's helpful to think of the different essay sections as answering a series of questions your reader might ask when encountering your thesis. (Readers should have questions. If they don't, your thesis is most likely simply an observation of fact, not an arguable claim.)
"What?" The first question to anticipate from a reader is "what": What evidence shows that the phenomenon described by your thesis is true? To answer the question you must examine your evidence, thus demonstrating the truth of your claim. This "what" or "demonstration" section comes early in the essay, often directly after the introduction. Since you're essentially reporting what you've observed, this is the part you might have most to say about when you first start writing. But be forewarned: it shouldn't take up much more than a third (often much less) of your finished essay. If it does, the essay will lack balance and may read as mere summary or description.
"How?" A reader will also want to know whether the claims of the thesis are true in all cases. The corresponding question is "how": How does the thesis stand up to the challenge of a counterargument? How does the introduction of new material—a new way of looking at the evidence, another set of sources—affect the claims you're making? Typically, an essay will include at least one "how" section. (Call it "complication" since you're responding to a reader's complicating questions.) This section usually comes after the "what," but keep in mind that an essay may complicate its argument several times depending on its length, and that counterargument alone may appear just about anywhere in an essay.
"Why?" Your reader will also want to know what's at stake in your claim: Why does your interpretation of a phenomenon matter to anyone beside you? This question addresses the larger implications of your thesis. It allows your readers to understand your essay within a larger context. In answering "why", your essay explains its own significance. Although you might gesture at this question in your introduction, the fullest answer to it properly belongs at your essay's end. If you leave it out, your readers will experience your essay as unfinished—or, worse, as pointless or insular.
Mapping an Essay
Structuring your essay according to a reader's logic means examining your thesis and anticipating what a reader needs to know, and in what sequence, in order to grasp and be convinced by your argument as it unfolds. The easiest way to do this is to map the essay's ideas via a written narrative. Such an account will give you a preliminary record of your ideas, and will allow you to remind yourself at every turn of the reader's needs in understanding your idea.
Essay maps ask you to predict where your reader will expect background information, counterargument, close analysis of a primary source, or a turn to secondary source material. Essay maps are not concerned with paragraphs so much as with sections of an essay. They anticipate the major argumentative moves you expect your essay to make. Try making your map like this:
- State your thesis in a sentence or two, then write another sentence saying why it's important to make that claim. Indicate, in other words, what a reader might learn by exploring the claim with you. Here you're anticipating your answer to the "why" question that you'll eventually flesh out in your conclusion.
- Begin your next sentence like this: "To be convinced by my claim, the first thing a reader needs to know is . . ." Then say why that's the first thing a reader needs to know, and name one or two items of evidence you think will make the case. This will start you off on answering the "what" question. (Alternately, you may find that the first thing your reader needs to know is some background information.)
- Begin each of the following sentences like this: "The next thing my reader needs to know is . . ." Once again, say why, and name some evidence. Continue until you've mapped out your essay.
Your map should naturally take you through some preliminary answers to the basic questions of what, how, and why. It is not a contract, though—the order in which the ideas appear is not a rigid one. Essay maps are flexible; they evolve with your ideas.
Signs of Trouble
A common structural flaw in college essays is the "walk-through" (also labeled "summary" or "description"). Walk-through essays follow the structure of their sources rather than establishing their own. Such essays generally have a descriptive thesis rather than an argumentative one. Be wary of paragraph openers that lead off with "time" words ("first," "next," "after," "then") or "listing" words ("also," "another," "in addition"). Although they don't always signal trouble, these paragraph openers often indicate that an essay's thesis and structure need work: they suggest that the essay simply reproduces the chronology of the source text (in the case of time words: first this happens, then that, and afterwards another thing . . . ) or simply lists example after example ("In addition, the use of color indicates another way that the painting differentiates between good and evil").
Copyright 2000, Elizabeth Abrams, for the Writing Center at Harvard University
In a definition essay, you explain the meaning of a certain term by giving a detailed description of it, and support your definition with clear examples or facts. Such explanations are needed if a term is special, abstract, disputed, or does not have a common meaning. For instance, individuals can interpret the definition of the words ‘freedom’ or ‘abuse’ quite differently.
Steps for Writing a Definition Essay
- Choose a term you want to define, and introduce it to your readers. This can be done in several ways, but your main goal at the outset is to indicate the contents of your paper clearly.
- Use several sources (dictionaries or encyclopedias) to see how the term you have chosen is usually defined. Then, think of a way to combine or merge them to give your own, unique definition.
- Present the term you’ve chosen to your readers in the introductory part of your paper.
- In the main body paragraphs, provide your readers with information about the term. Along with your own description, you can point out some cases in which this term is used, as well as historical information about its origins and the evolution of its use in literature. Also, you can highlight any common mistakes in its definition.
- Think of a couple of sound examples that will fully illustrate and explain your definition.
Definition Essay Topics
There are plenty of terms we use every day. Many of them are clear to almost everybody, but still there is a vast body of abstract or scientific terms that can become a topic of discussion. While all of us know what a phone, TV, or dog is, concepts such as happiness, faith, love, or calmness may be difficult for some people to grasp. Some terms that could be chosen as a topic for your definition essay are listed below:
- Real estate
- Good and evil
Key Points to Consider
- Giving a definition is not just copying what has been written in other dictionaries. If you cannot define a new meaning for some concept on your own, then use the definition that already exists, but give your own interpretation of it.
- Choose terms you understand, or ones that have impacted your own personal experience. Do not try to define a term you don’t understand, or else you will confuse your readers with the wrong explanation.
- You can define a term by explaining its functions, structure, or nature. You can also define the term by specifying what it does not mean, or by comparing it with other members of the same class of words and emphasizing the differences.
- Follow a determined structure. It would be logical to present your term in the introduction, give extended explanations in the main body paragraphs, and end with brief conclusions.
Do and Don’t
Common Mistakes When Writing a Definition Essay
– Trying to define a term that is too broad in scope for the essay.
– Forgetting to emphasize the term that one is defining. In this case, it may be hard for readers to understand what your essay is ultimately about.
– Writing about terms that are well-known and which do not have conflicting interpretations.
– Ignoring the necessity of examples. No matter how detailed and clear your definition is, without concrete examples, it may be difficult for readers to understand how or when a certain term should be used.
– Copying the existing definition word-by-word. Instead, reinterpret the meaning. Do not be afraid to use your own thoughts for a new, unique definition.
Now that you have acquainted yourself with the basic definition essay writing tips and rules, you can check out our definition essay samples to link theory with practice.
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