"How do I structure essays in English?"

May 09, 2016

Do you find essay writing a daunting task? Never quite sure where to start? Read on for simple steps to straightforward structuring!

One of the most common questions I'm asked by students is "How do I structure essays?" Closely followed by "What's the point?" Structure allows the reader to follow your train of thought and helps you to organise your ideas in a manner that lends itself to analysis and creative exploration of an essay question. Deciding on the correct structure can be tough when writing an essay. I recommend having an overall structure as well as an internal structure to plan your essay with. This article will address each in turn explaining the basics, suggesting one of the structures that I use and giving an example of its use. As many of my students find poetry the hardest to write about, I will offer part of an example essay based on the exam question:

How does Plath present the theme of identity in ‘In Plaster’?


Overall structure

The overall structure serves as both the blueprint for writing your essay and the map and signposts the reader uses to navigate your work. Many students have asked if it is best to keep the reader in suspense and remain “balanced” until the concluding paragraph. It is wise to avoid such an approach as it often results in confused writing that is difficult to follow. I recommend adopting a very basic approach to structure and wowing the reader of your essay with a simple structure to guide them through complex content. A good structure will consist of an introduction summarising your response to the question and outlining what you will speak about, substantive paragraphs in the main body exploring each of your points and a conclusion which reminds the reader of what you have covered and restates your overall argument.

Example:

Introduction

Sylvia Plath wrote many poems during her struggle with clinical depression. In her work the themes of love, fear, femininity, death, faith and identity are explored. The poem 'In Plaster’ is an extended metaphor for losing her identity to the very medicine that was meant to help her get it back. Personification is employed to create a tense tone as the medication takes over Plath’s identity. This essay will explore how identity is shown to be A, B and C.

Main Body

Paragraph 1: A is shown to be...

Paragraph 2: Through the powerful image of X, B is presented...

Paragraph 3: Plath shows that C is core to identity by...

Conclusion

Through a range of artfully crafted linguistic devices, Plath engages imagery to present identity as something fragile and complex. The reader is prompted to reassess the concept of identity as it is shown to be A, B and C.


Internal structure

Within a paragraph it is important to make a clear argument for your response to the question, support this with evidence, offer analysis and link this back to the essay title. For essays in response to a set text, I recommend using the acronym PETER as it ensures your work will include the various components of a great answer.

Point - What is your response to the question?

Example - Does the text support your view?

Technique - What linguistic devices has the writer used to create the effect you are writing about?

Explanation - Outline your analysis of the quotation. What is the connection between your main argument and this technique and effect?

Reader’s response/ writer’s purpose - What does this make you think or feel? Why do you think the writer chose this approach to the topic?

Example:

Plath presents identity as precious and fragile, by transforming her experience with medication into a struggle with another version of herself; a struggle that she engages in as her identity is worth fighting for. Antidepressants are seemingly compared to another person serving the role of a psychological cast, ‘holding [her] bones in place so they would mend properly.’ During the healing process this ‘new absolutely white person’ has some advantages, as Plath describes: ‘I gave her a soul, I bloomed out of her as a rose/Blooms out of a vase of not very valuable porcelain, /And it was I who attracted everybody's attention.’ Through the aid of psychopharmaceuticals, Plath is able to maintain her sense of self and to ‘bloom’. Initially, accepting that she will have to give ‘a soul’ to the drugs seems like a fair exchange to gain back her identity that she was losing to depression. Her identity is compared to a rose attracting attention - important and beautiful. The medicine was supposed to help Plath, like a cast helps a person mend a broken bone when they are ‘in plaster,’ unfortunately, she found that it hindered her. This extended metaphor provokes reflection on what it means to be “me” and how personhood could be threatened by things that try to help, just as being ‘in plaster’ should help movement in the long term but actually limits it during treatment. The drug threatens Plath's very identity – she says it ‘began to hope [she'd] die.’ Plath fears being covered by the drug person and having her face worn ‘the way a mummy-case wears the face of a pharaoh’ as her identity was taken over by the drugs and she was no longer herself. She wants to escape but laments ‘she'd supported me for so long I was quite limp.’ Although being on the drug feels like a sort of death, Plath finds hereself stuck, ‘I still depended on her, though I did it regretfully.’ She continues using medication despite side effects: ‘my skin itched and flaked away in soft pieces simply because she looked after me so badly’ until eventually Plath tried to ‘manage without her’ as her fragile identity was being destroyed. Through voltas in tone from hopeful and upbeat, to dark and despairing, then back to hopeful but sad, Plath shows that identity is easily threatened during a mental health crisis. To preserve her identity, Plath fought against the very thing that promises to preserve her sense of self.

There are many different ways to structure an essay. I generally like to keep things simple and have a beginning, middle and ending, using an internal structure such as PETER throughout. Try it out in your next essay. Good luck!



Resources others found helpful

Maths Challenge Key Stage 1

Some challenging problems for KS1, this mixed review has a little bit of everything, mainly as word problems.

Dyslexia Symptoms in Teenagers and Adults

Signs and symptoms that suggest dyslexia in teenagers and adults