Most essays have the basic structure of introduction, main body and conclusion.

Introduction

The introduction should cover two main themes:

Any background information the reader will need to make sense of your essay
A road-map of how you are going to answer the question, with your main points and basic conclusion included.
It is often easier to write the road-map part of the introduction at the end, when you know what all your main points will be.

Main body paragraphs

The main body of your essay will be made up of several paragraphs; the number of paragraphs will depend on your word count and the complexity of your argument. Academic paragraphs are usually longer than you expect and as a general rule, one paragraph = one point.

The paragraph should start with a topic sentence which states the point of the paragraph clearly. Usually this is the first sentence in the paragraph (although sometimes it can be the second sentence, with the first being something that links it to the previous paragraph). A good way to plan an essay is to write out a list of your topic sentences. This will enable you to see how the argument develops and where extra ones are needed etc.

The topic sentence should be followed by sentences containing evidence to back the point up. You cannot just say that something is true without any supporting information. Remember that as an undergraduate, you are not the expert; your word is not enough.

Evidence will usually be in the form of information from other sources like books, academic journals or reputable websites. This could be a direct quotation but is usually best written in your own words. When providing information from other sources, you must provide in-text citations that link to your bibliography (or footnotes if using). Evidence could also be your own data or your own experiences (especially in reflective essays).

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The last section of the paragraph should be your own analysis of why the point is relevant to the essay. How does it help you answer the question? How does it develop your argument? Basically – ‘So what?’ It is here that you develop criticality and your own academic voice (and so achieve higher grades).

It may be useful (although not essential) to use a sentence at the end or your paragraph to link to the next one. Sometimes this link is better placed at the beginning of the following paragraph instead. It is there to help make your argument flow.

There are many acronyms to help you remember paragraph structure like PEE(L) [Point, Evidence, Explanation (Link)] or TEA(L) [Topic, Evidence, Analysis (Link)] or WEED [What is it about? Evidence, Examples and Do say ‘so what?]. Pick the one you remember best!

Conclusion

After you have done your research, and have an idea of your main arguments, it is often worth writing a very simple draft conclusion before you write the main body of your essay. It is easier to plan a journey if you know where you are going. This stops you going off on tangents – you can ask yourself “Is this point relevant to my conclusion?” If not, ditch it!

Remember though, that it is not written in blood (yet) and you can adjust the conclusion as necessary if your argument develops as you plan your essay (or change it completely if you uncover convincing contradictory information in the course of any further reading that you do).

The conclusion should bring everything together. It should never be a surprise. It should be clear from the arguments of your main body what your conclusion is going to be. There should be no new evidence (and therefore no need for citations) in your conclusion.