3. Essay types and strategies on structure

When it comes to essays, there is a pretty standard structure from which to write that is used time and again for every essay assignment. It comes with a beginning where a topic is introduced and moves from general to specific. This is followed by a body section that comes in the middle and covers all the information about that topic introduced at the beginning. Finally, there is a conclusion or end to the essay that summarises the ideas and provides a place for your own opinions.

Over the course of your academic career, you will be writing dozens and dozens of these essays with this same pattern albeit with some variations on this theme. This chapter provides a guide for you on writing topics and how to focus on the right material as well as understand how various essay types use the same basic framework but offer slight deviations from this original formula. Finally, the chapter winds up with a number of essay strategies to consider to help you achieve toward your goal of essay success!

Chapter 3 contents

3.1: Focusing on writing topics

It would seem like the most basic part of the whole essay process to know what to write about it - after all, you most often get the essay question or prompt that is pretty straightforward in terms of what you have to write about. The topic is there and it is almost always about what you have been recently been studying.

For the tutor who has put the essay question or prompt together, they have spent a lot of time choosing just how to word it and make it as clear as possible for you. At the same time, though, they are trying to get you to think more deeply so it may not be as obvious as you first thought. To make sure you are focusing on the writing topic in the right context, here are some tips to help:

  • Read the essay question or prompt many times.
  • Reflect on the essay topic before just writing. You need time to wrap your head about what it means, what you want to argue, and how to prove your point.
  • Ask your tutor for any clarifications.
  • Get other students' opinions but do not rely on them for sole assistance as they could be just as confused as you or potentially have misinterpreted themselves.
  • Read your university handbook or class grading sheet to understand what you have to do to get a certain grade in terms of the depth of knowledge to include in the essay.
  • Dissect the essay topic for further analysis and focus. This is discussed in the next two sections.

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3.1.1: Content focus

When looking at your essay topic, the first step is to focus on content. You can do this by taking the essay question or essay prompt apart and delineate the keywords that hold the content focus. Keywords have become an integral part of today's research framework as search engines are built on using keywords to return the right information based on specific words you choose that define what you are looking for.

It becomes tricky because words often have many meanings and interpretations, so part of understanding the essay topic is to determine what the tutor meant in each and every word they chose to make up the essay question or the essay prompt. You will have to look at these keywords for:

  • How they have been used already in your class, notes, and reading;
  • How the lecturer or tutor has referred to them; and
  • How research has used these same words to establish a certain context.

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3.1.2: Content action plan

From taking keywords and studying them for meaning, then your next step is to consider how these keywords are activated to make the content come alive and offer instructions on what the reader should do with that content.

  • Look at the action verbs in the essay question or essay prompt to see what kind of action is being asked of you. While these may not tell you exactly what to do for your essay, they do put you on a path to figuring out what the keywords need to be doing.
  • Check out other examples of essays where similar content action words appear so you can see how they have been used to activate the keywords.
  • Familiarise yourself with function words and action verbs used in essay instructions as there is a considerable list. Some to be on the lookout for includes analyse, assess, compare and contrast, define, differentiate, discuss, evaluate, explore, justify and trace. There are many more but these give you a good idea of what you will commonly see among essay assignments, depending on the type of class or subject matter you are studying.
  • When it comes to preparing for exams where you have to answer in the form of an essay, there may not be any action verbs or function words at all. Instead, it is most often just an essay question that is direct and straightforward because those that have designed it are not looking to confuse. They want you to simply use what you have learned and prove that you understood the lectures and reading over the course of the class.

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3.2: Essay types and frameworks

Now that you have learned how to dissect the essay prompt or essay question, it is time to move on to an overview of the different essay types and frameworks that are used that have slight variations in terms of how that basic introduction, body, and conclusion structure is used.

Here is where you must stick to a proven and expected formula to stay on course for great marks; there is no room for interpretation here on essay structure, but we will show you how there are some subtle differences in how you approach certain assigned essay frameworks.

Regardless of what framework you use as described in the rest of this chapter, there are some overall recommendations to follow that are tried and true when it comes to essays:

  • Typically, these essays range in the word count of 1,000 words to 3,000 words because anything over that fall into other types of writing categories, such as dissertations, projects, and research studies.
  • A good ratio to follow for the amount of words or pages you have to produce for the essay is 10 per cent for the introduction and 10 per cent for the conclusion so that the other 80 per cent is used for the body of the essay.
  • An essay is a linear form of communication where you move from point A and end up at point B very much like you would if you were using a map to plan a trip. There are no u-turns or sudden lane changes.
  • Each essay keeps it simple and succinct with one main point per paragraph so as to not confuse the reader with too many ideas all jumbled up together. This requires plenty of thought about how to make sure the point flows in a logical progression so the reader can see how it all ties together.
  • More will be presented on all these tips later on in the book.

With an understanding of what is the same, now it is time to look at what is different by examining some of the essay types and frameworks in greater detail. Here are some of the most well-known essay types all of which are described below:

  • Simple essay
  • Two-sided essay
  • Compare and contrast essay
  • Complex essay formats

Each essay type has something that makes it unique and slightly different from the rest. We have tried to offer the most noticeable differences as well as tips on how to approach these types of essays should you be assigned one.

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3.2.1: Simple essays

Simple essays follow that structure we have already introduced and tend to be around 1,000 words in length, which is approximately four pages based on spacing and font choice. The pattern is:

  • Introduction
  • Body Paragraph 1
  • Body Paragraph 2
  • Body Paragraph 3
  • Conclusion

Not all paragraphs were created equal so we are not saying you have to evenly split the word count down to the very last word equally among paragraphs, but do try to provide similar length to each of the body paragraphs to balance the points you are making, which, in this case, would equate to three main points.

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3.2.2: Two-sided essays

There are some essay assignments that will ask you to provide more than one argument and typically involve subject matter where there are two definitive sides to an issue or problem that should be addressed to illustrate your understanding of each side. In this case, the essay would become what is known as a two-sided essay. It looks like this:

  • Introduction
  • Side 1, Reason 1
  • Side 1, Reason 2
  • Side 1, Reason 3
  • Side 2, Reason 1
  • Side 2, Reason, 2
  • Side 2, Reason 3
  • Conclusion

The concluding section of this type of essay asks that you provide your opinion about both sides versus just summarising the main points. In this way, you are showing a for or against or the advantages and disadvantages component to your essay writing but does so in an organised manner.

The key here again is balancing the amount of words provided to each side and the value of focusing on the most important and convincing points for both sides of the issue. Up until the conclusion, it is best to stay as objective as possible and then put your viewpoint at the end, explaining why you believe one side is more credible than the other.

This structure can also be used for what is termed the statement and discussion essay in which you provide more than one side or issue related to that statement. Since it uses the idea of discussion, you need to talk about more than one side and again add opinions at the end of the essay. It may not necessarily follow the same exact pattern as listed above in terms of structure but it does come close in providing an objective section on each aspect of the statement.

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3.2.3: Compare and contrast essays

The compare and contrast essay comes in two forms: block and itemised. The block model looks like this:

  • Introduction
  • Similarities - 2-3 paragraphs on each similar item
  • Differences - 2-3 paragraphs on each different item
  • Conclusion

There should be balance in terms of the number of similarities and differences mentioned in the essay so as to not influence the reader toward concluding toward one way or the other. Because this is more about being descriptive, these essays do not necessarily ask for you to provide your opinion like a two-sided essay or a statement and discussion essay.

The second compare and contrast essay model is known as the itemised model and it looks like this:

  • Introduction
  • Point 1: Similarity and Difference
  • Point 2: Similarity and Difference
  • Point 3: Similarity and Difference
  • Conclusion

This version of the compare and contrast essay focuses more on the three points than the other version, which put the emphasis on the similarities and differences. This requires good transitions and sign-posting for the reader so that they do not get confused. Again, the conclusion does not need to feature your opinion on the subject since this is more about a descriptive versus argumentative presentation.

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3.2.4: More complex essays

From here, the types of essays only become more complex in the layers within their structure. This includes these two complex essay formats.

The 'to what extent' essays looks like this:

  • Introduction
  • Background
  • Point with Yes or No
  • Point with Yes or No
  • Point with Yes or No
  • Point with Yes or No
  • Conclusion where you add up yes or no points

This essay format is used for those topics where there may not be a completely solid direction or side to take with a particular topic. The introduction and background sections provide the context where the issue or problem is established and offers reasons why there are no definitive answers related to that issue or problem. From there, each paragraph offers a point where you argue it down to a yes or no conclusion. This then leads to the conclusion where you tally the points toward yes or no and then offer a direction based on which side has the most points.

The multi-function essay means that there are many actions that the essay writer must take in the course of writing and presenting the essay. Its structure looks like this:

  • Introduction
  • Identify the Problem
  • Suggest a Solution
  • Evaluate if the Solution Works
  • Recommend how to Proceed
  • Conclusion

Each section becomes a functional item within the essay where the writer offers information and reasons related to that function. The conclusion ties it all together without spending too much time repeating what is already been functionally addressed in each section of the essay.

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3.3: Essay strategies

Now that you understand how to approach the essay title, subject, question or prompt and have a better sense of the variations on the essay structure theme, we have put together some quick essay strategies to use at this stage in the essay process:

  • Use one of the essay structures mentioned here to help your essay flow and the reader follow along so they can see where you are going. Otherwise, any confusion takes away from their focus on what you are actually saying.
  • Always check that you have added transitions so that readers can see why you are going from one point to the next. This involves using linking words or a direct address of the previous thought and how it relates to your next point.

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Chapter 3: In summary

Ask yourself these key questions related to the chapter:

  • Have you identified the keywords and the function, or action, words in the essay title or prompt?
  • Have you decided on an essay type for your essay title? And, if not, have you considered diagramming the title to see if it might look like one of the frameworks discussed here?

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