ENC1101 First-year Composition




Formal Academic Essays



An academic essay is a coherent set of ideas that come together as an argument (details supporting a thesis). Because essays are linear (one idea at a time), they must present their ideas in the order that makes most sense (logical and easy to follow manner) to a reader. 


The Parts of an Essay


A typical essay contains many different kinds of information, often located in specialized parts or sections. Each section performs a different function: introducing the argument, analyzing the data, raising counter-arguments, concluding. Only the introductions and conclusions have fixed places, but the other parts do not necessarily. Different essay sections answer a series of questions your reader might ask when encountering your thesis.


"What?"  What evidence shows that your thesis is true? This "what" or "demonstration" section comes early in the essay, often directly after the introduction. Since you are essentially reporting your observations, this is the part you might have most to write about. However, this part should not take up much more than a third (often much less) of your finished essay.  If it does, the essay will lack balance and may be a mere summary or description, not analysis or critical thinking.


"How?"  Are the claims of the thesis true in all cases? How does the thesis stand up to the challenge of a counter-argument? Typically, an essay will include at least one "how" section. This section usually comes after the "what," although the counter-argument may appear just about anywhere in an essay.


"Why?"  What is at stake in your claim? Why does your interpretation of a phenomenon matter? This question addresses the larger implications and significance of your thesis. It allows your readers to understand your essay within a larger context.


Mapping an Essay


Structuring your essay logically means examining your thesis and providing what a reader needs to know, and in a logical sequence, in order to be convinced by your argument. The easiest way to do this is to map the essay's ideas in a written narrative.


Essay maps are not concerned with paragraphs so much as with sections of an essay.


State your thesis in a sentence or two, then write another sentence saying why it is important to make that claim. Here anticipate your answer to the "why" question that we become clearer in your conclusion. This is your introduction.


The first thing your reader might need to know is some background information.


Next expand by stating what the reader needs to know to be convinced of thesis. Then explain why that is the first thing a reader needs to know. Name one or two items of evidence you think will make the case. Here you are answering the "what" question.


State any counter-arguments and explain how your thesis holds up.


In the following paragraphs, you need to state other things the reader needs to know, and name some evidence. Continue until you have mapped out your essay. 


State any counter-arguments and explain how your thesis holds up.


Explain your answer to the "why" question in view of all the evidence you have provided in support of your thesis. This is your conclusion.




A common problem 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.


Adapted from