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Theory of essay structure

Read about how structure is essential to communicating your ideas with power and coherency.
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How you structure any piece of written communication will influence how your reader receives it.

A well-structured essay/email/proposal will help the reader follow your line of thinking and follow the logic behind it. Careful structuring will improve comprehension and have more power in persuading the reader.

Structure is essential on all levels, which is why this course covers essay structure, paragraph structure, and then sentence structure. At each point, reflect back on your sample and think about how you have structured it. Does it have an introduction and conclusion? Are the arguments ordered with purpose or randomly sequenced? Can the reader follow your logic based on the way the paragraphs are ordered?

While structure can be manipulated for different purposes, the basic and universal structure will be discussed.

Introduction

Every piece of communication needs an introduction. The purpose of the introduction is first and foremost to orientate your audience. A good introduction will provide context on the general topic, outline the thesis statement/argument, and briefly mention each main point. In professional contexts, this would also include a greeting of some kind (for example, saying good morning or hi in an email or before a meeting).

Without an introduction, there is no clear purpose or context set up for the reader. Providing arguments without saying what you are arguing is like paying a cashier for a coffee you haven’t ordered yet. In both scenarios, they’re left wondering “what is this for?”.

Body

The body of your essay is where you build your argument. Each paragraph within the body should contain one idea or argument and the order of those arguments is important. You need to step into the shoes of the audience and ask yourself, “what do they need to know first?”. This question will guide you to the order that is the best for your arguments and purpose.

There are a few different ways you can order your arguments:

  1. Topical strategy: this involves ordering arguments based on their relevance. Your first argument will be the one most relevant to the current discussion, and the others will follow down in order of relevancy.
  2. Chronological order: using a chronological order means putting your arguments in order of time. This would only be applicable to arguments that have timelines. For example, if a project needs to be re-structured and you’re using the issues that have interfered with the project as evidence, you would start with the issue that first happened and run through the others in the order they happened. This will create a very clear picture for the reader and emphasise how the problem or argument has developed over time.
  3. Strongest to weakest: this order has advantages because first impressions count. Therefore, if you capture their attention and support from the very first argument, they are more likely to agree with your subsequent arguments, even if they are slightly weaker.

Whichever order you choose, it is important that each one builds on the last. You want to create a story, and you will need to reflect on the content and purpose of your arguments to understand how the story will be best told. It is also important to have only one argument per paragraph.

While this is directly talking about argumentative essays, this structure can be applied to anything. Any email, proposal, or meeting needs an order and a structure. If you are simply sending an email outlining instructions for someone, it is essential you follow chronological order to ensure they are clear on the process. However, if you are assigning multiple tasks, you would use a topical order to demonstrate the relevance and priority. It could be as simple as requesting a company purchase of mouse pads. You would start with the strongest argument and lead down—”We need mouse pads for everyone because they are ergonomic and comfortable”. Ergonomic is placed first because it holds more power than comfortable.

Conclusion

A conclusion is just as important as the introduction. This is because if you want your message to be heard, you need to deliver it in three different ways. The introduction is the first, the body is the second, and therefore the conclusion is the third. It is the final chance you have to push the purpose of the text. It will restate the thesis/argument, summarise the main points, and provide a concluding comment that connects the argument with the main points.

For example:

  • Argument: the project plan needs to be re-structured with new priorities
  • Main points: our client has changed their mind on several key features of the product, the government funding has been redirected, and we have recently lost two staff from the project
  • Concluding comment: The implications of the client’s change of mind, loss of government funding and reduction in staff cannot be understated, as these three factors mean our entire priorities have been changed, and the project plan needs to reflect this for the best chance of success.

By having a powerful concluding comment that makes all the connections clear in the audience’s mind, you are doing all the work for them and making it easier for them to agree with you. Additionally, in a non-argumentative context, summing up what you need someone to do for you, what you have completed on a project, or the main points of the meeting in a sentence like this will spoon-feed the message to the recipient. This will increase comprehension, save the reader’s time, and avoid unnecessary confusions or further communication to clarify. The clearer you are in your conclusion, the less room there is for interpretation, and most importantly, misinterpretation.

© USQ
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Effective Communication Skills for Professionals

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