Structure, Style, Argument
– an Undergrad Guide to Essay Planning
How to improve your essay structure
Structure is a word you hear a lot in relation to essay-writing. But very rarely will anyone sit you down and explain what it means and how it’s expected in your work.
Structure can also be an overwhelming concept to get to grips with at first. So like most overwhelming concepts, it's best to break it down. And it’s best done during the planning stage, before you’ve written a single word.
Because endless cutting and pasting is the enemy of good structure.
Instead, knowing how much material you're going to put into each section – even into each paragraph – will give you the control you need, and stop your essay turning into an unruly beast that keeps you awake at night.
Get better essay structure with the M-S-M-S approach
Use the M-S-M-S approach to keep the beast of bad structure at bay:
M-S-M-S – Main
The first M is for Main.
These are your primary sources, your core reading list. You could be looking at a particular author, or the seminal texts of a period, movement, debate, etc. Without them, you have no essay.
To start, gather your quotations from and notes on these Main texts, and then use the page margins to add some more notes/ideas, this time interrogating each note in the context of this particular essay topic/question. Use a different colour to your original notes. (If your notes are on a laptop, you could add these in as comments.)
Remember: you're writing this essay to enter the debate and stage your own case, not to summarise and rehash the primary sources. Try the following questions to start with:
How does each note or quote sit within your understanding of the texts and your approach to them?
Does it support or subvert the issue in question?
Can you point to links, corollaries or differences elsewhere?
By starting this interrogative process early, you're leaving less chance of you running out of things to say halfway through the write-up.
And if your original note is not related to this topic, leave it out. This is a surefire way to avoid the temptation of making that point which, no matter how clever or insightful, has no place in this essay.
Next up, go through your pages (written or electronic) of notes and quotes and number each page in the top-right corner.
Now you're ready for stage two.
M-S-M-S – Secondary
The first S is for Secondary.
Time to bring some other voices into the mix. These secondary sources may come from a syllabus or reading list, or from your own rummaging around the library or online. Here is where you'll be able to get an idea of the kind of critical perspectives and arguments that already exist out there, and where your own analysis can fit in.
Again, we follow the same process as for the Main texts. Take quotes and make notes from your secondary reading, and then interrogate them in the margins:
Do you agree with this author's viewpoint?
Does this theoretical approach work for your Main text(s)?
In the wider critical context, do you side with the many or the few?
(And again if it doesn't fit the context of this essay, miss it out altogether.)
Feel free to disagree. In many ways, it's why you're here. But you're only free to do so if you can convey your disagreement in a way that is (a) supported in a clearly arguable way by the Main text(s), and (b) not just a sneaky reworking of someone else's own critical counter-punch.
By all means, take an existing position, reference it and then expand on it. Like with disagreeing above, as long as you're showing strong engagement with both your Main and Secondary source material, you're golden. Fail to do so and you can find yourself in murky waters. Really get it wrong and you're in plagiarism territory – another reason why structuring your argument effectively is so crucial.
Now go through your Secondary pages and mark them up top-right, this time with letters (A, B, C, etc.).
M-S-M-S – Mindmap
The second M is for Mindmap.
This is where we bring it all together. Themes, topics, primary and secondary reading, all in one place. Not only will this help you get your thoughts in order, your mindmap will also act as a one-stop, one-sheet resource to come back to, making sure your writing remains structured and on-message throughout.
Take one A4 sheet of paper, landscape, and draw a box in the middle. This is your theme. It could be the question asked in the essay title, for example. Now begin populating your diagram with topics, the key areas you want to explore and analyse.
In a standard 3,000-word undergraduate essay, you're looking at no more than 4 or 5 of these topics. Any more and you risk diluting the impact of your essay by trying to cover too much too quickly.
Instead, try and sharpen these topics as much as you can. These are the foundation stones of your argument, so make them count from the outset. So don't just write 'context', write 'the historical context of 14th century Scotland'. Don't write 'counter-arguments', write out your counter-arguments and why you can make them stick.
Once you have your 4-5 topic areas, draw arrows emanating out from the central theme box. While you do this, ask yourself two questions:
Can any of my topics be subdivided into more sections?
Are there any links/contrasts between any of the topics?
If yes to 1, add these sub-topics in as extra satellites around their topic. Think one section per topic, with one or two paragraphs per sub-topic.
If yes to 2, draw dotted lines linking the relevant topics.
Finally, add in a separate topic area for your introduction and any initial thoughts you have, then one more for your conclusion and a particularly strong point you want to make when signing off.
The next task is using your Mindmap to lay out the linear order for your essay. This is the foundation of all good structure. And it will stop you flying off on tangents, or dedicating too much of your word count to one element and not enough to the rest.
Remember: 'linear' here purely refers to your argument: it's only very rarely that you should ever feel restricted to following the linear narratives or chronologies of your texts.
Take a look at the topic areas in front of you. Your introduction, of course, is number 1, so mark that section of your Mindmap with a 1 in a circle. Follow this with a circled 2 for the topic you want to start your core argument with, and then work your way around the diagram until you have all your topics numbered, finishing with your conclusion.
If you've used those dotted lines in the previous phase to identify connections or differences between your topics, these will now help you link your sections together and improve the sense of flow as your essay progresses. (This is one of the dangers of writing essays by cutting and pasting separate sections together: topics written up in isolation will always lose any sense of overriding structure if they're pieced together as separates. You're writing an essay, not building a hi-fi.)
Last but not least, go back through your Main and Secondary notes, marking up your Mindmap with the page numbers or letters that correspond to that topic.
Your third topic, for instance, might have supporting notes and quotes of interest on pages 4, 7 and 12 of your Main sheets, and pages A, E and G of your Secondary sheets. In the counter-arguments example above, you can mark up this topic with the letters that link to the critical thinking you're taking issue with, as well as the numbers for any quotes/notes you think support your counter-argument.
Keep your markings small and tight to the relevant topics to avoid confusion later on. Some topics may have more corresponding notes than others, allowing you to build up an idea of how much weight to give each section before you've even started writing.
You may even decide – based on this marking-up phase – to change the order of your topics. Don't worry if you do; the crucial thing is that you've done this before you've written a word, so you've wasted none of the time you would have if you'd had to backtrack halfway through.
Now we have the basis, on one page, of your entire essay.
Follow your topics in order, and use the corresponding Main and Secondary notes for each point you make, and you'll have an essay with taut structure and traceable progression.
M-S-M-S – Space
The second S is for Space. As in space for serendipity.
So far you've tried to hone your thoughts into a clear critical path, but it's important to acknowledge those other avenues our work can take us down, both during the research stage and during writing.
Not always, but sometimes, staying open to these possibilities can make the difference between generic response and genuine breakthrough.
A couple of pointers to help you keep sight of this:
If you're in the library researching, grab the books either side of the one you've been assigned or are searching for and give them a leaf through. They may contain an argument or alternative point of view that flashes some light bulbs.
If you've used those clusters of sub-topics around the main topics on your Mindmap, leave off ordering them until you arrive at that section when writing up. Based on how you feel the essay is going so far, there may be one or two sub-topics that feel a better fit, or some that no longer belong at all.
An essay may be a man-made thing, but there's still something organic about it. Even with your same notes, it'd be hard to write out the exact same essay twice. Remember, drilling down into a critical point at length is far more likely to earn reward than trying to pay lip service to them all.
Use this extra Space for thought sparingly, of course. Above all else, you still need to organise the body of your essay in a way that gives it structure (from your Mindmap) and substance (from your Main and Secondary notes).
Proceed logically according to your outline. Open each section with a claim relevant to your thesis statement, and support it fully with textual and critical evidence.
Ultimately, the more comfortable you feel with your essay plan, the more seamless and efficient your writing will be.
Next: Essay-writing style