How to structure an essay: Templates and tips

The basic structure of an essay always consists of an introduction, a body, and a conclusion. But for many students, the most difficult part of structuring an essay is deciding how to organize information within the body.

This article provides useful templates and tips to help you outline your essay, make decisions about your structure, and organize your text logically.

The basics of essay structure

There are two main things to keep in mind when working on your essay structure: making sure to include the right information in each part, and deciding how you’ll organize the information within the body.

Parts of an essay

The three parts that make up all essays are described in the table below.

Part Content
Introduction
Body
  • Core arguments and analysis
  • Presents evidence (e.g. quotes)
  • One main point per paragraph
  • Each paragraph starts with a topic sentence
  • All paragraphs relate to your thesis
Conclusion
  • Ties together your main points
  • Shows why your argument matters

Order of information

You’ll also have to consider how to present information within the body. There are a few general principles that can guide you here.

The first is that your argument should move from the simplest claim to the most complex. The body of a good argumentative essay often begins with simple and widely accepted claims, and then moves towards more complex and contentious ones.

For example, you might begin by describing a generally accepted philosophical concept, and then apply it to a new topic. The grounding in the general concept will allow the reader to understand your unique application of it.

The second principle is that background information should appear towards the beginning of your essay. General background is presented in the introduction. If you have additional background to present, this information will usually come at the start of the body.

The third principle is that everything in your essay should be relevant to the thesis. Ask yourself whether each piece of information advances your argument or provides necessary background. And make sure that the text clearly expresses each piece of information’s relevance.

The sections below present several organizational templates for essays: the chronological approach, the compare-and-contrast approach, and the problems-methods-solutions approach.

Chronological structure

The chronological approach (sometimes called the cause-and-effect approach) is probably the simplest way to structure an essay. It just means discussing events in the order in which they occurred, discussing how they are related (i.e. the cause and effect involved) as you go.

A chronological approach can be useful when your essay is about a series of events. Don’t rule out other approaches, though—even when the chronological approach is the obvious one, you might be able to bring out more with a different structure.

Explore the tabs below to see a general template and a specific example outline from an essay on the invention of the printing press.

Chronological essay outline template
  1. Introduction
    1. Hook
    2. Background
    3. Thesis statement
  2. Event/period one
    1. Discussion of event/period
    2. Consequences
  3. Event/period two
    1. Discussion of event/period
    2. Consequences
  4. Event/period three
    1. Discussion of event/period
    2. Consequences
  5. Conclusion
    1. Summary
    2. Importance of topic
    3. Strong closing statement
Chronological essay outline example
  1. Introduction
    1. Claim that the printing press marks the end of the Middle Ages
    2. Background on the low levels of literacy before the printing press
    3. Thesis statement: The invention of the printing press increased circulation of information in Europe, paving the way for the Reformation
  2. Situation before the printing press
    1. High levels of illiteracy in medieval Europe
    2. Literacy and thus knowledge and education were mainly the domain of religious and political elites
    3. Consequence: this discouraged political and religious change
  3. Invention and spread of the printing press
    1. Invention of the printing press in 1440 by Johannes Gutenberg
    2. Implications of the new technology for book production
    3. Consequence: Rapid spread of the technology and the printing of the Gutenberg Bible
  4. Printing press’s influence on the Reformation
    1. Trend for translating the Bible into vernacular languages during the years following the printing press’s invention
    2. Luther’s own translation of the Bible during the Reformation
    3. Consequence: The large-scale effects the Reformation would have on religion and politics
  5. Conclusion
    1. Summarize the history described
    2. Stress the significance of the printing press to the events of this period

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Compare-and-contrast structure

Essays with two or more main subjects are often structured around comparing and contrasting. For example, a literary analysis essay might compare two different texts, and an argumentative essay might compare the strengths of different arguments.

There are two main ways of structuring a compare-and-contrast essay: the alternating method, and the block method.

Alternating

In the alternating method, each paragraph compares your subjects in terms of a specific point of comparison. These points of comparison are therefore what defines each paragraph.

The tabs below show a general template for this structure, and a specific example for an essay comparing and contrasting distance learning with traditional classroom learning.

Alternating essay outline template
  1. Introduction
    1. Hook
    2. Background
    3. Thesis statement
  2. First point of comparison
    1. Subject 1
    2. Subject 2
  3. Second point of comparison
    1. Subject 1
    2. Subject 2
  4. Third point of comparison
    1. Subject 1
    2. Subject 2
  5. Conclusion
    1. Synthesis of arguments
    2. Importance of topic
    3. Strong closing statement
Alternating essay outline example
  1. Introduction
    1. Topical relevance of distance learning in lockdown
    2. Increasing prevalence of distance learning over the last decade
    3. Thesis statement: While distance learning has certain advantages, it introduces multiple new accessibility issues that must be addressed for it to be as effective as classroom learning
  2. Teacher capacity to aid struggling students
    1. Classroom learning: Ease of identifying difficulties and privately discussing them
    2. Distance learning: Difficulty of noticing and unobtrusively helping
  3. Accessibility issues
    1. Classroom learning: Difficulties accessing the classroom (disability, distance travelled from home)
    2. Distance learning: Difficulties with online work (lack of tech literacy, unreliable connection, distractions)
  4. Personal interaction and engagement
    1. Classroom learning: Tends to encourage personal engagement among students and with teacher, more relaxed social environment
    2. Distance learning: Greater ability to reach out to teacher privately
  5. Conclusion
    1. Sum up, emphasize that distance learning introduces more difficulties than it solves
    2. Stress the importance of addressing issues with distance learning as it becomes increasingly common
    3. Distance learning may prove to be the future, but it still has a long way to go

Block

In the block method, each subject is covered all in one go, potentially across multiple paragraphs. For example, you might write two paragraphs about your first subject and then two about your second subject, making comparisons back to the first.

The tabs again show a general template, followed by another essay on distance learning, this time with the body structured in blocks.

Block essay outline template
  1. Introduction
    1. Hook
    2. Background
    3. Thesis statement
  2. First subject
    1. Point 1
    2. Point 2
  3. First subject, continued
    1. Point 3
    2. Point 4
  4. Second subject
    1. Point 1 (compare)
    2. Point 2 (compare)
  5. Second subject, continued
    1. Point 3 (compare)
    2. Point 4 (compare)
  6. Conclusion
    1. Synthesis of arguments
    2. Importance of topic
    3. Strong closing statement
Block essay outline example
  1. Introduction
    1. Topical relevance of distance learning in lockdown
    2. Increasing prevalence of distance learning over the last decade
    3. Thesis statement: While distance learning has certain advantages, it introduces multiple new accessibility issues that must be addressed for it to be as effective as classroom learning
  2. Distance learning: Accessibility
    1. Advantages: Flexibility, accessibility
    2. Disadvantages: Discomfort, challenges for those with poor internet or tech literacy
  3. Distance learning: Personal interaction
    1. Advantages: Potential for teacher to discuss issues with a student in a separate private call
    2. Disadvantages: Difficulty of identifying struggling students and aiding them unobtrusively, lack of personal interaction among students
  4. Classroom learning: Accessibility
    1. Advantages: More accessible to those with low tech literacy, equality of all sharing one learning environment
    2. Disadvantages: Students must live close enough to attend, commutes may vary, classrooms not always accessible for disabled students
  5. Classroom learning: Personal interaction
    1. Advantages: Ease of picking up on signs a student is struggling, more personal interaction among students
    2. Disadvantages: May be harder for students to approach teacher privately in person to raise issues
  6. Conclusion
    1. Sum up, emphasize that distance learning introduces more difficulties than it solves
    2. Stress the importance of addressing issues with distance learning as it becomes increasingly common
    3. Distance learning may prove to be the future, but it still has a long way to go

Problems-methods-solutions structure

An essay that concerns a specific problem (practical or theoretical) may be structured according to the problems-methods-solutions approach.

This is just what it sounds like: You define the problem, characterize a method or theory that may solve it, and finally analyze the problem, using this method or theory to arrive at a solution. If the problem is theoretical, the solution might be the analysis you present in the essay itself; otherwise, you might just present a proposed solution.

The tabs below show a template for this structure and an example outline for an essay about the problem of fake news.

Problems-methods-solutions essay outline template
  1. Introduction
    1. Introduce the problem
    2. Provide background
    3. Describe your approach to solving it
  2. Problem
    1. Define the problem precisely
    2. Describe why it’s important
  3. Method
    1. Indicate previous approaches to the problem
    2. Present your new approach, and why it’s better
  4. Solution
    1. Apply the new method or theory to the problem
    2. Indicate the solution you arrive at by doing so
  5. Conclusion
    1. Assess (potential or actual) effectiveness of solution
    2. Describe the implications
    3. Strong closing statement
Problems-methods-solutions essay outline example
  1. Introduction
    1. Problem: The growth of “fake news” online
    2. Prevalence of polarized/conspiracy-focused news sources online
    3. Thesis statement: Rather than attempting to stamp out online fake news through social media moderation, an effective approach to combating it must work with educational institutions to improve media literacy
  2. The problem of fake news
    1. Definition: Deliberate disinformation designed to spread virally online
    2. Popularization of the term, growth of the phenomenon
  3. Media literacy
    1. Previous approaches: Labeling and moderation on social media platforms
    2. Critique: This approach feeds conspiracies; the real solution is to improve media literacy so users can better identify fake news
  4. Educating news consumers
    1. Greater emphasis should be placed on media literacy education in schools
    2. This allows people to assess news sources independently, rather than just being told which ones to trust
  5. Conclusion
    1. This is a long-term solution but could be highly effective
    2. It would require significant organization and investment, but would equip people to judge news sources more effectively
    3. Rather than trying to contain the spread of fake news, we must teach the next generation not to fall for it

Signposting to clarify your structure

Signposting means guiding the reader through your essay with language that describes or hints at the structure of what follows.  It can help you clarify your structure for yourself as well as helping your reader follow your ideas.

The essay overview

In longer essays whose body is split into multiple named sections, the introduction often ends with an overview of the rest of the essay. This gives a brief description of the main idea or argument of each section.

The overview allows the reader to immediately understand what will be covered in the essay and in what order. Though it describes what  comes later in the text, it is generally written in the present tense. The following example is from a literary analysis essay on Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein.

Essay overview example
This essay begins by exploring the positive portrayal of Frankenstein in the first volume, then moves on to the creature’s perception of him, and finally discusses the third volume’s narrative shift toward viewing Frankenstein as the creature views him.

Transitions

Transition words and phrases are used throughout all good essays to link together different ideas. They help guide the reader through your text, and an essay that uses them effectively will be much easier to follow.

Various different relationships can be expressed by transition words, as shown in this example.

Transition words example

Because Hitler failed to respond to the British ultimatum, France and the UK declared war on Germany. Although it was an outcome the Allies had hoped to avoid, they were prepared to back up their ultimatum in order to combat the existential threat posed by the Third Reich.

Transition sentences may be included to transition between different paragraphs or sections of an essay. A good transition sentence moves the reader on to the next topic while indicating how it relates to the previous one.

Transition sentence example

… Distance learning, then, seems to improve accessibility in some ways while representing a step backwards in others.

However, considering the issue of personal interaction among students presents a different picture.

Frequently asked questions about essay structure

What is the structure of an essay?

The structure of an essay is divided into an introduction that presents your topic and thesis statement, a body containing your in-depth analysis and arguments, and a conclusion wrapping up your ideas.

The structure of the body is flexible, but you should always spend some time thinking about how you can organize your essay to best serve your ideas.

Why is structure important in an essay?

An essay isn’t just a loose collection of facts and ideas. Instead, it should be centered on an overarching argument (summarized in your thesis statement) that every part of the essay relates to.

The way you structure your essay is crucial to presenting your argument coherently. A well-structured essay helps your reader follow the logic of your ideas and understand your overall point.

How do I compare and contrast in a structured way?

Comparisons in essays are generally structured in one of two ways:

  • The alternating method, where you compare your subjects side by side according to one specific aspect at a time.
  • The block method, where you cover each subject separately in its entirety.

It’s also possible to combine both methods, for example by writing a full paragraph on each of your topics and then a final paragraph contrasting the two according to a specific metric.

Do I have to stick to my essay outline as I write?

You should try to follow your outline as you write your essay. However, if your ideas change or it becomes clear that your structure could be better, it’s okay to depart from your essay outline. Just make sure you know why you’re doing so.

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Jack Caulfield

Jack is a Brit based in Amsterdam, with an MA in comparative literature. He writes and edits for Scribbr, and reads a lot of books in his spare time.

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