Organizational templates for academic essays

This article samples some common structures for academic essays and gives some tips for executing each of these structures. It does not present a comprehensive list of every possible structure, but gives you a good idea of some of the most common ones.

Common structures for academic essays:

Compare and contrast

This is one of the most difficult essay structures to pull off well, but it’s also one of the most useful essay structures, so we’ll spend the most time on it.

The discursive essay is a compare and contrast essay par excellence, but compare and contrast sections appear in many argumentative essays. Compare and contrast essays and essay sections are often used in fields that rely on evaluation of theory, such as political science, philosophy, and literary criticism. They are also used to compare the effectiveness of practices in fields such as nursing, social science, and anthropology.

When you are comparing and contrasting different views on a topic, you really have two different options for structure: alternating or one-at-a-time.

Alternating

The alternating structure switches back and forth between different views more often. Since the argument shifts so often, the topic of the debate unifies the paragraphs in this structure. It’s best to think of the topics as sections in the paper and the differing arguments or viewpoints as paragraphs.

Topic sectionParagraphs that cover the different views on the topic
The government’s new policy decisionsThe government supports these decisions for x, y, and z reasons.
Critics, however, argue that the policies overlook p, q, and r.
Future plans for the governmentRegardless of the status of the decisions, they allow for a and b to happen in the next few years, the government claims.
Despite their more general disagreement, critics agree that a and b would offer some promising opportunities.

Tips for the alternating structure

  • Focus on careful transitions.
  • Make explicit which side of the debate is being discussed at any given time.

One-at-a-time

In this compare and contrast structure of an essay, you take one argumentative view at a time. As such, the different arguments or views form the sections of the paper and unify the different paragraphs, which focus on the topics. Compare the following table to the one above.

Sections based on different argumentsParagraphs that cover topics the arguments focus on
The government’s argumentThe government supports these decisions for x, y, and z reasons.
These decisions, the government says, will allow for a and b developments.
Critics’ argumentOn the other side of the debate, critics argue that the policies overlook p, q, and r.
The critics agree, however, that a and b would offer some promising opportunities.

Tips for the one-at-a-time structure:

On this structure it’s easier to transition and keep clear which argument is being presented, but you have to work harder to bring out the differences between the views, because these differences lie so far apart in the layout of the paper.

To help bring out the contrasts and comparisons:

  • In the later section, use key terms from whichever argument you take up first to signal that you are covering the same topic.
  • Highlight the differences between the views in a new section that follows your detailed explanation of each view. Be careful not to be redundant here—don’t merely repeat things you’ve already said. The focus should be on referring back to foreground any differences the audience could have reasonably missed or any differences you did not have time to highlight above.

Chronological or cause-and-effect

The chronological essay structure and the cause-and-effect essay structure are most useful for presenting how a series of events unfolded or unfolds. This structure is fairly self-explanatory. Give the events from first to last, and keep the focus on how each event in the series is related to the next.

General to specific

An essay that moves from general topic matter to more specific topic matter is useful when you are examining something that requires much context to fully understand. This essay structure is useful in characterizing an entire theory or concept to make one specific point about just one particular aspect of that theory or concept. Usually a paper like this focuses on the points you will make later in the essay, and the earlier parts of the essay are just necessary pretext for these later points.

Tips for the general to specific structure

Avoid providing irrelevant context. Keep in mind the specific things you’re working toward while you write the earlier sections of the essay. Not over-explaining is one of the challenges of working with general descriptions—ensure you don’t offer information that’s irrelevant to your focus. Keep one eye on your thesis the other on the later sections of the paper.

Clarify why the general stuff is important to the specific stuff. A common pitfall in a paper like this is to provide the right context and the right specific points, but fail to make the connection between the two. When you get to the later sections of the paper, make sure it’s clear how the earlier sections are being used (are you just using definitions you provided earlier, or do you need to explain how the background of an event, for example, influenced the way that event played out?).

Problems-methods-solutions

Use this paper structure when you’ve identified a problem and want to methodically analyze it to find a solution. Characterize a problem. Characterize some theory relevant to solving the problem. Use that theory to analyze the problem and come up with a solution.

The problems-methods-solutions structure has some striking similarities to the structure that a standard scientific paper takes, and this is no accident: the goal is methodical analysis of a theory, concept, or practice, in order to arrive a plausible conclusion that solves the initial problem.

There are some important differences to keep in mind, though:

This essay structure is not used for the explanation of an experiment. This difference has a few consequences:

  • Unlike in a science paper, the methods section in an essay is not an explanation of the things you did to get your results. In an essay, the methods section is often an explanation of the theoretical concepts used later in the essay to analyze the problems. In other words, in the methods section you give your reader what they need to understand the analysis you’re going to walk them through in the solutions section.
  • The tense switches that we expect in science papers (present in the introduction, past in the methods section, for example), do not appear here.

Problems, methods, and solutions do not necessarily occupy distinct sections marked by separate headings. They can be put into formally distinct sections, but it’s not necessary.

  • If you do decide to section your essay, headings such as “problems,” “methods,” and “solutions” will probably not be descriptive enough.
    • Headings similar to these work in science papers because such sections form the basis of almost all science papers—everyone understands what kind of thing happens in each section. Essays take many different forms, so you can’t count on this understanding from your reader in an essay.
  • Use more descriptive headings if you are to divide sections up in your essay, making reference to the content of the each section in its heading.

A tip for problems-methods-solutions structure

Remember that this structure still uses the same basic principles as most other essays—don’t wait until the “solutions” part of the essay to outline your solutions. They should be foregrounded in your thesis at the beginning of the paper, and the problems and methods should also be sketched in the introduction.

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Shane Bryson

Shane finished his master's degree in English literature in 2013 and has been working as a writing tutor and editor since 2009. He began proofreading and editing essays with Scribbr in early summer, 2014.

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