Tips on working through the body of an academic essay
By far the biggest section of an academic essay, the body is the only place in the paper that any arguments are actually made. The introduction tells what the argument will be, but does not itself argue anything; the conclusion often briefly recaps the main points of the body and suggests further study gives some or concluding thoughts, but no new argument should be made there—the body does all of the heavy argumentative lifting.
The major struggle that writers most often face in the body is organization. So much information is offered here—what is the best way to present it? What follows are some tips to help keep you on track as you plan, organize, and reorganize the body of the paper.
7 Tips for body paragraph organization
1. I said these are tips for when you plan, organize, and reorganize. Work on a paper’s organization begins before the paper is written, continues as it is written, and goes on after it is written. From the moment your paper idea is conceived until the moment the paper is perfected, you should be willing to change the organization if necessary. You don’t need to think about the ordering of your paragraphs or sentences every second, but you should periodically check in to see if things are working.
2. Begin with a rough outline of the organization. This will help you get started in your writing, and if you keep an eye on it, the outline will also help you remember which part of the essay you’re writing at any given time, and how it should relate to the other parts.
3. While you’re writing a certain section, if you come up with a plan for something somewhere else in the paper, take a few moments to add to your outline or make notes on your organizational ideas.
If you have a clear enough idea of what you’d like to say, try to write these ideas down in rough topic sentences, if possible with all of the basic components of a topic sentence. This will help you remember what you were thinking when you finish the section you’re working on.
- Check your topic sentences against your thesis to make sure your paragraphs are covering relevant and important topic matter.
- Check your topic sentences against each other:
- to make sure your paragraphs don’t cover the same things.
- to make sure your paragraphs are logically ordered.
- Check each sentence in your paragraph against the topic sentence to make sure the paragraph does not go off-topic.
5. When you finish the first full draft of the paper, condense all of the paragraphs into only their topic sentences and read them one at a time.
- Compare this breakdown against the rough outline that you started with to see if you’ve stayed on track or if things have changed. It’s okay if your ideas have changed, but you should be aware of it.
- If the transitions are good and the ideas are clear, you should be able to read through only these topic sentences without getting lost. Check to make sure you can.
- Looking at only topic sentences lets you see at a glance the route your paper takes from start to finish. You can spot organizational errors more easily if you can do this.
6. Watch out for paragraphs that seem to cover the same things. The differences between each paragraph need to be clear. Each paragraph should discuss something different—if two paragraphs are about the same topic, they must approach that topic in slightly different ways, and these differences need to be foregrounded in the topic sentences.
7. Check for smooth transitions between paragraphs.
If you find after you’ve finished your draft, or mid-way through your draft, that your organization is not working, don’t panic! Take a few hours off if you need to, come back to the paper with fresh eyes, and start working on your rough outline again. Survey what you have and compare it to what you want to have. Before you start writing again, reorganize the paper as appropriate, and make a plan to fill in any organizational gaps. Then continue with the writing.