An overview of academic essays

This article presents a general overview of the academic essay as a form of writing: its purpose, its component parts, and its development from idea to polished document.

Academic formality

What distinguishes the academic essay from other essays are its rigour and its method.

On rigour

It is because academic essays are to be painstakingly meticulous that people in the academy will sometimes say, “an essay is not a statement of opinion.”  What they mean is that an academic essay fails utterly when its argument is so weak that someone might call it “just an opinion.”  In an academic essay, your opinion must be presented as rigorous argument—your essay must forcefully persuade or cunningly induce its readers to believe.

Rigorous argument cannot not rely on the author’s intuition or feeling about a topic, but must present reasons others will find convincing in support of the author’s view on a topic. These supporting reasons are what give an essay its persuasive power. Academic essays don’t ask for people to believe—and they especially don’t assume that people will believe—they provide convincing reasons to believe.

Careful citation practice forms another pillar of academic rigour, and you should be exacting and vigilant about tracking sources and putting them in the appropriate places.

On method

As scientists have settled on the fixed structure of a scientific report to convey their findings, so academic essayists have more or less settled on a fixed structure to convey their arguments (although the essay form predates the scientific report by centuries).

Practiced essayists sometimes vary their approaches, but academic essays of any length or type, almost without exception, have a definite set of component parts, and certain types of information follow a more or less certain order.

Thesis statements

The opinion of which you’re trying to convince your reader becomes your thesis statement.  Every essay will have a thesis statement, with the exception of what are called “narrative” and “descriptive” essays (which can be thought of as a blend of short-story-like writing and more standard essay writing).

General form

Every essay has an introduction, body, and conclusion that always do more or less the same things.

Paragraph form

Because academic essays require so much rigour and clarity, paragraphs are required to be well-integrated with one another, and a fairly formulaic approach to writing any given paragraph can be helpful. Introductions, in particular, can be understood with a unique formula. Even when writers forge more creatively organized paragraphs, each paragraph requires good transitions and normally uses well-defined topic sentences.

Differences in essay execution

Obviously, though, each essay is not the same. Essay content and emphasis begins to differ depending on the demands of the topic and the purpose of the essay, and there are recognizable patterns for ordering paragraphs that we can pick out for various purposes.

Pre- and-post-essay-writing

The demands placed on you as an academic essayist are high enough that the writing process begins long before the writing, and the essay is not done even when the writing is complete.

The writing process

Before you begin work on your polished essay, there are a number of steps to take:

The revision process

Once you produce a draft containing all of the substantial parts of your argument, the revision process begins.  Revision can be usefully broken down into two separate processes—looking at global concerns and scrutinizing the fine-grained details of the essay.

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