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Basic Essay Structure

Most written English essays follow a particular structure which instructors use to evaluate their students' writing. The basic structure consists fundamentally of three parts:

1. An introductory paragraph
2. One or more body paragraphs
3. A concluding paragraph

One of the purposes of the introductory paragraph is to house the main point of the essay. This point, or the thesis statement, often occurs at the end of the introductory paragraph. In addition, the point often reappears and is summarized at the beginning of the concluding paragraph. Support for and elaboration of the point appears in the middle, or body, paragraphs. The configuration below represents basic discourse structures.

Graphic with 2 levels: 1) rectangle at top labeled Discourse Structures, 2) under that a row of: a circle labeled ASL with an unlabeled diamond under it, a rectangle labeled Spoken English with an unlabeled funnel shape under it, a rectangle labeled Written English with an unlabeled vertical stack under it of an inverted triangle/rectangle-like shape/rectangle-like shape/triangle

This configuration illustrates three different discourse structures---ASL discourse, spoken English discourse, and written English discourse (see Christie et al., 1999). These structures are visual representations of the framework or schemata people use for communicating information. They also represent the expectations of the audience.

The first structure in the configuration shows that a person giving a presentation in ASL directly states the point or topic of the presentation at the beginning. This point is fleshed out, explained, and repeated in closing the presentation.

The second structure, which represents a spoken English presentation, in contrast, gets to the point much later. The speaker often will begin with a personal anecdote and give information to the audience which will lead to the points of the presentation. Thus, in this type of presentation, the speaker allows the audience time to think about inferring the points from information being presented.

The third structure shows that the point of a written English essay often occurs at the end of the introductory paragraph. The introductory paragraph is represented by the first triangle, which begins generally and leads to a specific point. The next two boxes are the body paragraphs. This is where the support for the point is organized. Finally, the conclusion is represented by an inverted triangle, showing a restatement of the point and a gradual fading of the specifics of this topic into greater generalities.

There are also a variety of "rhetorical modes" (types of essays) used in essay writing such as comparison/contrast, process, definition, and argument. Note that the topic of the essay and the rhetorical mode need to be compatible. The type of rhetorical mode will influence both the content and organization of the essay. Since basic essay structure is often taught using the modes of narration and exposition, these types of essay will be utilized in this module.

Following prewriting activities such as clustering and outlining (see the SEA Site module Reading and Writing in Content Areas), students will need to develop both the subject/topic of the essay and the thesis statement.

The Thesis Statement

While various "rules" abound for creating a thesis statement in basic writing and composition texts, a thesis statement is generally viewed as a sentence in which the writer asserts the main point the essay will make about the topic. (See also the SEA Site module Paragraph Structure.)

A thesis statement may be a statement that identifies the topic and indicates how the writer has decided to limit or focus the topic. The following thesis statement outlines the limited focus of the topic:

My most valued possessions are those which spark memories of significant past events.

Another type of thesis statement structure is used as an organizing guide with the inclusion of supporting points. These supporting points will be developed in the body paragraphs. The following is a thesis statement with organizing subpoints:

My most valued possessions consist of my photo albums, my postcard collection, and my box of mementos.

Finally, a thesis statement may be a broad identification of the topic which indicates the writer's opinion, such as the following:

The necklace my grandmother gave me for my 16th birthday is the most valued of all my possessions.

In creating a thesis statement, the degree of specificity used in the introductory paragraph of the essay may be a writer's prerogative. Since a similar statement may be used in the concluding paragraph to summarize the main point, students may use one type of thesis statement in the introduction and a different type in the conclusion.