5.2 Structuring and introduction
An introduction is like a guidebook to your whole assignment. It gives background information into your topic area and outlines all the ideas you are going to present. Remember that most introductions will be about 10% of the final essay and will include some or all of the following:
- An introduction to the context or background of the topic (you could include interesting facts or quotations)
- The reason for writing about this topic
- Definitions of any complex terminology that will be referred to throughout the assignment (note that definitions are not always necessary)
- Introduce the main ideas that stem from your topic/title and the order in which you will discuss them?
You may want to use the grid below to help you structure your introduction; you can use the right-hand column to jot down your own ideas.
Structuring an introductory paragraph
|Introduce the context or background to the topic: Perhaps you could explain the title in your own words or use a quotation from an author who offers a supporting or contradictory statement about your topic area.|
|What is the purpose of writing about this topic? Is there a problem or controversy with the topic?|
|Definitions: Are you using any complex terminology or acronyms that need defining? Try to use a working definition from an expert in your subject area rather than referring to a general dictionary definition.|
|Introduce the main ideas that stem from your topic: You cannot write about everything; for a 2,000 word assignment, select between 3-5 key ideas and introduce them in the precise order in which they will be discussed.|
Structuring a paragraph in the main body of your assignment
What is a paragraph?
Paragraphs in the main body of your assignment usually contain a number of sentences which develop new ideas or expand upon existing ones. You may also need to construct paragraphs which offer contrasting views on the ideas you have already developed. A succession of well-structured paragraphs can help to create a coherent and logical argument. You need to consider the purpose of each paragraph:
- Is it developing a new idea?
- Is it expanding on an idea already mentioned?
- Is it offering a contrasting view on an idea already mentioned?
You may wish to use the grid below to record your ideas for each of your paragraphs.
Structuring a paragraph in the main body of your assignment
|An introductory sentence (this is sometimes called a topic sentence): This tells the reader the purpose of your paragraph and introduces the main idea you are developing, expanding upon or contrasting with another.|
|Examples/evidence/quotations: You will usually need to include evidence that develops/contrasts an idea. This informs and strengthens your argument. Try and introduce your evidence clearly and remember to reference the source (either as a citation in the body of your text or as a footnote/endnote).|
|Evaluative sentence/s: You may need to offer some explanation on the relevance of your examples/evidence/quotations. Why is this evidence useful? What does the author say that supports the idea you are developing? Does this evidence have any limitations?|
|Concluding sentence: This draws together the main idea being made in your paragraph.|
Structuring a conclusion
Your conclusion is the final paragraph of writing in an assignment. It must summarise (very briefly) every important idea you have discussed in your work as well as draw conclusions based upon the evidence you have presented. You need to make sure that you have directly answered the question. It is always useful to link your conclusions back to the essay title.
You can use the grid below to help you structure your conclusion. The right-hand column can be used for you to make a note of your own ideas.
Structuring a conclusion
|Summarise each of your points in the order in which you have presented them..|
|State your main conclusions based upon the evidence you have presented.|
|Link your conclusions back to the title – make sure you have directly answered the question and that your reader finishes your essay with a clear sense of your viewpoint on the topic (you must do this without saying 'I').|
Tips to remember:
- Your conclusion will be about 10% of the whole assignment
- You should not include any new information in your conclusion.
So much is at stake in writing a conclusion. This is, after all, your last chance to persuade your readers to your point of view, to impress yourself upon them as a writer and thinker. And the impression you create in your conclusion will shape the impression that stays with your readers after they've finished the essay.
The end of an essay should therefore convey a sense of completeness and closure as well as a sense of the lingering possibilities of the topic, its larger meaning, its implications: the final paragraph should close the discussion without closing it off.
To establish a sense of closure, you might do one or more of the following:
- Conclude by linking the last paragraph to the first, perhaps by reiterating a word or phrase you used at the beginning.
- Conclude with a sentence composed mainly of one-syllable words. Simple language can help create an effect of understated drama.
- Conclude with a sentence that's compound or parallel in structure; such sentences can establish a sense of balance or order that may feel just right at the end of a complex discussion.
To close the discussion without closing it off, you might do one or more of the following:
- Conclude with a quotation from or reference to a primary or secondary source, one that amplifies your main point or puts it in a different perspective. A quotation from, say, the novel or poem you're writing about can add texture and specificity to your discussion; a critic or scholar can help confirm or complicate your final point. For example, you might conclude an essay on the idea of home in James Joyce's short story collection, Dubliners, with information about Joyce's own complex feelings towards Dublin, his home. Or you might end with a biographer's statement about Joyce's attitude toward Dublin, which could illuminate his characters' responses to the city. Just be cautious, especially about using secondary material: make sure that you get the last word.
- Conclude by setting your discussion into a different, perhaps larger, context. For example, you might end an essay on nineteenth-century muckraking journalism by linking it to a current news magazine program like 60 Minutes.
- Conclude by redefining one of the key terms of your argument. For example, an essay on Marx's treatment of the conflict between wage labor and capital might begin with Marx's claim that the "capitalist economy is . . . a gigantic enterprise ofdehumanization"; the essay might end by suggesting that Marxist analysis is itself dehumanizing because it construes everything in economic -- rather than moral or ethical-- terms.
- Conclude by considering the implications of your argument (or analysis or discussion). What does your argument imply, or involve, or suggest? For example, an essay on the novel Ambiguous Adventure, by the Senegalese writer Cheikh Hamidou Kane, might open with the idea that the protagonist's development suggests Kane's belief in the need to integrate Western materialism and Sufi spirituality in modern Senegal. The conclusion might make the new but related point that the novel on the whole suggests that such an integration is (or isn't) possible.
Finally, some advice on how not to end an essay:
- Don't simply summarize your essay. A brief summary of your argument may be useful, especially if your essay is long--more than ten pages or so. But shorter essays tend not to require a restatement of your main ideas.
- Avoid phrases like "in conclusion," "to conclude," "in summary," and "to sum up." These phrases can be useful--even welcome--in oral presentations. But readers can see, by the tell-tale compression of the pages, when an essay is about to end. You'll irritate your audience if you belabor the obvious.
- Resist the urge to apologize. If you've immersed yourself in your subject, you now know a good deal more about it than you can possibly include in a five- or ten- or 20-page essay. As a result, by the time you've finished writing, you may be having some doubts about what you've produced. (And if you haven't immersed yourself in your subject, you may be feeling even more doubtful about your essay as you approach the conclusion.) Repress those doubts. Don't undercut your authority by saying things like, "this is just one approach to the subject; there may be other, better approaches. . ."
Copyright 1998, Pat Bellanca, for the Writing Center at Harvard University