Basic Five-Paragraph Essay Structure

Although there are many ways to structure an essay, the most basic is the five-paragraph structure that includes an introduction with thesis statement, three supporting paragraphs, and conclusion. It is not a law that you have to use this structure for everything you write. You might, for example, have a teacher who is open to more loosely structured essays and who encourages you to be creative.

Regardless, this structure is a basic fundamental formula that if you master it can take you through high school and college quite effectively. It ensures that the essay remains focused on a specific point and that ideas are presented in a logical and organized fashion. Following this structure, especially when you are first learning how to write academic essays, will help you write more persuasively.

The Introduction

The introduction, at the beginning of the essay, is where you introduce your general topic, specific thesis statement, and approach or methodology. For most essays, the introduction only needs to be a single, well-written paragraph. By being succinct, the introduction has more impact.

The introduction should draw your reader into your argument right away. It functions somewhat like a movie preview, to give your audience a taste of what’s to come, but not the whole story. You want your reader to be enticed and interested in what you have to say.

In bigger projects or longer writing assignments, ones that are more than 20 pages, such as an honors thesis or dissertation, the introduction can be somewhat longer than just a paragraph since there is more ground to cover and a larger set of topics to introduce.

Because the thesis statement is central to the essay, it is an important part of the introduction. You generally can’t begin an essay with the thesis statement itself, because it represents a specific point of view about a broader subject. The introduction sets up the thesis by presenting general background information that gives it a context.

Begin the introductory paragraph with a broad, general statement about the paper’s topic or even a question. Try to have it be interesting and catchy to encourage your reader to want more information. Remember that the first few sentences give the reader the first impression of your essay; it is extremely important that you make a good first impression. The first sentences should be well written, interesting, and, most important, give the reader some idea of the paper’s topic.

The rest of the introduction then bridges the opening statement with the thesis statement, which is usually the last sentence of the introduction. You should indicate how you plan to approach your argument and the kinds of sources that will serve as your evidence. If you plan on looking at specific examples to prove the thesis, you can identify these cases also.

The introduction is the first and possibly only place in the essay where you spell out the thesis statement directly for the reader. You therefore need to be careful about how you word it. You don’t want it to be too fancy, flashy, or wordy; the power of the idea should be enough to impress the reader. Just state it in a direct, unambiguous manner.

The introduction should come entirely from you. In general, it is not the place to quote and paraphrase outside sources. Those sources belong in the body of the paper, where you use them to prove the thesis statement. It wouldn’t make any sense to discuss such specific sources before you’ve even stated the argument of the essay. Moreover, you want the reader to be primarily impressed by the power of your own ideas.

Look on your bookshelf at classic titles or go online to read the opening phrases of celebrated books for inspiration on how to begin your paper or assignment. Don’t be afraid to take risks in finding creative ways to hook your reader.

You can also occasionally begin an essay with a quotation from another source or by mentioning a specific source; you should only do this if the quotation or source is obviously closely connected to your thesis statement. If the quotation or source introduces specific issues, you probably should not raise it this early in the essay.

If you want to be a bit more creative with the introduction and you think your teacher is open to this kind of writing, you might start the essay with a brief observation or question that connects with your topic. Just remember that the introduction should always alert the reader to your general topic, your approach or methodology, and your thesis statement.

The Body

The body is the bulk of your essay; this is where you present your detailed argument that supports the thesis statement. After having conducted research and thought at length about your topic, you should have several points to make. You will therefore use the body to present your ideas in as clear and organized a fashion as possible.

If you have conducted research from primary or secondary sources, you can quote and paraphrase from these sources extensively in this section. Information that comes from other sources serves as strong evidence, but take care to distinguish your own ideas from those in other sources. Quotations and paraphrases should only be brought into the essay to lend credence to your ideas.

Whenever you introduce information from another source, you should explain exactly how it fits in with your own point. And always make certain that each time you quote or paraphrase an outside source, you formally credit the source using the Modern Language Association (MLA) Handbook as your reference for proper formatting and crediting of sources.

Following are three important components of a well-written body.

  1. The Material Clearly Relates to the Thesis Statement

    The most important thing to keep in mind when writing the body is that every bit of information you include should relate to the thesis and you must spell out exactly how it does. If something doesn’t relate to the thesis, get rid of it; it’s only clouding up your argument, serving as “fluffy” writing, and detracting from its power.

  2. Your Arguments Are Complete

    Because your ideas make sense to you, you may think you have fully explained them, when in fact you haven’t done so in a manner that someone else can understand. The reader cannot see inside your head. You must therefore explain all your points carefully, making them clear to the reader. Don’t worry at first if it seems that you are overexplaining your points and ideas. It may seem that way to you, but a reader requires a more detailed explanation in order to understand your points as clearly as you do. If you find repetition later upon reading over your draft, you can trim at that point.

  3. The Writing Flows Smoothly

    As the writer of the essay, it’s your job to act as the guide for the reader. As you ease the reader through the complexities of your argument, journeying from one point to the next, you want to create as smooth a path as possible, so that by the end of the essay, the reader won’t feel disoriented. At times, you need to make it clear exactly where the essay is heading or summarize what has already been demonstrated. You also don’t want the paper to be choppy or difficult to read. Instead, one idea or point should flow smoothly into the next.

    One way you can ensure the paper is clearly organized is by focusing each paragraph around a specific point. The body should always be written in paragraphs, not in one long chunk of text. Each paragraph should focus upon a specific point, and every sentence in that paragraph should relate to it. Any sentence in the paragraph that doesn’t should be taken out. It’s also a good idea to begin each paragraph with a topic sentence that generally introduces the subject matter or main idea of the paragraph. The topic sentence can also serve as a transition between ideas, demonstrating how the next paragraph builds on, contrasts, or departs from the previous one.

    As you write, make sure your paragraphs aren’t too long. Long paragraphs weigh down your reader and can be tedious if you drone on and on about a supporting idea. Sprinkle in quotes or even a question to help provide a pause.

    Each sentence and paragraph in the body should flow smoothly and logically from one to the next. Use transitional words and phrases in certain sentences, particularly topic sentences, so that your reader can easily follow how different points are related to one another. There are many transitional words and phrases you can use to connect various sentences and paragraphs, including these:

    • To build upon a previous sentence or paragraph: and, also, additionally, as a result, consequently, further, furthermore, in addition, moreover

    • To compare with a previous sentence or paragraph: similarly, in the same manner, likewise, at the same time, by the same token

    • To contrast with a previous sentence or paragraph: however, but, in contrast, nevertheless, although, yet, on the other hand

    • To summarize or draw a conclusion: therefore, in other words, in short, to sum up, thus

The Conclusion

After reading the body and all the evidence you’ve presented in support of the thesis, the reader should now view the thesis statement not as conjecture but as a claim that is supported. That’s exactly what you express in the conclusion.

The conclusion is essentially the mirror image of the introduction, but one that stresses the fact that the thesis has now been proven. The conclusion should therefore refer to the thesis statement in some form, and affirm that it has been proven and supported. You should also recap the major points you’ve made in the paper to establish your argument.

Like the introduction, the conclusion for most essays only needs to be one paragraph and it should primarily represent your own words and ideas. This is also not a place to quote or paraphrase extensively from secondary sources.

While the introduction contributes to the reader’s first impression of your essay, the conclusion will influence the reader’s final impression. You want to end with a bang—with some of your most powerful and dramatic writing—that leaves the reader absolutely convinced of the validity of your argument.

The most basic conclusion inverts the structure of the introduction, starting off with a restatement of the thesis statement, followed by more general statements that sum up the essay’s main ideas. The final sentence is a broad remark about the subject or topic.

You can vary from this standard format in some instances. Many writers, for example, choose to introduce some new point or question in the conclusion that emerges from the thesis. After establishing the validity of the thesis statement, they then address its consequences or implications. Depending on the freedom your teacher allows, you might also try to be more creative in the conclusion. No matter the form of the conclusion, the same general rule applies: The conclusion should bring the essay to a formal close and affirm that the thesis statement has been proven.

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