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One Page Essay

Writing an academic essay means fashioning a coherent set of ideas into an argument. Because essays are essentially linear—they offer one idea at a time—they must present their ideas in the order that makes most sense to a reader. Successfully structuring an essay means attending to a reader's logic.

The focus of such an essay predicts its structure. It dictates the information readers need to know and the order in which they need to receive it. Thus your essay's structure is necessarily unique to the main claim you're making. Although there are guidelines for constructing certain classic essay types (e.g., comparative analysis), there are no set formula.

Answering Questions:  The Parts of an Essay

A typical essay contains many different kinds of information, often located in specialized parts or sections. Even short essays perform several different operations: introducing the argument, analyzing data, raising counterarguments, concluding. Introductions and conclusions have fixed places, but other parts don't. Counterargument, for example, may appear within a paragraph, as a free-standing section, as part of the beginning, or before the ending. Background material (historical context or biographical information, a summary of relevant theory or criticism, the definition of a key term) often appears at the beginning of the essay, between the introduction and the first analytical section, but might also appear near the beginning of the specific section to which it's relevant.

It's helpful to think of the different essay sections as answering a series of questions your reader might ask when encountering your thesis. (Readers should have questions. If they don't, your thesis is most likely simply an observation of fact, not an arguable claim.)

"What?"  The first question to anticipate from a reader is "what": What evidence shows that the phenomenon described by your thesis is true? To answer the question you must examine your evidence, thus demonstrating the truth of your claim. This "what" or "demonstration" section comes early in the essay, often directly after the introduction. Since you're essentially reporting what you've observed, this is the part you might have most to say about when you first start writing. But be forewarned: it shouldn't take up much more than a third (often much less) of your finished essay. If it does, the essay will lack balance and may read as mere summary or description.

"How?"  A reader will also want to know whether the claims of the thesis are true in all cases. The corresponding question is "how": How does the thesis stand up to the challenge of a counterargument? How does the introduction of new material—a new way of looking at the evidence, another set of sources—affect the claims you're making? Typically, an essay will include at least one "how" section. (Call it "complication" since you're responding to a reader's complicating questions.) This section usually comes after the "what," but keep in mind that an essay may complicate its argument several times depending on its length, and that counterargument alone may appear just about anywhere in an essay.

"Why?"  Your reader will also want to know what's at stake in your claim: Why does your interpretation of a phenomenon matter to anyone beside you? This question addresses the larger implications of your thesis. It allows your readers to understand your essay within a larger context. In answering "why", your essay explains its own significance. Although you might gesture at this question in your introduction, the fullest answer to it properly belongs at your essay's end. If you leave it out, your readers will experience your essay as unfinished—or, worse, as pointless or insular.

Mapping an Essay

Structuring your essay according to a reader's logic means examining your thesis and anticipating what a reader needs to know, and in what sequence, in order to grasp and be convinced by your argument as it unfolds. The easiest way to do this is to map the essay's ideas via a written narrative. Such an account will give you a preliminary record of your ideas, and will allow you to remind yourself at every turn of the reader's needs in understanding your idea.

Essay maps ask you to predict where your reader will expect background information, counterargument, close analysis of a primary source, or a turn to secondary source material. Essay maps are not concerned with paragraphs so much as with sections of an essay. They anticipate the major argumentative moves you expect your essay to make. Try making your map like this:

  • State your thesis in a sentence or two, then write another sentence saying why it's important to make that claim. Indicate, in other words, what a reader might learn by exploring the claim with you. Here you're anticipating your answer to the "why" question that you'll eventually flesh out in your conclusion.
  • Begin your next sentence like this: "To be convinced by my claim, the first thing a reader needs to know is . . ." Then say why that's the first thing a reader needs to know, and name one or two items of evidence you think will make the case. This will start you off on answering the "what" question. (Alternately, you may find that the first thing your reader needs to know is some background information.)
  • Begin each of the following sentences like this: "The next thing my reader needs to know is . . ."  Once again, say why, and name some evidence. Continue until you've mapped out your essay. 

Your map should naturally take you through some preliminary answers to the basic questions of what, how, and why. It is not a contract, though—the order in which the ideas appear is not a rigid one. Essay maps are flexible; they evolve with your ideas.

Signs of Trouble

A common structural flaw in college essays is the "walk-through" (also labeled "summary" or "description"). Walk-through essays follow the structure of their sources rather than establishing their own. Such essays generally have a descriptive thesis rather than an argumentative one. Be wary of paragraph openers that lead off with "time" words ("first," "next," "after," "then") or "listing" words ("also," "another," "in addition"). Although they don't always signal trouble, these paragraph openers often indicate that an essay's thesis and structure need work: they suggest that the essay simply reproduces the chronology of the source text (in the case of time words: first this happens, then that, and afterwards another thing . . . ) or simply lists example after example ("In addition, the use of color indicates another way that the painting differentiates between good and evil").

Copyright 2000, Elizabeth Abrams, for the Writing Center at Harvard University

There is an assumption in the world that an essay is something literary you write for school about a topic that no one but your teacher will ever care about. At first glance, the dictionary does nothing to allay that sense. The very first definition is of “a short literary composition on a particular theme or subject, usually in prose and generally analytic, speculative, or interpretative.”

The reality, if any of you have read a blog recently, is that essays can be much more than that. They can be anything really. And here, the dictionary comes to our aid. The second definition of an essay is “anything resembling such a composition.” So really, essays are written compositions about anything.

Unfortunately, they can also be annoying, tedious and obnoxious. Whether it’s a high school essay, a college research paper or even an important office memo at your new job, at any given moment chances are you’d probably rather not be doing it. And the fact that you HAVE to do it just adds to the misery.

The stress of it all has twenty different things going on in your head at once: Where to start? What do I write about? How do I keep the momentum? What about pacing? I need a good grade, or a promotion, WITH A RAISE, a lot is riding on this!

Calm yourself. Writing the perfect paper, the kickass memo, the stellar essay — about ANYTHING — is not only possible, it’s easy.

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What Is My Secret?

An essay is a lot like a military operation. It takes discipline, foresight, research, strategy, and, if done right, ends in total victory. That’s why I stole my formula from an ancient military tactic, invented by the Spartans (the guys in the movie 300). This tactic was a favorite of great generals like Brasidas and Xenophon (an actual student of Socrates) and was deployed successfully in combat countless times. I figure: if this one trick can protect a ten thousand-man march through hostile territory, country after country, it can probably work for something as silly and temporary as a paper or an essay.

We’re going to use this tactic as a metaphor — also a great term to use in our essays — for the structural elements of our essay. It will allow us to forget your teacher’s boring prompt. Forget “Commentary/Concrete Detail/Commentary/Concrete Detail” and all that nonsense.

Here’s Xenophon talking about this tactic in his Anabasis:

It would be safer for us to march with the hoplites forming a hollow square, so that the baggage and the general crowd would be more secure inside. If, then, we are told now who should be in the front of the square and who organize the leading detachments, and who should be on the two flanks, and who should be responsible for the rear.

Basically, their tactic was this: to successfully march or retreat, the general brings his troops together in an outward facing square with their supplies and wounded in the middle and the strongest troops at the front and back. As they moved away from unfavorable ground, the men would defend their side, stepping out only slightly to meet their attackers and then retreating immediately back to the safety of the shape. And thus they were completely impenetrable, able to travel fluidly as well as slowly demoralize the attacking army. As Xenophon wrote, the idea was that having prepared a hollow square in advance, “we should not have to plan [everything defense related] when the enemy is approaching but could immediately make use of those who have been specially detailed for the job.”

My method works the same. Consider your introduction as the creator of the shape, and then the following paragraphs making up each side. They venture outwards when called to, but never abandon the safety of the formation entirely. It is a process of constant realignment, maintaining the square at all cost. In terms of “writing,” you need only to create a handful of original sentences for the entire essay: a thesis, a theme, a mini-thesis that begins each paragraph and a concluding sentence that says what it all means. Everything else is a variation of these four sentences in some way. Together they create the square, and this serves as the point of return — much like Chuck Palahniuk’s concept of “chorus lines” (see Fight Club, where, whenever the plot gets off track, he immediately comes back to something like, “I am Jack’s sense of rejection”). The idea is to keep the reader protected, just the troops flowing in and out of the square kept the hollow middle, and thus the whole square, safe.

Getting Started

Let’s say you’re a high school student taking English or a college student stuck in a writing-intensive core class. You’re going to have to write a paper. It’s just a fact of life. So instead of fighting it, let’s just make it as easy as possible.

The outline I’m about to give you is simple. Essentially, the format requires just six original sentences and the rest is nothing more than reiteration and support of the ideas in those original sentences. Just like the tactics of Brasidas, you forge the rudimentary shape with the introduction and then all that’s left is defense — everyone (every word) knows their job.

No longer is the professor grading you in terms of the prompt, because you have redefined the dynamic on your terms. You have taken the prompt and made it your own. By emphatically laying out your own rules and track, excellence is achieved simply by following them. You place the reader in the middle of the square, protected by all sides, and methodically move them forward, defending doubts and objections as they arise.

I’ll go into specific examples soon, but here’s a hypothetical outline for a five-page paper:

Introduction

1. Begin with a broad, conclusive hook. This will be the meta-theme of the paper. Example from a paper on The Great Gatsby: “When citizens exhibit a flagrant disregard of morality and law, societies quickly crumble.”

2. Thesis. This needs to specify and codify the hook in relation to the prompt/subject. Ex: “This atmosphere as shown in F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby — with blatant corruption and illegal activity — eventually seems to become all but incompatible with a meaningful incarnation of the American Dream.”

3. One sentence laying foundation for first body paragraph. (These are mini-theses for each point you will argue.) Ex: Though Gatsby was a bootlegger, he was driven by hope and love, rather than the greed that motivated his status-obsessed guests.

4. One Sentence for second body paragraph. (Just like the sentence you just did)

5. One sentence for third body paragraph.

6. Restate the hook and thesis into a single transition sentence into the first paragraph. “The 1920s as the epitome of excess and reactionism symbolized a sharp break in the American tradition; one that no one seemed to mind.”

Notes/Advice: Some say the thesis should go at the bottom of the intro instead of the top, which I think is a huge mistake. The point of a paper is to make an assertion and then support it. You can’t support it until you’ve made it.

Body #1

1. Rewrite first body paragraph thesis.

2. Support the mini-thesis with evidence and analysis.

3. Restate body paragraph thesis in the context of thesis as a whole.

Notes/Advice:

-Begin with your strongest piece of evidence

-Introduce quotes/points like this: Broad->Specific->Analysis/Conclusion

-Always integrate the quote, and try to incorporate analysis into the same sentence. As a general rule never use more than 5-7 of the author’s words. Normally you can use even less: “It was Jay, who despite the corruption around him, looked forward to what was described as an ‘orgiastic future.'”

Body #2

1. Rewrite second body paragraph thesis.

2. Support mini-thesis.

3. Restate body paragraph thesis in context of the paragraph above and thesis as whole.

Body #3

1. Rewrite third body paragraph thesis.

2. Support mini-thesis.

3. Restate body paragraph thesis in context of the paragraph above and thesis as whole.

Conclusion

1. Restate hook/meta-theme.

2. Specify this with restatement of thesis once more.

3. One sentence for each body paragraph, surmising its assertion.

4. One sentence for each body paragraph, surmising its assertion.

5. One sentence for each body paragraph, surmising its assertion.

6. Rewrite hook and thesis into a conclusion sentence.

7. Last sentence must transition to a general statement about human nature. “The American Dream — and any higher aspiration — requires a society that both looks forward and onwards as well as holds itself to corrective standards.”

That’s it. Seriously. It works for a paper of 300 words just as much as it does for one of 300 pages. It’s self-generating, self-reinforcing, and self-fulfilling. Could you ask for anything better?

Just like the tactics of the great generals, by laying out the square in advance with clear, orderly lines, you insulate yourself from the chaos of improvisation. You mark the boundaries now so you don’t have to later, and excellence is achieved simply by filling them in with your sentences. Each paragraph is given a singular purpose and its only duty is fulfillment. Like I said earlier, with this structure you place the reader in the middle of the square, protected by all sides, and methodically move them forward, defending doubts and objections as they arise. And that is a great essay.

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