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Basic Academic Essay Format

Essays vary in purpose and length. Some essays are more informative, or expository, in nature, whereas others have a clear argumentative drive, and still others might be narrative-based. The basic format for structuring an academic essay though, is similar across purposes and lengths.

Many of you have heard of the five paragraph essay, but this is less a rule than it is a teaching tool. Teachers find the five paragraph format easy to teach and easy grade, hence its popularity. However, many of the topics you’ll be writing about in college do not conform to this limited format. 

An essay needs as many paragraphs as it needs for the writer to accomplish the task they set for themselves in their thesis statement in response to the writing prompt. Since paragraphs vary in length, a four-page essay may have four paragraphs or it may have eight. Each essay has its own pattern that depends on its own purpose and content.

Academic essays, in general, follow the pattern of introduction, body, and conclusion. The body is where the number of paragraphs varies, as the introduction and conclusion are almost always one paragraph each.

Cherri's Essay & Paragraph Template.

Introduction Paragraph

When you write an introductory paragraph, you are  generally establishing the CONTEXT of the essay and the primary ARGUMENT/PURPOSE of your essay. You do these things by:

The introduction establishes the contract between you and your reader--a clearly composed and well-edited introduction establishes your ethos. As a reader, I am much more willing to forgive "errors" and inconsistencies later in the essay than I am early in the essay. Think about it.  Imagine you pick up a magazine in a waiting room and start reading an article. If you are confused in the first paragraph, you'll stop reading, flip the page, put the magazine down. If you're bored in the first paragraph, you'll stop reading. If the first paragraph is riddled with errors and weirdness, you'll stop reading. Your teachers do not have the choice to stop reading, but they do have to grade you, so a strong introduction is key to a successful essay.

Keep in mind, what content goes in the intro paragraph largely depends on the prompt and the genre. Personal or expository essays might begin with a story or illustration whereas a problem-solution essay usually begins with an overview of the problem to set up the solution.

Writing the introduction is hard work. Some writers find it easier to write the introduction AFTER they write the rest of the essay—then they know what context they are introducing. I often write a place-filler intro to get myself started, and then come back and revise the crap out of it later.

Also, there are many patterns for writing an introduction. Do an internet search for “essay introduction strategies” and you’ll come up with dozens, like these.  However, please, for the love of my sanity, do not quote a dictionary definition in your intro (or anywhere else in your essay for that matter).

Body Paragraph Format

Body paragraphs vary in length and style. A writer might have a one sentence paragraph for particular effect, or might have a paragraph that is a page long. There is no standard length, though some teachers make one up, again, to make grading easier. Although the general rule of thumb is to vary your paragraph style and length, that can be a bit confusing when you’re still learning the practices of academic writing. 

The following is ONE pattern for structuring body paragraphs, and NOT the only pattern. However, it’s a good, solid structure to build on. When in doubt, use this template and vary it as needed.

Repeat this pattern as many times as necessary, for as many paragraphs as you need, to clearly and fully support your thesis statement and meet the requirements of the prompt. 

There are many ways to develop your body paragraphs. When a teacher comments that you need to develop your ideas more clearly or in more detail, what they mean is that you need to show your thinking on the page, just like when you solve a math or chemistry problem you show your work on the page. Your reader is not inside your brain, nor has your reader had your education and life experience. Your reader can’t think what you think unless you map it all out—in specific, concrete detail—for them.

How can you show your thinking on the page? Your reader is not an idiot and you don’t want to insult them by giving too much basic information. You don’t develop an essay by quoting dictionary definitions; the reader knows how to use the dictionary and can look up a word if they needed. You also don’t need to detail commonly known stuff, like the sky is blue and grass is green and rock music is a popular genre, etc. 

I do sometimes find it helpful to think about how I would explain my ideas to an alien or to someone who had absolutely no experience or background information on my topic. If I had to build their knowledge of my topic from the ground up, what would I need to tell them? Where would I start so they had a solid foundation to follow the leaps in my argument?

If you’re really stuck with development, have a gentle reader ask you questions as you go through the paragraphs. They might ask things like: why do you think this way? or how does this idea relate to the previous one? They could play the devil’s advocate. Sometimes, explaining yourself to someone who disagrees with you will aid in development.

If you need ideas on what kinds of content—what kinds of development—to write into your essay, you might do an internet search for paragraph development strategies or browse some of the links I have on the website.

Conclusion Paragraph

The conclusion of the essay gives the reader a sense of closure. The writer’s job in the conclusion is to not only wrap up the ideas discussed in the essay, but also give the reader a take-away. I often ask students struggling with their conclusions “what is the thing you’d like your reader to remember about your essay long after the reader has finished reading it?” The answer to that question is a great starting place for writing a strong conclusion.

Be sure to come back to your thesis in the conclusion. You don’t need to re-state the thesis explicitly, but it should be clear to your reader that this paragraph is the bookend to your introductory paragraph and that everything in between relates to the thesis. Different styles of essays will demand different kinds of conclusions. A proposal for change argument essay might require a call to action; a problem-solution essay w/ reaffirm that this solution is reasonable for this problem; a narrative essay might need a “what was learned” message at the end. It, as always, depends.

It’s best not to introduce new ideas into the conclusion. Also avoid rote summary. What that means is avoid writing something like, “in this essay I told you about ____.” Your reader read the essay; you don’t need to summarize it for them.

There are many strategies for writing conclusions, which you can explore by searching for concluding paragraph strategies.