Types Of Essay Structures

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

It is a bit of a myth that there is a ‘one size fits all’ structure for IELTS Writing task 2 essays. Whilst the exam task criteria is the same each time, ie. you must write a minimum 250 words in approximately 40 minutes, there are actually 5 different types of Task 2 essays and each has a slightly different structure.

Many IELTS websites will suggest that you organise your essay in a specific way. It will probably look something like this:

  • Introduction
  • Paragraph 1
    • Main idea
    • Supporting ideas
  • Paragraph 2
    • Main idea
    • Supporting ideas
  • Possible Paragraph 3
    • Main idea
    • Supporting ideas
  • Conclusion

If you are aiming for a Band Score of around 5 or 6, then this kind of generic structure will probably be enough in each case. However, if you are aiming for a higher score, it is crucial that you familiarise yourself both with the different variations of essay types you might be given and the most effective way to organise your response.

The 5 most common types of Task 2 essays are:

  • Opinion (often Agree or Disagree)
  • Advantages and Disadvantages
  • Problem and Solution
  • Discussion (Discuss both views)
  • Two-part Question

Opinion essays:

In an Opinion essay, you need to clearly express what you personally feel about the given topic. If you are asked direct questions like in the task below, then it is up to you how balanced or one-sided you choose to answer. You can address both parts of the question equally or focus mainly on one side, depending on your point of view.

Have newspapers become a thing of the past or do they still have an important role to play in people’s lives today?

In a task like the one below, where you are asked to what extent you agree or disagree, it is very important that you state this explicitly at the beginning and then again at the end of your essay. Do you agree fully, mainly, partly or not at all?

Computers have made it possible for people to work from home  instead of working in offices every day.This should be encouraged as it good for both workers and employers. To what extent do you agree or disagree?

Remember: this is also considered an ‘argument’ essay and you should try to convince the reader that your opinion is right. In this case, I suggest that your essay structure should look something like this:

  • Introduction
    • Paraphrase the question (your own words)
    • Thesis statement (state your agreement or disagreement)
    • Essay overview (optional)
  • Paragraph 1 and 2
    • Topic sentence (state a position)
    • Explain this further (maybe give a reason)
    • Give an example
    • Summarise paragraph
  • Conclusion
    • Summarise main ideas
    • Reiterate your opinion

Simon at www.ielts-simon.com, a former IELTS examiner, explainshere how to structure an opinion essay depending on the extent to which you agree.

Advantages and Disadvantages essays:

In an Advantages and Disadvantages essay such as the one below, you need to discuss the positive and negative perspectives equally and to clearly explain why you think something is an advantage or a disadvantage.  It is common to start Paragraph 1 with the advantages, however this is optional.

Nowadays many students have the opportunity to study some or all of their course in a foreign country. What are the advantages and disadvantages of studying abroad?

A possible structure for this type of question is:

  • Introduction
    • Paraphrase the question
    • Outline your main ideas
    • State your opinion (if the question asks)
  • Paragraph 1
    • State one advantage
    • Explain the benefits of this advantage
    • Give an example or a result
  • Paragraph 2
    • State one disadvantage
    • Explain the negative aspect of this disadvantage
    • Give an example or a result
  • Conclusion
    • Summarise your main ideas
    • Give your opinion (if asked)

Problem and Solution essays:

In a Problem and Solution essay, such as the one below, you need to think carefully about how to respond to the questions posed. It is also important that you address all parts of the task. The first question will refer to the problem or cause and the second question will refer to the solution. Try to limit yourself to answering these questions only and don’t introduce any further questions/points of your own otherwise you might stray off task.

Overpopulation is a major problem in many urban centres around the world. What problems does this cause? How can we solve the issue of overpopulation?

Try this structure to organise your essay:

  • Introduction
    • Paraphrase the question
    • Outline your main ideas
  • Paragraph 1
    • State the problem
    • Explain the problem
    • Explain the consequence (result) of this problem
    • Give an example
  • Paragraph 2
    • State the solution
    • Explain the solution
    • Give an example
  • Conclusion
    • Summarise your main ideas

Discussion essays:

In a Discussion essay, such as the one below, you will be presented with two sides of an issue and you will need to examine both perspectives equally before giving your own conclusion.

In today’s competitive world, many families find it necessary for both parents to go out to work. While some say the children in these families benefit from the additional income, others feel they lack support because of their parents’ absence. Discuss both sides and give your opinion.

In this case, your essay structure could look like this:

  • Introduction
    • Paraphrase the question AND/OR state both points of view
    • Give your thesis statement (which view you prefer)
  • Paragraph 1
    • State first point of view
    • Discuss this perspective
    • Give a reason why you agree or disagree with this viewpoint
    • Give an example to support your view
  • Paragraph 2
    • State second point of view
    • Discuss this perspective
    • Give a reason why you agree or disagree with this viewpoint
    • Give an example to support your view
  • Conclusion
    • Summarise your main ideas
    • Restate your opinion

Two-part esssays:

In a Two-part question essay, such as the example below, you will get two questions. You must answer both questions fully otherwise you risk getting a low score for Task Achievement.

In today’s society, success is often measured in terms of wealth and possessions. Do you think these are the best measure of success? What makes a successful person?

So, in this case, I suggest organising your ideas in the following way:

  • Introduction
    • Paraphrase the question
    • Briefly answer both questions
  • Paragraph 1
    • Answer the first question directly
    • Explain your reason(s)
    • Expand your argument (evidence, examples, personal experience)
  • Paragraph 2
    • Answer the second question directly
    • Explain your reason(s)
    • Expand your argument (evidence, examples, personal experience)
  • Conclusion
    • Summarise your main ideas

Please bear in mind that these structures are my suggestions; they are not fixed in stone and you can adapt them to fit what you want to say. However, I highly recommend using these templates to practise organising your ideas into paragraphs then developing them into an essay, in preparation for the writing exam. Having a clear idea of these essay structures will help you stay on task in the exam, manage your time more efficiently and express your ideas clearly.

Remember too to use linking words and phrases to connect your sentences and paragraphs together to improve your scores in Coherence and Cohesion. Stay tuned for a blog post on this topic very soon!

We will soon be launching IELTS Write, where you can supercharge your writing score! Sign up to IELTS Write to access a variety of exclusive IELTS Writing tasks. Our experienced IELTS tutors will give you quick, detailed feedback on your writing. Sign uphere and you’ll be the first to know when we launch!

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