Essay Style And Structure


In the previous video we reviewed the structure of a typical academic essay, and talked about the practical functions that the structure serves; how, in spite of a certain dryness and predictability, it actually serves the interests of its intended audience quite well. The key is to see that this audience is a very specific type of audience — it’s an audience of professional peers.

This is an example of how essay style can relate to essay structure. Having the main thesis of the essay be stated up front in the introduction is a structural feature of an essay, but it’s also a feature of academic writing style.

In this video I want to introduce the distinction between style and structure, as a way of setting up the videos in the next section of this course, which focus on issues of style.

My main goal here is to clarify how structure and style are related to each other, so that when we do start talking more about style, you’ll be able to see how style choices will influence the structural features of an essay.

Structure in Essay Writing

Here’s how I think about essay structure.

If you’re talking about the features of an essay that can be mapped out on a diagram, where you abstract away from word choice and sentence structure and the specific voice you’re using, then you’re talking about structural features.

Now, there are lots of different features that can be represented this way, depending on what you’re focusing on and the kind of essay you’re writing, and the level of analysis. You can look at structure at the level of the essay as a whole, or in a particular section of the essay, or within an individual paragraph. There are many different kinds of properties that can count as structural properties, so this is still a very loose definition.

Example: Structure of an Argumentative Essay

Here’s an example. In this case we’re looking at the structural features of an argumentative, or persuasive, essay. At this level we can distinguish the three main parts -- the introduction, the main body and the conclusion -- and within each of these parts there are sub-units, and in some cases the sub-units are broken down even further.

The main body is where most of the action is, and because this is an argumentative essay, the structural features that we’re paying attention to in this diagram are specifically the argumentative features.

This is where we can see how many distinct arguments are being offered, whether we’re considering objections at all, and whether each distinct objection has a distinct reply.

I’ve chosen one way to represent this structure, but there many ways of representing structure, this isn’t the only way.

Now, if we wanted to pay attention to a particular argument-objection-reply unit within the essay, we could zoom in further.

For example, we could look at this unit, where the first argument given has an objection and a reply. We can imagine opening this up to see how the logical flow is organized. In this case, the objection that is being considered happens to be one that challenges the truth of one of the premises in the main argument.

This diagram represents not just the logical structure, it also happens to represent the order in which premises and objections are presented within the text.

This shows that a choice has been made to present this objection and reply to it right away, after the first premise is given, rather than wait until the full argument is given.

Now, one of the points I made in earlier videos about traditional academic essay format is that the format was determined in part by the practical context in which the writing is being done, and specifically, the context determined by the needs of an audience that doesn’t have time to waste trying to figure out what you’re trying to say.

Example: Structure of Essays Written for Media (the "inverted pyramid")

Here’s another example of a structural feature of a writing style that is determined by the practical context. It’s not widely known or followed in academic writing, but in writing for news media it’s very well known — it’s called the “inverted pyramid”.

Inverted pyramid structure says that you should try to present the most important information in the text as early as you can, in the first few paragraphs if possible, and save less important and supplementary material for later in the text.

So, what’s the practical context that would motivate this kind of structure?

The practical context is publishing when either space or number of characters is limited or a scarce resource.

In the early days when news was reported at a distance by telegraph, each character cost money, and it was expensive to send a long story, so there was pressure to keep news stories as short as possible.

An even more important factor was that in the days of hot press typesetting for newspapers, stories often had to be trimmed to fit a finite physical space. The editors had to structure the stories on a page that had fixed column widths and lengths.

The inverted pyramid allowed editors, even the compositors who made up the pages in the back shop, to cut stories to fit the space requirements, by literally trimming paragraphs, from the bottom up.

Given these constraints, a reporter had to write your story in such a way that it could survive such a cut and still be readable as a complete news story — you had to communicate the essential facts and their newsworthiness, quickly and concisely, in the opening paragraphs of the story.

Now, writing in this style has been criticized in many of the same ways that standard academic essay writing format has been criticized. Critics of the inverted pyramid say it’s unnatural, boring, and artless. It tells the story backward and in so-doing runs counter to the natural human psychology of storytelling that moves a reader through a beginning, middle, and end. It’s engineered so that it doesn’t reward a reader with a satisfying conclusion — the pyramid just loses steam and peters out.

On the other hand, supporters of the inverted pyramid say that it remains a valuable formula because in many areas of journalism and news media, similar constraints on time and space still apply, even if physical page limitations aren’t as big an issue anymore.

With more and more people reading the news online, and studies showing that online readers have shorter attention spans and will click away from a story unless it grabs their attention very quickly, it’s not surprising to see that modern news providers continue to write in the inverted pyramid style.

So this is another example of a structural feature of a writing style that is determined in part by context and how the writer relates to their audience within that context. And this is the general point I want to make about how write style relates to writing structure.

Essay Style

I said that essay structure is about the features of an essay that can be mapped out on a diagram. That’s a very crude definition, but it’s still a useful one. The examples we’ve looked at in this video give a sense of the sorts of properties and relationships I’m talking about. Essay style is a harder concept to capture, and that’s why I have a whole set of videos following this one that elaborate on the concept.

But the key idea is that essay style is determined a set of fundamental choices that a writer makes — choices about who their audience is, how they view their audience, how they view themselves, as authors, in relation to that audience, and what their broader communicative goals are, within the context in which the writing is taking place.

Style is the broader category and the more fundamental category, that’s why I’m putting it above structure.

Also, structural features of the writing tend to be determined by, or strongly constrained by, these stylistic choices. So the direction of dependency is from style to structure, not the other way around.

This is going to sound backwards to people who think of writing style primarily in terms of usage rules, like the codified rules for good writing that you see in a style manual like Strunk and White’s Elements of Style.

This is not the way I’m using the word “style” here.

But I elaborate on this in our next set of videos, which focus on writing style, and how choices of writing style relate to good versus bad academic writing.

The five-paragraph essay is a format of essay having five paragraphs: one introductory paragraph, three body paragraphs with support and development, and one concluding paragraph. Because of this structure, it is also known as a hamburger essay, one three one, or a three-tier essay.


The five-paragraph essay is a form of essay having five paragraphs:

  • one introductory paragraph,
  • three body paragraphs with support and development, and
  • one concluding paragraph.

The introduction serves to inform the reader of the basic premises, and then to state the author's thesis, or central idea. A thesis can also be used to point out the subject of each body paragraph. When a thesis essay is applied to this format, the first paragraph typically consists of a narrative hook, followed by a sentence that introduces the general theme, then another sentence narrowing the focus of the one previous. (If the author is using this format for a text-based thesis, then a sentence quoting the text, supporting the essay-writer's claim, would typically go here, along with the name of the text and the name of the author. Example: "In the book Night, Elie Wiesel says..."). After this, the author narrows the discussion of the topic by stating or identifying a problem. Often, an organizational sentence is used here to describe the layout of the paper. Finally, the last sentence of the first paragraph of such an essay would state the thesis the author is trying to prove.[1] The thesis is often linked to a "road map" for the essay, which is basically an embedded outline stating precisely what the three body paragraphs will address and giving the items in the order of the presentation. Not to be confused with an organizational sentence, a thesis merely states "The book Night follows Elie Wiesel's journey from innocence to experience," while an organizational sentence directly states the structure and order of the essay. Basically, the thesis statement should be proven throughout the essay. In each of the three body paragraphs one idea (evidence/fact/etc.) that supports thesis statement is discussed. And in the conclusion everything is analyzed and summed up.[2]

Sections of the five-part essay[edit]

The five-part essay is a step up from the five-paragraph essay. Often called the "persuasive" or "argumentative" essay, the five-part essay is more complex and accomplished, and its roots are in classical rhetoric. The main difference is the refinement of the "body" of the simpler five-paragraph essay. The five parts, whose names vary from source to source, are typically represented as:

  1. Introduction
    a thematic overview of the topic, and introduction of the thesis;
  2. Narration
    a review of the background literature to orient the reader to the topic; also, a structural overview of the essay;
  3. Affirmation
    the evidence and arguments in favor of the thesis;
  4. Negation
    the evidence and arguments against the thesis; these also require either "refutation" or "concession";
  5. Conclusion
    summary of the argument, and association of the thesis and argument with larger, connected issues.

In the five-paragraph essay, the "body" is all "affirmation"; the "narration" and "negation" (and its "refutation" or "concession") make the five-part essay less "thesis-driven" and more balanced and fair. Rhetorically, the transition from affirmation to negation (and refutation or concession) is typically indicated by contrastive terms such as "but", "however", and "on the other hand".

The five parts are purely formal and can be created and repeated at any length, from a sentence (though it would be a highly complex one), to the standard paragraphs of a regular essay, to the chapters of a book, and even to separate books themselves (though each book would, of necessity, include the other parts while emphasizing the particular part).

Another form of the 5 part essay consists of

  1. Introduction: Introducing a topic. An important part of this is the three-pronged thesis. This information should be factual, especially for a history paper. Somewhere in the middle of introduction, one presents the 3 main points of the 5 paragraph essay. The introductory paragraph should end with a strong thesis statement that tells readers exactly what an author aims to prove.
  2. Body paragraph 1: Explaining the first part of the three-pronged thesis. The first sentence should transition from the introductory paragraph to the current one. The sentences that follow should provide examples and support, or evidence, for the topic.
  3. Body paragraph 2: Explaining the second part of the three-pronged thesis. As the previous paragraph, it should begin with a transition and a description of the topic you’re about to discuss. Any examples or support provided should be related to the topic at hand.
  4. Body paragraph 3: Explaining the third part of the three-pronged thesis. Like any paragraph, it should have a transition and a topic sentence, and any examples or support should be related and interesting.
  5. Conclusion: Summing up points and restating thesis. It should not present new information, but it should always wrap up the discussion.

In essence, the above method can be seen as following the colloquialism "Tell 'em what you're gonna tell 'em, tell 'em, tell 'em what you told 'em" with the first part referring to the introduction, the second part referring to the body, and the third part referring to the conclusion. The first sentence of every paragraph should be a topic sentence.

The main point of the five-part essay is to demonstrate the opposition and give-and-take of true argument. Dialectic, with its formula of "thesis + antithesis = synthesis", is the foundation of the five-part essay.

One could also use:

Introduction: Hook (3 sentences), Connector (3 sentences), Thesis Body 1: Topic sentence, Evidence, Analysis (1), Analysis (2), Analysis (3), Transition, Evidence 2, Analysis (1), Analysis (2), Analysis (3), Concluding sentence Body 2: Topic sentence, Evidence, Analysis (1), Analysis (2), Analysis (3), Transition, Evidence 2, Analysis (1), Analysis (2), Analysis (3), Concluding sentence Body 3: Topic sentence, Evidence, Analysis (1), Analysis (2), Analysis (3), Transition, Evidence 2, Analysis (1), Analysis (2), Analysis (3), Concluding sentence

Another type of 5-paragraph essay outline:

Introduction, Hook Statement, Background Information, Thesis Statement, Body Paragraph 1, Topic Sentence, Claim, Evidence, Concluding Statement, Body Paragraph 2, Topic Sentence 2, Claim #2, Evidence, Concluding Statement, Body Paragraph 3, Topic Sentence 3, Claim #3, Evidence, Concluding statement, Conclusion, Restatement of Thesis, Summarization of Main Points, Overall Concluding Statement, Conclusion: Sum up all elements, and make the essay sound finished. (Use about seven sentences similar to the Introduction)


According to Thomas E. Nunnally[3] and Kimberley Wesley,[4] most teachers and professors consider the five-paragraph form ultimately restricting for fully developing an idea. Wesley argues that the form is never appropriate. Nunnally states that the form can be good for developing analytical skills that should then be expanded. Similarly, American educator David F. Labaree claims that "The Rule of Five" is "dysfunctional... off-putting, infantilising and intellectually arid" because demands for the essay's form often obscure its meaning and, therefore, largely automatize creating and reading five-paragraph essays[5].

See also[edit]



  • Corbett, Edward P.J. Classical Rhetoric for the Modern Student. 4th ed. Oxford UP, 1999.
  • Hodges, John C. et al. Harbrace Handbook. 14th ed.

External links[edit]


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