LECTURE NOTES 2-2: THE ELEMENTS OF AN ESSAY

Page updated: 04-FEB-2013
POWERPOINT PRESENTATIONS:   .ppt format
"A Writing Process: An Introduction and Overview"

(Because I assume most students are familiar with the writing process, I will not be covering this material in class or on-line lecture; however, if you want a refresher on what the writing process is, please download this PowerPoint file and review the notes.)

download file Download the PowerPoint Viewer if you do not have the program.
"An Overview of a Well-Structured Essay" download file
Please review the PowerPoint notes above.  To print a copy, follow these steps:
  1. First, right-click on the link and select Save target as... from the pop-up menu.
  2. Save the file to your English 100 folder on your computer.
  3. Open the .ppt file either by double-clicking on it or by starting PowerPoint and finding the file on your hard disk.
  4. Go to FILE--Print and select Handouts under "Print What".
  5. Print 2 handouts per page, and check off Pure Black and White.
  6. You will get miniature versions of the slides with room to write notes on the right hand side.

Please print out the handout notes for the "Well-Structured Essay" lecture above and bring these to class.


By the end of this second week, you should be fluent in the following writing vocabulary terms:

  • essay
  • introduction
  • main body
  • conclusion
  • thesis statement
  • topic sentence
  • main idea (controlling/central idea)
  • hook

This week we will start off with a quick review of what essays look like. But first let's begin with what the structure of a well-written paragraph looks like.

Essays have three kinds of paragraphs, an introductory paragraph, a conclusion paragraph, and a main body paragraph.  The main body paragraph is what we will take a look at.  Each main body paragraph should have three parts to it:

  • a topic sentence
  • supporting sentences
  • a concluding sentence

The topic sentence indicates the main idea of the paragraph.  This sentence contains a claim or assertion about this main point.  Think of this claim as an opinion or angle towards your point.  Always remember that the topic sentence is the controlling idea of a paragraph.  It limits what you can say within a paragraph, so it is pretty important.  Readers look for them to be stated in the first sentence of a main body paragraph.

Supporting sentences vary in the type, but usually they offer evidence in the form of facts, details, specifics, or an anecdote to illustrate your point.  Your whole objective is to elaborate on your central idea of the paragraph contained in the topic sentence.  These supporting sentences appear in the middle of the paragraph.

Finally, the concluding sentence of a paragraph functions to bring some closure to your thoughts.  It can be a summary of your ideas, but at the very least it should echo the claim stated in the topic sentence in different wording.  And it is probably obvious that the concluding sentence appears at the end of a main body paragraph.

Now, if you understand the structure of a main body paragraph, it is easy to understand the structure of an essay.  If you reflect back on the structure of a paragraph, it basically follows the format of claim--support-conclusion.  An academic essay follows the same format, but we use different terms to describe the parts.

The beginning of an essay is called the introduction, and it performs 4 main functions.   

  1. First, it must hook or grab the reader's attention. (You can do so in a variety of ways depending on your audience, and I'll cover this in more detail in the next lecture.)   
  2. Second, the introductory paragraph must establish the general subject matter of the essay and ease the reader into the topic about which you will write.  
  3. Third, the introductory paragraph must indicate the purpose of the essay.  Is it to inform the reader?  call her to action?  persuade?, offer a solution?, provide commentary?   The reader likes a clear picture of what the essay will do or prove, and this is stated in the thesis of an essay.  
  4. Lastly, no essay can exist without a thesis statement.   It is the brain of the essay, and it "talks" to the other main parts of the essay, namely the topic sentences.  If you don't provide a clear thesis statement, your readers will be completely lost in terms of what your overall main point or controlling idea is.  An "essay" without a thesis is just a bunch of misguided paragraphs floating on the page.

These third and fourth functions sometimes get combined into the thesis statement, and a well-written introductory paragraph contains all of these four parts.   (More in-depth information on thesis sentences in the next lecture.)

The meat of the essay is the main body made up of multiple main body paragraphs.  Like the supporting sentences of a main body paragraph, these multiple paragraphs have a clear task: to support and offer evidence for the thesis statement.   These paragraphs achieve this support by various rhetorical methods (I'll explain that term next lecture as well!)

Finally, the conclusion paragraph ends the essay.  Like the concluding sentences at the end of each main body paragraph, the conclusion paragraph's job is to bring closure--closure to the essay.  Some of your past teachers and professors may have called this paragraph a summary paragraph.  The descriptions imply two different functions for this paragraph.  A summary in this paragraph means that you are taking the material you just discussed and restating the main points.  Some readers will find the summary approach insulting, especially since good readers will be paying attention to your main points throughout your essay.

  • A better approach to the final paragraph is to write a conclusion that leaves the reader with something powerful to think about.  
  • Another way to conclude is to call the reader to some action and engage her mind.  
  • You can end with hypothetical scenarios depending on what your topic is about.  

But the main thing you do not want to do is to waste the last half page by re-writing your essay in summary form.   (Yes, I admit that I am biased against summaries; they do insult me!)  Readers will lose trust and confidence in you and in your ideas, which is why you are writing in the first place--to have some impact on the minds of your audience.

In a future lecture I will cover in more depth the thesis statement and the kinds of thesis statements you can write.  I will also discuss the role of an audience and the relationship between the writer and her audience.