The standard essay format that you’re introduced to in middle school and high school has a three part structure: there’s an introductory section, a main body and a conclusion.
There are conventional rules for what to include and not include in each of these sections, and if you want to improve your academic essay writing there’s no doubt that you need to understand these rules.
But I think anyone who teaches essay writing, and anyone who wants to improve their essay writing, should acknowledge that not all essays are written this way, and that the conventional rules for academic essays can be quite restrictive — there is, for lack of a better term, an expressive cost to following the rules.
In this video I want to talk about the rationale for the conventional rules, and more specifically how and when the benefits of following them outweigh the costs.
The Standard Three-Part Structure
The most striking feature of the conventional academic essay format is how introductions and conclusions are written.
(1) Introductory Section
The introductory section of an academic essay is supposed to do three things:
First, we use it to introduce the subject of the essay, and more specifically, the issue with respect to the subject. The subject might be, say, the ethics of sport hunting. The issue might be whether hunting with bow and arrow is more or less humane than rifle hunting.
If the issue is somewhat complex or unfamiliar you may need to spend a bit of time on this introductory section, providing enough background and context for the reader to understand, in rough outline, what the issue is.
Second, we state the thesis of the essay. The thesis is the position or stance that the essay is going to take, on the issue in question.
And third, it’s often recommended that the author say something about how the rest of the essay is going to be organized, so the reader has some idea of what to expect and how the argument is going to unfold. This becomes increasingly important as essays become longer and more complicated.
(2) Main Body
Moving on to the main body of the essay, the structure of the main body will differ depending on the kind of essay you’re writing. Here I’ll just review the features of a standard argumentative essay.
The primary goal of the main body is to present the central argument of the essay. There are many ways of doing this, but an essential part of any argumentative essay is to consider natural objections to the main argument, and then present replies that defend the argument against those objections.
(3) Concluding Section
Now, in the concluding section of the standard academic essay, you’re expected to restate the main thesis, review and summarize the key argumentative moves you made in the essay, and if you want you can offer some final commentary on the topic. These elements of the concluding section become more important and more prominent as essays become longer and more professional. If you look at articles written for academic journals you’ll find that these elements are standard.
"Do I Have to Write Like This?"
So these are the conventional rules for organizing an academic essay.
I don’t want to generalize, but I think we have to admit that the style of essay writing I just described isn’t one we normally associate with engaging literary style. It can be dry and stiff and predictable.
I’ve had students ask me, in all seriousness, whether they have to write like this, like there’s something obviously unappealing about these writing conventions.
I think these questions have a point, I think they deserve to be answered. So let’s push the question further.
Many non-academic essay writing styles will try to invite or entice the reader to continue reading, but they won’t disclose the main point of the essay up front — they’ll save the “punchline”, as it were, until the end, for obvious reasons.
Telegraphing your punchline in the setup of your joke would ruin the joke.
Similarly, telegraphing the main point of your essay in the introduction makes it difficult to build a narrative with the potential to surprise the reader. If every essayist felt pressured to show all their cards in the opening paragraphs of their essay, they would rightly find that a burdensome restriction.
All of this is to say that there’s nothing in the nature of essay writing per se that requires this kind of style.
But then if it’s standard in academic writing then there must be some reason for it, some benefit that outweighs the costs.
So let’s talk about what these benefits are.
The Function of the Standard Three-Part Essay Structure
The standard conventions of academic writing only make sense under the assumption that you’re writing for a certain kind of audience whose interests are served by this format.
All of this makes more sense if you realize that at the highest levels, academia is a profession, and the primary currency that this profession trades in, is peer recognition and approval.
Whether I’m a physicist or a philosopher or an English literature expert, to participate in the profession you need to produce research, and in most cases this takes the form of written research articles that are published in professional academic journals, or it takes the form of longer, book-length monographs.
In either case, your work is subject to a process of PEER REVIEW, before it can get into the hands of the broader research community or the general public.
At the first level of the peer review process, your immediate audience is an editor of some kind. The job of a journal editor is to facilitate the process of academic gate-keeping and quality control.
The journal editor receives many submissions, more than they can publish. They have to quickly assess the the relevance of the submission for their audience, which is other professional academics in their field.
If it passes this first stage of assessment then the editor has to identify qualified reviewers within the field who will conduct a more thorough review of the submission.
Their reports are sent back to the editor, who then makes a decision about whether the submission should be published, accepted for publication conditional on making certain minor changes, sent back to the author with a recommendation to revise and resubmit, or reject the submission outright.
That’s your "level 1" audience. Ultimately what you want is that your academic peers get access to your work through publication in the standard peer-reviewed venues.
Your professional peers are your level 2 audience. But they face the same predicament as journal editors, in the sense that even if your submission finds its way into a journal that they regularly read, no one has the time or energy to read everything.
So everyone needs a strategy for deciding whether a given article is relevant to your interest and worth the time and energy to read all the way through.
And if you were in that situation, it would be very much in your interest that articles are written in a standard form and in such a way that in the first few paragraphs you can quickly judge whether the article is relevant to your own research.
This gets us closer to understanding why the standard academic essay format is what it is.
It’s a form of writing that makes it easy for a person who has limited time and energy, and who has a specific interest in certain topics, to identify whether the essay is relevant to those topics. Everyone in academia, from working professionals to editors to graduate students, benefits from the standardization that is built in to the conventional three-part essay format.
So, are there good reasons why the conventions are what they are? The answer is yes, there are good reasons. There are costs, in terms of predictability and a certain utilitarian dryness, but from the perspective of working academics, the benefits clearly outweigh these costs.
But Why Impose This Convention on Students?
Now, there’s an obvious question that this analysis raises.
If the justification for these academic essay writing conventions is that they’re important for professional academic writing, why are they so often taught as though they were basic to essay writing in general?
In writing instruction guides aimed at high school students, you often see some version of this three-part structure presented without any context, like it was part of a definition of what a “proper” essay should look like.
This is nonsense, there is no such definition. There are plenty of different models for successful essay writing.
So why is it so often taught as though it was the only model?
Well, if you ask high school teachers they’ll probably tell you that it’s a good model to teach students because
And in their more cynical moods they’ll tell you that it’s challenging enough to teach just one model for essay writing, when so few students are good at even this one model.
There's obviously a lot of truth to these observations. But let’s at least acknowledge that these reasons have more to do with the practical realities of education than with good writing per se.
Good writers need to understand the rules of a conventional style and the reasons behind the rules, so that they can use them when doing so serves their communicative goals and break them when they don’t.
In the next video we’ll take a closer look at the concept of writing style, and how writing structure emerges out of a deliberate choice of style.