Structuring your Essay
After the successful completion of this workshop you will be able to:
• Explain the importance of analysing the essay question.
• Identify the role and meaning of at least three directive words in
an essay question.
• Identify, through analysis of two short texts, the structure of two
common essay types – argue and explain.
Workshop Six: Structuring your Essay
As a student, you will be confronted with a variety of essay questions. Most of the
time, you will be convinced that they have been designed to make your life miserable.
While this is essentially true (!!), there is an element of skill in working out what is
actually required of you. Essay topics contain key words that explain how the
information is to be presented. If the information is not presented in this way the
essay is considered to be unsuccessful. When setting a task, the lecturer expects you
to be able to recognise the key instructions and organise the presentation of your
To assist you to answer the essay question (or topic), you need to know that the words
in an essay topic can be categorised as follows:
‘D-words’ – directive These words tell you what to do. Therefore, they are
Content words These are words or phrases (or sometimes clauses) which
tell you what. Therefore, they are usually the object of
the D – word.
Limiting words These place the topic in a space-time framework.
They limit the topic so that it is workable.
(adapted from Pender and Henry, EAP: Writing, p6.3)
Look at the following essay topic:
Outline the changes computers have made to education.
(D – word) (Content words) (Limiting word)
In this example, the D-word is ‘outline’. Something must be outlined; that something,
the object of the outline, is ‘changes’ (which computers have made). These words are
the content words. The limiting words, ‘to education’, tell us that the essay will not
be about computers in banking or the travel industry but specifically in the field of
Below is a list of directive words. You should understand precisely what each of these
words means so that when you encounter them in essay/ assignment questions, you
will know exactly what is required of you.
Guide to D- (directive) words
analyse Show the essence of something, by breaking it down into its
component parts and examining each part in detail.
argue Present the case for and/or against a particular proposition.
compare Look for similarities and differences between propositions.
criticise Give your judgement about the merit of theories or opinions about
the truth of facts, and back your judgement by a discussion of the
define Set down the precise meaning of a word or phrase. Show that the
distinctions implied in the definition are necessary.
describe Give a detailed or graphic account.
discuss Investigate or examine by argument, sift and debate, giving reasons
for and against and draw a conclusion from the points presented.
enumerate List or specify and describe.
evaluate Make an appraisal of the worth of something, in the light of its
apparent truth or utility; include your personal opinion.
examine Present in depth and investigate the implications
explain Make plain, interpret, and account for in detail. Give a clear account
of what happened and offer reasons for it happening.
illustrate Explain and make clear by the use of concrete examples, or by the
use of a figure or diagram
interpret Bring out the meaning of, and make clear and explicit; usually also
giving your own judgement
justify Show adequate grounds for decisions or conclusions
outline Give the main features or general principles of a subject, omitting
minor details, and emphasising structure and relationship
prove Demonstrate truth or falsity by presenting evidence
relate Narrate/show how things are connected to each other, and to what
extent they are alike or affect each other
review Make a survey of, examining the subject critically
state Specify fully and clearly
summarise Give a concise account of the chief points or substance of a matter,
omitting details and examples
trace Identify and describe the development or history of a topic from
some point or origin.
In the example above, we were asked to ‘outline’. If we look at what ‘outline’ as a D-
word requires, we see that it asks us to state the main features of a subject, omitting
the details. So, in the essay, we should focus only on the major changes computers
have made in education in order to give a general overview. We are not expected to
go into detail.
The D-words affect how you organise the structure of your essay.
An appropriate structure is crucial to the success of your essay.
Let’s consider two common types of essays found at university and see how they are
The Argue Essay
An argue essay sets out to persuade the reader to hold a particular view by taking
him/her through a series of reasoned steps to a logical conclusion. It asks you to
present all the related factors but to come down on one side - to defend one main
An argue essay has several important structural features:
Introduction You don’t always need to define key terms unless they are technical
ones. Your purpose is not to make the topic clear; it is to defend a
position. You can assume your readers are familiar with the key
In the introduction, you have to make your line of argument obvious
to the reader as early as possible (preferably in the thesis statement) -
will you be defending ‘for’ the topic or ‘against’ it?
The thesis statement of an argue essay should be a statement with which your readers
may disagree; that is, it should be a debateable statement. The following are all
debateable statements, and therefore suitable for an argue essay:
‘Solar energy is the best way of meeting Australia's energy needs in the 21st century’
‘A good education is necessary for a successful and happy life’
The thesis statement of an argue essay CANNOT be a non-debatable statement, in
other words, a fact. Sentences like these are not suitable for argue essays:
‘Coal and oil are the main sources of energy in Australia in the 20th century’
‘Plants produce oxygen that the world needs to sustain life’
‘Australia has some of the most venomous snakes in the world’.
Body in the body of the essay, you will need to support this debateable
statement in a manner that convinces your readers of its truth. This
means that you will need to work out which factors support your
judgement and then bring them together. You should support your
judgement with specific examples, facts and other relevant supporting
The body of your essay should not just contain arguments that support the main
argument; it should also include arguments that oppose it. It is important to include
opposing arguments to show your reader that:
a. you have considered both sides of the argument, and
b. you are able to anticipate and criticise any opposing arguments before they are
It is important that the reader knows when you are writing opposing arguments. You
have to make it very clear that you are presenting those arguments only to show that
you understand why those arguments are made and wish to criticise them. In order to
do this, you need to use special phrases to signal that you do not agree with them. You
then have to signal again when shifting from the opposing idea to a supporting idea.
Here are the most common ways of showing that you are aware of the opposing
1. When you can think of the opposing opinion but you have not seen it written
may be argued
It could be contended that ............ However, ..........
might be claimed
2. When you have seen the opposing opinion written in another text:
It has been contended that .............. However, ......
Note that ‘however’ and other contrasting connectives signal the shift to a supporting
Conclusion You must end with a logical conclusion - a judgement that is
reasonable to make based on the argument you made and evidence
Arguments can pose several problems for students. Many students do not explain
what is to be argued at the outset. It is not good enough that the readers assume or
guess your line of argument after reading half the essay. State it as early in the essay
Another area of concern is that some writers leave the readers to make their own
decisions at the end. Keep in mind that an argumentative essay usually requires you
to argue the case for a particular point of view.
Now let’s look at an example of an argue type of essay. Read the essay and analyse its
structure with the help of these questions:
1. Is the essay question, or part of it, repeated anywhere in the essay? If so, why?
Do you think this is a good strategy?
2. Identify what line of argument the writer takes. Where does s/he state this in the
3. What are the topics covered in each paragraph?
4. Underline all the sentences, or parts of sentences that contain opposing ideas.
Make a list of the opposing ideas and the ideas the writer uses to refute them.
Opposing idea Refuted by
5. List the phrases used to introduce opposing ideas, and the phrases used to
signal the shift from an opposing idea to a supporting idea.
To introduce an opposing idea To shift to a supporting idea
“To what extent do you agree with the government’s reduction in financial
support for childcare services?”
Recent changes in federal government priorities have seen a reduction in financial
support for parents who use childcare. This is occurring at a time when there is
increasing social and financial pressure on parents, particularly mothers, to work. The
issue of childcare and working mothers has been the subject of dispute for some time.
Many argue that the best place for children is always in their own homes with their
own parents. However, it is my contention that there are many advantages to be had
from using childcare and the government should provide more assistance to parents
who do so.
It has been argued that children who attend childcare centres at an early age miss out
on important early learning that occurs in parent-child interaction. These children, so
this argument goes, may be educationally disadvantaged later in life. However,
childcare centres may actually assist children in their early learning. They give
children an opportunity to mix with other children and to develop social skills at an
early age. Indeed, a whole range of learning occurs in childcare centres.
Anther argument against the use of childcare facilities is that children can be
emotionally deprived in these facilities compared to the home. This argument assumes
that the best place for children is to be at their parents’, especially mothers’, side for
twenty-four hours a day. It claims that children’s emotional development can be
damaged when they are left in childcare facilities. However, parents and children need
to spend some time part. Moreover, children become less dependent on their parents
and parents themselves are less stressed and more effective care-givers when there are
periods of separation. In fact, recent studies indicate that the parent-child relationship
can be improved by the use of high-quality childcare facilities.
It could further be asserted that the government and the economy as a whole cannot
afford the enormous cost involved in supporting childcare for working parents.
However, working parents actually contribute to the national economy. They are able
to utilise their productive skills and pay income tax, while non-working parents can
become a drain on the tax system through dependent spouse and other rebates.
In conclusion, government support for childcare services assists individual families
and is important for the economic well-being of the whole nation.
(from www.eslplanet.com) Bill Daly, 1997
Now, certain parts of this model essay could be improved (such as the conclusion!),
but it does follow the basic structure for an essay of this type, doesn’t it? Now let’s
look at another common type of essay – the explain essay.
The Explain Essay
An explain essay sets out to explain something to the reader. Its main purpose is to
increase the reader’s understanding of the topic. An explain essay would include:
giving reasons for what is given in the topic.
stating effects of
This means that you would write about ‘what something is’ as well as ‘why it is so’
or ‘how it came to be so’.
You will find that in most topics you will have to define key terms or concepts. If
you are explaining a key concept, you can give a definition of it in the introductory
paragraph or if you are working around several terms you can define each in the body
paragraphs. You can choose to give dictionary definitions of terms and/or your own
extended definitions of them.
It may be useful to assume that the reader knows nothing about the topic. This will
help you think carefully about your choice of technical terms and the amount of detail
you are asking the reader to take in. You should include enough detail to support
your points and satisfy the readers’ interest.
Apart from definitions, examples are also used when explaining. In general, the best
way to explain a concept is to give a definition of it first, then follow with some
examples. Useful vocabulary for giving examples:
give an instance of illustrate the point such as
for example for instance quote
a case in point is illustrated by
The organisation of an explain essay would typically follow this pattern:
Introduction Define, describe or identify what you are writing about (i.e the key
terms in the essay topic).
Then in the thesis statement list the factors involved that have an
effect on or are causes of the key terms.
Body Take each factor listed (in the thesis statement) and in turn link them
to the key terms defined- how each is affected by the key terms or
how each causes things to happen. You might need one paragraph for
each factor, developing them with examples, facts or extended
Conclusion End you essay by summing up how the different factors link to have
the effect they do.
Let’s now have a look at an example of an explain type of essay.
“Explain what it was like in the bush during the Depression of the 1930s.”
If we analyse the topic, we see that:
D-word – explain
Content word – Depression of the 1930s
Limiting words – what it was like in the bush
So, we are asked to increase the reader’s understanding of the Depression during the
1930s by describing people’s experiences of it. This implies writing about the affects
the Great Depression had on these people and their lives.
Because we are asked to ‘explain’, we should first start by giving a definition of the
Great Depression. Then we could list the effects it had on the people in the bush and
how they lived. In the body of the essay, we could take up the effects in separate
paragraphs and explain each with examples. We have actually made a rough outline
of the essay:
I. Introduction: meaning of depression
Thesis statement: effects of Great Depression on the family
II. Body: A) income stresses
B) problems for big families each will be
C) limited range of foods with examples
D) old clothes
E) simple entertainment
Now read the essay.
1. As you read identify:
- the introduction,
- thesis statement,
- body paragraphs and
- the conclusion.
2. What points are taken up or explained in each part? How are they explained?
After reading the model essay, let us turn to our own essay writing. Have you got an
essay question that you could write an essay outline for? Have you got an explain or
argue type essay that needs improvements in its structure? Or, write yourself an essay
question from your subject/interest area and draw up a draft outline. Let’s put our
knowledge of essay structure to use!
Depression in the Bush
The Great Depression was a period of sustained economic collapse. For most
Australians, this meant little commercial activity and severe unemployment. The
Depression had a deep impact on all people in the bush, although it affected some
families more dramatically than others. There were major pressures on the family
unit: on incomes, on the supply of food and clothes, and on the types of entertainment
that were available.
Considerable pressures were brought to bear on families, particularly the larger ones.
Those struggling to keep ten or more children faced a limited food supply and the
danger of killer diseases such as diphtheria and gastro-enteritis. A lack of resources
such as bedding commonly resulted in wheat bags being used for blankets by
children. The results of poverty and overcrowding may be partly measured in the
number of deaths amongst children.
Stresses on the incomes of bush families varied according to ownership of land and
the degree of indebtedness. The combination of debt and unemployment forced many
farming families from their land, after which the dole was the only choice for many.
Bartering goods, for instance grain for flour, was one option for some. Other income
was sought from the sale of rabbit skins and wood. The constant uncertainty and
threat of poverty proved a great frustration for the larger families in the bush.
Limited incomes meant that the range of foods available was also limited. The lack of
proper refrigeration frequently meant that any affordable meats had to be salted.
Families under stress relied on home-made bread, jam, dripping or perhaps golden
syrup or honey. Probably the strongest feature of bush food at this time was its
Clothing problems, especially for children in battling families, were keenly felt.
Patched hand-me-downs were common, and younger children often had to go without
shoes. Some items, such as underwear, became luxuries that only the elder children of
struggling families could ever hope to have. It was the children who often bore the
brunt of the clothing crisis.
Bush entertainments were simple in the depressed early 1930s. Radios were becoming
available for those who could afford them, but most entertainments required payment,
which precluded the involvement of big families. For children from battling
households, the country show was a time to window shop rather than spend. Town
picture shows were fine if you could sneak in as a youngster. Around the home, adults
sang around a piano where possible. Unlike today, bush entertainments revolved
around the involvement of the whole family.
The Depression years in the bush were certainly stressful for many, and brought adult
pressures to bear on children in large families. The uncertainty of incomes and the
crisis of indebtedness loomed ominously over households. Despite the bleak outlook,
simple pleasures were enjoyed and a hardy resourcefulness evolved in the growing
children soon to face World War II.
(The Essay Clinic, p48)