How to build an essay
Preparing an outline
You are ready to write an essay after you have done these steps:
- Identified all the components that you must cover so that you address the essay question or prompt
- Conducted your initial research and decided on your tentative position and line of argument
- Created a preliminary outline for your essay that presents the information logically.
Most essays follow a similar structure, including an introduction, body paragraphs, and a conclusion, as shown in the diagram below.
Click on the plus icons for more information.
There is no set requirement for the number of paragraphs in an essay. The important point is that the argument is logically developed through a series of well-structured paragraphs.
Writing an introduction
The purpose of the introduction is to give your reader a clear idea of what your essay will cover. It should provide some background information on the specific problem or issue you are addressing, and should clearly outline your answer. Depending on your faculty or school, ‘your answer’ may be referred to as your position, contention, thesis or main argument. Whatever term is used, this is essentially your response to the essay question, which is based on the research that you have undertaken or the readings you have analysed.
An essay is not like a mystery novel which keeps the reader in suspense; it should not slowly reveal the argument to the reader. Instead, the contention and supporting arguments are usually stated in the introduction.
When writing an introduction, you should typically use a general to specific structure. This means that you introduce the particular problem or topic the essay will address in a general sense to provide the context before you narrow down to your particular position and line of argument.
Key elements of an introduction
Click on each of the elements to reveal more.
Provide some background information and context
The introduction usually starts by providing some background information about your particular topic, so the reader understands the key problem being addressed and why it is an issue worth writing about. However, it is important that this is brief and that you only include information that is directly relevant to the topic.
This might also be an appropriate place to introduce the reader to key terms and provide definitions, if required.
Don’t be tempted to start your essay with a grand generalisation, for instance: ‘War has always been a problem for humanity….’, or ‘Since the beginning of time…’. Instead, make sure that your initial sentence relates directly to the problem, question or issue highlighted by the essay topic.
Limit the scope of your discussion
Setting the parameters of the essay is important. You can’t possibly cover everything on a topic - and you are not expected to - so you need to tell your reader how you have chosen to narrow the focus of your essay.
State your position / contention
State your position on the topic (also referred to as your main argument, or contention, or thesis statement). Make sure that you are directly answering the question (and the whole essay question if there is more than one part to it).
"Stating your position" can be a single sentence answer to the essay question but will often include 2-3 sentences explaining the answer in more detail.
Outline the structure or main supporting points of your essay
This usually involves providing details of the most important points you are going to make which support your argument.
Business leadership has been described as the ‘ability to influence, motivate and enable others to contribute to the effectiveness and success of the organisations of which they are members’ (House, Hanges, Javidan, Dorfman & Gupta, 2004, p. 63). Whether this ability is something a person is born with, or whether it is something that a person can learn, has been the subject of considerable debate. Kambil (2010) has outlined two categories of leadership attributes that help to frame the discussion: 'traits' (mostly innate) and 'skills' which can be developed through experience or training.  This essay will draw on the trait theory of leadership to argue that that leaders are first born, but then must be made.  While good business leaders share certain traits that are essential to success, including ‘curiosity, courage, perseverance, personal ethics and confidence’ (Kambil, 2010, p.43), they also need learnable skills, such as communication, negotiation and conflict resolution, that are only developed through practice. A potential leader should develop their natural traits as well as learn and practise skills which will help them to persuade, equip and inspire others to realise their vision.
Legend:  Background / Context ;  Position / Contention ;  Structure or main point of essay
Check your understanding View
Key features of an introduction
Read the paragraph in the accordion below and see if you can identify the key features of an introduction. This is an introduction written in response to the essay question: 'Can Rome's actions towards Carthage be described as defensive imperialism?'
Writing a body paragraph
The body of the essay is where you fully develop your argument. Each body paragraph should contain one key idea or claim, which is supported by relevant examples and evidence from the body of scholarly work on your topic (i.e. academic books and journal articles).
Together, the body paragraphs form the building blocks of your argument.
How do I structure paragraphs?
The TEECL structure provides an effective way of organising a paragraph. TEECL stands for Topic sentence, Explanation, Evidence, Comment, and Link. You may find it helpful to add C for Comment before Link. A paragraph structured this way would contain the following:
- Topic sentence – the first sentence in a body paragraph that tells the reader what the main idea or claim of the paragraph will be.
- Explanation – Explain what you mean in greater detail.
- Evidence – Provide evidence to support your idea or claim. To do this, refer to your research. This may include: case studies, statistics, documentary evidence, academic books or journal articles. Remember that all evidence will require appropriate citation.
- Comment – Consider the strengths and limitations of the evidence and examples that you have presented. Explain how your evidence supports your claim (i.e. how does it ‘prove’ your topic sentence?).
- Link – Summarise the main idea of the paragraph, and make clear how this paragraph supports your overall argument.
 One of the main obstacles to reaching international consensus on climate change action is the ongoing debate over which countries should shoulder the burden.  Because the developed world has historically been responsible for the majority of greenhouse gas emissions, it has been argued that they should reduce emissions and allow developed nations to prioritise development over environmental concerns (Vinuales, 2011).  The notion of ‘common but differentiated responsibility’ (CBDR) was formalised in the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change in Rio de Janeiro in 1992 (UNFCCC, 1992). Article 3.1 explicitly states 'Accordingly, the developed country Parties should take the lead in combating climate change and the adverse effects thereof' (p. 4).  However, because CBDR outlines a principle and not an actionable plan it has remained problematic. For example, it does not stipulate the extent to which, under the principle of CBDR, developing nations should be exempt from specific emissions targets. This has continued to be a point of contention in global negotiations on climate change, with developed countries such as the USA arguing that developed nations should do more to reduce emissions (Klein et. al., 2017).  Fairness and equity need to be pursued in reaching a global agreement on climate change, but transforming this into an actionable strategy is problematic.
Legend:  Topic sentence  Explanation  Evidence / Example  Comment  Link
Check your understanding View
What is missing?
The paragraph below was written in response to the essay question: '"Leaders are made rather than born." Do you agree or disagree? Provide reasons for your opinion.'
Read the paragraph then answer the question that follows.
The function of a conclusion is to draw together the main ideas discussed in the body of the essay. However, a good conclusion does more than that.
You may choose to also:
- reflect on the broader significance of the topic
- discuss why it is difficult to arrive at a definitive answer to the question posed
- raise other questions that could be considered in a subsequent essay
- make a prediction or a caution or a recommendation about what will happen to the phenomenon under investigation
When writing a conclusion, a specific to general structure is usually recommended. Yes, this is opposite to the introduction! Begin by re-stating or re-emphasising your position on the topic, then summarise your line of argument and key points. Finish off by commenting on the significance of the issue, making a prediction about the future of the issue, or a recommendation to deal with the problem at hand.
 No single theory can adequately explain the relationship between age and crime, and the debate over their correlation is ongoing. Instead, each theory provides valuable insight into a particular dimension of age and crime.  The emergence of the criminal propensity versus criminal career debate in the 1980s demonstrated the importance of both arguments. It is now believed that the age-crime curve created by Gottfredson and Hirschi is a good basic indicator for the age-crime relationship. However, the criminal career position has stood up to stringent empirical testing, and has formed an integral part of developmental theories such as Thornberry’s interactional theory.  These theories provide important insight into the complex relationship between age and crime, but, more than this, are useful for developing strategies for delinquency and crime prevention.
Legend:  Specific contention ;  Specific summary of main points ;  Broader and general significance