Academic Tips and Tricks

All the help you need for good essay writing

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Tips and Tricks 15: Structure

I recently asked via social media what posts people would like to see relating to writing and academia and a friend of mine made this very good point:

“I often find that despite the purpose of papers being to present research or ideas people… often miss the point that the paper still has to hook people in and the chapters have to connect to one another.”

It just so happens that I was talking to an old tutor of mine the other day and he was telling me that every year he presents a seminar to new PhD candidates on PhD structure, and he told me the following:

“If I could just tell them to meditate for an hour on structure, I would”

Essentially, he did not want students to constrain their thinking into an idea such as “a PhD must have 6 chapters” or “I have read a lot of other PhDs and they were always structured this way”. I think, for a really long document like a Dissertation or thesis structure is paramount, as my friend said, you have to hook the reader. However, the structure should reflect your content, if your article/thesis/dissertation feels like it divides nicely into three parts, that’s fine, as is ten smaller chapters. Working out the divides is fairly simple, for example, my MA dissertations was structured in the following way:

  • Initially, three short sections, my abstract, introduction and aims. All three of these are REALLY important for initially engaging a reader, so I will go over them in more detail in my next blog entry.
  • Methodology – how I collected my data, my analysis methods, any ethical problems etc.
  • Literature review – overview of existing literature, split into categories based on its specific focus
  • Analysis – split into several sections based on different analysis approaches, statistical analyses and detailed observations
  • Conclusions
  • Appendices – this contained things like permission forms, additional non-essential data statistics, data transcripts etc.
  • Bibliography

As you can see from the above, each ‘chapter’ has an overall theme, and is then split into smaller sections each dealing with something specific. It is useful in long documents to make sure the reader has cues as to the direction you are taking, for example, adding lines such as ‘in the next chapter, I will examine the interview data in detail’ or ‘ethical problems are explained in more detail in chapter 5, page 36’ these help the reader orient themselves within the document as a whole, and let them know that information which hasn’t been covered yet is going to be covered later.

For more ideas, please read my other blog entries on how to start an essay and how to structure paragraphs.



How to get started on an Essay

One problem a lot of people seem to have with essays is actually getting started, so I’m going to give you some tips on how to do this – what tips are useful for you will be dependent on what problem you have, is it simply inertia? Simply not knowing the first words that should go on the page? Not even being able to think of a topic? – If you have any of these problems, this entry is for you.


1. Know Your Data

If you’re doing the kind of essay which is data based (as most are) make sure you know your data inside out. What’s interesting about your data? What’s unusual about it? How does it connect to other research within your discipline? Writing down the answers to these questions – or talking your data over with a willing friend can really help solidify your ideas about your data and this can help form your essay. If you’re not able to answer the three simple questions above, you’re not ready to write. Make sure you analyse your data with all the tools available, and if you simply can’t make head or tail of what you’ve got, take your data, and any opinions you have about it to your tutor or academic skills helper and get them to talk over it with you.


2. Write the Intro First

Personally, I’ve never found this easy, and prefer to write an essay in bits rather than from start to finish, but for many people having a game plan helps to form the essay. Like knowing your data, writing your intro first can really help consolidate your thoughts. A good intro should briefly outline the following:

  • What the essay is about
  • What your data is
  • The aims of the essay
  • (Possibly) how it contributes to any existing research

Honestly, I always found introductions really challenging, so here is a good article on how to write one:

One thing about writing the intro first, which I can’t stress enough, is don’t try to follow it rigidly. Normally, the intro is written last, for good reason – because by that point you know where your essay is going, but writing it first can be like using an essay plan or guide, just don’t worry if your argument evolves as you write, the introduction can always be re-written.


3. Create ‘PQC’ Paragraphs and Fill in the Blanks

This is my preferred method when I’m really stuck (look at my paragraphing entry for a description of PQC). You might have some really good ideas about a topic, but not be able to form them into a cohesive structure right now. A great way to start to do this is to gather relevant quotes and excerpts from your data and just write little paragraphs. Get all your random thoughts down first, then see if you can categorise them. Once you can see which paragraphs have a common theme, just fill in the gaps until they form a cohesive argument.

One warning – this is not a last minute method (leaving aside the fact you should NEVER be writing a last minute essay anyway) – what I mean is this will require a lot of proofreading and smoothing, an essay formed like this and left without editing is a horrible Frankenstein’s monster of a thing. Make sure it flows. Sometimes I even begin writing using this method and find that my thoughts have got more sorted out as I write, then I’m able to start in a more logical way building up topics from start to finish.


4. Use Non-Academic Sources

In your essay you shouldn’t be quoting from non-academic sources such as popular science books, Wikipedia, etc. but if you’re really struggling to grasp a complicated subject then use these sources to get a basic understanding of what you’re writing. After reading a few easily-understandable sources try writing down what you’ve read in your own words. You’ll need to find academic references for any claims you make later, but for now at least you have words on the page.


5. The Classic Essay-Plan

This one will be brief. Everyone gets taught the essay plan as part of their GCSEs. Though it’s obvious, just brainstorming the topic, jotting down your ideas and writing up a few ideas for quotable sources can be a good first step in getting your thoughts sorted.


6. Think of a Title

Yes, this one’s obvious, but if your problem is that you haven’t actually decided what to write about yet then making that decision is the most important step. Many people are given essay titles, but suppose you have a completely open-ended assignment, such as a dissertation, how do you decide what to write on? Here are a few tips on finding a subject:

  • Go through old projects and essays and see which subjects interested you the most and/or gave you the best grades and do a variation/expansion on one of those – if you expand on your previous research you might even get to quote yourself, which is really fun!
  • Ask friends and family for ideas. I was surprised when family members who knew the least about my subject gave me some of the most interesting ideas – sometimes a bit of ignorance is a great way of getting some outside-the-box thinking as it’s easy to become blinkered when a subject is all you’ve studied for several years.
  • If you have a vague idea of a subject you’d like to research, read around that subject, or experiment with combining it with another related discipline – you might be able to find an interesting and under-researched niche.
  • If you’ve exhausted all your other options – ask your tutor, they may have some bright ideas or be able to let you read some previous student essays for inspiration.
  • If in doubt, choose a subject that may be useful for a future job – something that relates to a research post, a postgrad course or a specific industry you want to go into, being a specialist in that field already may give you the edge.


I hope this helps, if you have a problem which none of my suggestions seem to solve, post a comment and I’ll do my best to help.