Writing is like taking your reader on a journey. If your reader is blindfolded he or she will have no idea where the journey will lead. This kind of journey can be confusing and frustrating. On the other hand, you can take your reader on a journey through your thinking and understanding of a topic by taking off the blindfold and revealing exactly where you are, why you are there and where you are going next. This kind of journey will leave your reader feeling relaxed and comfortable because you are leading him or her gently through your ideas so that he or she completely understands what you are trying to communicate. A reader who understands your work is likely to be impressed and keen to give you good marks, whereas a reader who is confused and frustrated will most probably assign you poor marks, even if you have done plenty of work and read widely.

In order to structure your writing in a way that will not confuse your reader, you need to have an overall plan of your response to the question. My advice is to make a concept map, but you may choose another method of planning. Whatever you decide, your plan should be detailed and you should know what it is you are trying to say overall in the essay as well as in each paragraph. Suppose we were writing an essay on the following topic:

Plagiarism has now reached endemic proportions and should be punished by automatic exclusion from university. Discuss.

As explained in the section on the assignment writing process, the research questions that you devise, will help you to structure your essay. So, if for this essay, your research questions were as follows:

• What is plagiarism?
• Is it on the increase?
• Why do people plagiarise?
• What types of penalties reduce it?
• What are the different types of plagiarism?
• How widespread is it?
• Are some types less dishonest than others?
• What does exclusion mean?
• Is it more prevalent in some groups than others?
• Is exclusion effective?

You could look at your questions and try to decide if each one would be a separate part of the essay or if a couple of questions together would make up one part or section of the essay. A simple strategy is to look at the research questions and group similar questions together. Then label each group of questions (see the box underneath each set of questions). For example:

What is plagiarism?
What are the different types of plagiarism?
Are some types less dishonest than others?
Is it on the increase?
How widespread is it?
Why do people plagiarise?
Is it more prevalent in some groups than others?
What types of penalties reduce it?
What does exclusion mean?
Is exclusion effective?
Definition Prevalence Reasons for Penalties

These labels would then define the different parts of the essay and you could use them as the main branches on your concept map (see the map below).

Plagiarism - Excluded? png

Once you have an overall plan of your response to the topic, you need to consider the order you will use to write your essay. Remember that well structured writing lets the reader in on your thinking and it usually explains ideas in a step by step fashion so that the reader understands the connections between ideas. There are probably five major plans that can be used to step your reader through your thinking. These were covered in the section on the writing process and are:

• general to specific
• time sequencing
• listing
• comparing and contrasting
• logical flow of ideas

While a whole essay may be structured around one overarching plan, it is also possible for different paragraphs to have different plans. Mostly each paragraph will be structured around one overall plan. To help make the connections between ideas clear, it is helpful to highlight connections by using the language of your plan. Let’s consider each of these plans and some of the words you would use to emphasise the plan.

Plans for structuring writing

This is a very common plan in western thinking and writing. We usually introduce an idea in a general way, by providing a context or rationale about its importance or usefulness, then we explain the ideas so that the most detailed or specific examples of the idea are at the end of the explanation. The way that an introduction to a research essay is structured is a good example of this. Here is an example for the topic:

To what extent does Shakespeare’s play ‘King Lear’ expose the history of the period in which it was written? Explain your position by referring to both history and key elements of the play.

There has been some debate about the extent to which the play ‘King Lear’ can be considered an historical text. Some authors have argued it is historical only in so far as it examines the meaning of kingship and what this meant in Elizabethan England. Other authors have argued that Shakespeare was particularly interested in examining the reign of Queen Elizabeth through this play. The argument that will be presented in this essay is that it cannot be considered historically accurate in terms of its links to any particular events, but that the ideas discussed were very much of concern to people in Elizabethan society. In particular, this argument will be developed by examining some of the social issues of the day and linking them to key themes and characters in the play, for example the theme of gender/power relationships with regard to Lear and his daughters, and fear of impending doom with regard to symbols of evil.

Signpost words

Generally… In particular…
Overall… Specific examples include…
In the main…   More specifically, this means

It is uncommon to see whole essays structured around time sequencing (even in history essays which are more often structured around themes or arguments). However, it is quite common to see paragraphs organised in this way.

Signpost words

Early on… Before…
Later… Afterwards…
The next day/year/decade… Initially…

Again, it is uncommon to see a whole essay structured as a list, because academic writing is more concerned with discussing and critiquing ideas, rather than simply listing them. All the same, there are paragraphs that use this plan.

Signpost words

Firstly… Furthermore…
Secondly… Additionally…
Finally… Another…

It is quite common for whole essays to be set around comparing and contrasting two ideas, theories, people, events, and so on. Comparing requires you to identify and discuss similarities, whereas contrasting requires you to find and discuss differences. With this type of essay, there could be whole paragraphs which list and evaluate similarities or differences, however it is more common to see these essays structured around main ideas (or themes) with each paragraph comparing and contrasting one theme. So for example an essay which requires you to compare and contrast two approaches, for example comparing to approaches to counselling practice, would most likely identify themes or main ideas that both approaches use, for example:

• Purpose of counselling
• Rationale or theoretical orientation
• Skills required

The essay would be structured around these main ideas and each one would be compared and contrasted in each paragraph, for example the paragraph about the purpose of counselling might look something like this:

While all counselling is designed to help clients make changes and improve quality of life, Approach A and Approach B have different purposes. Approach A aims to help clients to question their thoughts and actions, whereas Approach B aims to examine how the past affects the client’s reactions to the present. However, both approaches emphasise the importance of making the purpose of counselling clear to the client from the outset and to check whether their particular approach is acceptable to the client.

Signpost words

Similarly… By contrast…
In a similar study… An opposing view…
Whereas… Both…
While… However…

This is a common style of writing for philosophy, politics, logic or any subject where it is necessary to argue a case or position based on a set of assumptions.

Signpost words

If… Then…
This argument means… Thus…
If this idea is accepted, it suggests… Therefore this results in…

While many of these words appear to be very obvious signposts, it is important to remember to use them! Writing without signposting can be difficult to follow and extremely time-consuming and frustrating to mark. Remember that the thinking is in the linking. When you use signposting words, you are showing your reader the direction that you will take in your writing. As you do this, you show how you link the ideas and this helps the reader understand how you think.

Planning your paragraphs

As you construct each paragraph of your text, make sure that you are clear about three things: the topic that you will discuss in the paragraph, the point that you want to make about the topic and the evidence that you will use to support your point. If we go back to the concept map about plagiarism and go to the section entitled “reasons for plagiarism” we can see that this will be the topic of the paragraph. When we look at the information on this section of the map, we have to also think about the point that it is necessary to make when writing this section.

Reasons for plagiarising concept map branch

The point that I want to make when I look at the ideas on the branch of the
map above, is that confidence is an important issue when trying to understand why people plagiarise. Thus my topic sentence includes this point. Here is the topic sentence:

A number of studies have found that confidence

or the lack of it, is a significant reason why students plagiarise.

The rest of the paragraph draws on evidence. Notice that the evidence is usually based on research studies that have been conducted, explanations of theories or ideas, information and statistical data. In this case, it might look something like this:

Studies conducted by Carly (2011) and Jones (2009) both found that students who lacked academic self confidence, and especially confidence as writers, were more likely to plagiarise than students who were more sure of their academic abilities. These findings are confirmed by the work of Jones (2009) who conducted a study on 144 university students and found that lack of academic self confidence was a more important predictor of plagiarism than were lack of academic skills. While this finding highlights the importance of academic confidence and underplays the importance of skills, the concept of skill was not well defined and therefore was inadequately measured. Future research will need to define and measure academic skills more accurately.

Finally, it is common to close the paragraph with a point about the evidence which relates back to the topic sentence and often the thesis of the whole essay to confirm the point of the paragraph. Thus the concluding sentence often makes a point. In this example, it could be something like the following:

Despite the methodological difficulties inherent in this study, it seems important to ensure that students have both academic skills and confidence to write their own ideas without plagiarising the work of others.

To remind yourself of the essential features of paragraphs, you can remember the acronym PEP which stands for: point (about the topic of the paragraph, evidence to support the point, a point at the end of the paragraph which confirms the original point and often links to the thesis statement). Often final points in a paragraph show critical thinking (see Section 9 for more on this). As you demonstrate critical thinking, you will find your voice as an author (you will find that you have something to say about the evidence you are reporting). To show this kind of thought, the final sentence often includes some tentative comments about:

1. The usefulness or strengths of ideas or research
2. The weaknesses or difficulties with ideas and suggestions for future research or studies
3. The ways in which the ideas can or cannot be applied in practical settings or in the context of the question asked.

Forging links between sentences in paragraphs

As discussed above, the use of signal words help to show the reader the direction you are taking in your thinking and writing and this is an important method of linking in paragraphs. However, linking can also be achieved by picking up a word or using a synonym for a word that has been used previously and then weaving it into the next sentence . Here is an example of using a synonym (word with a similar meaning) and a pronoun (stands instead of a noun) together to help forge a link:

There was considerable confusion amongst researchers as to the exact nature of the relationship between variable A and variable B. This uncertainty, became the catalyst for a new realm of research when scientists began to examine……

In this example, the student could have written: This became the catalyst for… but it is not as clear without the synonym for emphasis and clarity. Additionally, the pronoun ‘this’ could refer to the relationship between variable A and B or it could refer to confusion, thus the use of the synonym as well as the pronoun is important to make the meaning clear.

After you have written a paragraph or part of the essay always go back and check that you have links between sentences in your paragraphs. This can often make a significant difference to the cohesion of your work (or how well it all hangs together and makes sense). The words in bold show the linking and signalling words that improve cohesion in the paragraph:

Studies conducted by Carly (2011) and Jones (2009) both found that students who lacked academic self confidence, and especially confidence as a writer, were more likely to plagiarise than students who were more sure of their academic abilities. These findings are confirmed by the work of Jones (2009) who conducted a study on 144 university students and found that lack of academic self confidence was a more important predictor of plagiarism than were lack of academic skills. While this finding highlights the importance of academic confidence and underplays the importance of skills, the concept of skill was not well defined and therefore was inadequately measured. Future research will need to define and measure academic skills more accurately. Despite the methodological difficulties inherent in this study, it seems important to ensure that students have both academic skills and confidence to write their own ideas without plagiarising the work of others.

When you check your work for cohesion, it is a good idea to highlight your linking words, underline the point in your paragraph and next to the paragraph write the topic of the paragraph. For example:

Studies conducted by Carly (2011) and Jones (2009) both found that students who lacked academic self confidence, and especially confidence as a writer, were more likely to plagiarise than students who were more sure of their academic abilities. These findings are confirmed by the work of Jones (2009) who conducted a study on 144 university students and found that lack of academic self confidence was a more important predictor of plagiarism than were lack of academic skills. While this finding highlights the importance of academic confidence and underplays the importance of skills, the concept of skill was not well defined and therefore was inadequately measured. Future research will need to define and measure academic skills more accurately. Despite the methodological difficulties inherent in this study, it seems important to ensure that students have both academic skills and confidence to write their own ideas without plagiarising the work of others.

Forging links between paragraphs

Look at your map or plan and think about the order you will use to discuss the paragraphs and look for ways that you can link them. For example, with the paragraph following the one above on reasons for plagiarism, the next paragraph about penalties flows logically.

Plagriarism - Excluded? - Penalties png

Here is the last sentence of the paragraph about reasons for plagiarism:

Despite the methodological difficulties inherent in this study, it seems important to ensure that students have both academic skills and confidence to write their own ideas without plagiarising the work of others.

Here is a possible first sentence to link the two paragraphs:

While there are a number of complex reasons why people plagiarise, there are also a number of penalties designed to deal with plagiarism.

The technique is quite simple: the main idea of the previous paragraph is restated and woven into the opening sentence of the new paragraph along with the topic of that paragraph. In this case, the second sentence in the paragraph could be used to make the point of the paragraph, which could be:

These penalties tend to be inconsistent across institutions and may not significantly reduce incidences of plagiarism.

Structuring the introduction and conclusion

There will be some differences in introductions and conclusions depending on the genre or style of writing you are using. Chapter 5 explained the elements of introductions and conclusions which apply most often to research essays (probably the most common style of writing you will encounter). You will recall that introductions usually have a context or background statement, a general outline (of what will be discussed) and a thesis statement (what you think in response to the question). Conclusions usually draw the main points together by showing how they work together or identifying the most important aspects of the question. In general you should not introduce new facts in the conclusion that have not been discussed in the body. Finally, conclusions often make a comment about directions for future research or general comments about the importance of new ideas that may help overcome some of the problems that were raised in the paper. Make sure that if you raised any issues for discussion or as problems in the introduction or body of the essay, that you make some concluding statements about them in the conclusion.

It is common in both the introduction and conclusion to use some of the words from the question, but do not write large chunks of the question out verbatim. Using some key words from the question in the introduction and conclusion helps the reader to see that you are actually addressing the question asked, rather than just writing some facts about the general topic.
Remember that whenever you want to make a comment on the facts or information that you are reporting (and you should do this often!) you should use tentative language (sometimes called hedging). As you do this, you will find that you start to develop a voice as an author because you are going further than simply reporting facts: you have something to say about the facts in terms of a question or comment or suggested application of the idea. This is very important in body paragraphs and conclusions.

Examples of introductions and conclusions

This section will examine some introductory and concluding paragraphs for a number of different topics and discuss their effectiveness. The first topic is one you may find on an Arts essay.

Examine the issues that affect the practice of art today. Focus particularly on your field of practice

The following example is an example of an ineffective introduction to the topic.

There are many issues that affect the practice of art today especially in my field of practice which is music. Some of the issues include funding, politics, technology, globalisation and cross cultural influences. All of these will be considered in this essay.

There are a number of problems here. Firstly, there is no real contextualisation of the topic, secondly there is no thesis statement and thirdly the use of personal pronouns such as ’my’ detracts from its objectivity. Finally, there is no evidence of thought in the paragraph. It is simply a list.

The second paragraph, below, is a more effective introduction.

Art practice is in a state of change. A number of issues affect the life and work of artists today. These include reductions in government funding, the influence of politics at all levels, and changes in world views that have emerged through globalisation, technology and cross cultural influences. A particularly important theme that affects musicians is the way in which technology and globalisation have changed practice. These issues will be examined in this essay with a view to showing how aspects of technology have shifted the emphasis in music from one of creativity and talent to marketing and self promotion.

This paragraph is more effective because it has the elements of background context, an outline and a thesis statement. It also follows the plan of starting with general issues and then becomes more specific as the paragraph progresses. Additionally, it uses words from the question without simply parroting them word for word.

Now let us consider some possible conclusions for this Arts topic. The first one is an ineffective concluding paragraph:

Musicians have had great difficulty professionally recently. They have leaned heavily on technology. Global trends have influenced them and it has been hard to stay creative. It is interesting to see that only 10% of artists see themselves as creative (Broll, 2011). The future of music may be bleak and to combat this musicians must ensure that they are technically competent and up to the task of surviving in a world where funding is limited and the political scene is hostile.

There are a number of problems with this conclusion. Firstly, the words in italics are not appropriate in most academic texts because they are informal (see Chapter 4 for a reminder about appropriate academic language). Additionally, the student has introduced new material with a new reference in the second to last sentence. Finally the student’s suggestion does not use tentative language.

The following is an effective example of the same concluding paragraph:

There seems to be little doubt that music, like other areas of art practice is in a state of change. Many changes such as political and funding issues have increased the creative challenge for musicians. There is a growing trend for musicians to turn to technology and a range of music forms to bring creativity to their art, while still minimising production costs. Thus the major change has been for musicians to focus on production and self promotion via readily available and generally inexpensive computer technology, rather than necessarily focussing on exceptional standards of musical competence. This may adversely affect the music industry in the long run, however, in the short term it seems important for musicians to maintain high levels of competence and professional standards.

We will now consider some introductory and concluding paragraphs for a different topic to further exemplify the type of qualities which are effective and ineffective in academic writing. Consider the topic below:

Examine gender issues that have impacted on the development of the profession of nursing since Florence Nightingale. You will need to consider issues related to the dominance of women as a labour force in nursing and identify some current views about the doctor-nurse relationship.

Now read the following introduction, thinking about its effectiveness as you go.

Gender issues have significantly influenced nursing as a profession. Gender has influenced the ratio of men to women in the profession, and it has also influenced the roles and relationships of nurses and their colleagues. Issues of gender and power, specifically in the area of the doctor-nurse relationship will be examined in this essay. Reasons for the lack of equality in this relationship will be examined from an historical perspective and some suggestions will be made as to how nurses may be able to achieve more equitable relationships in the future.

This introduction is reasonably effective, but it does not have a strong thesis statement. The last sentence outlines what the student will cover, but it does not really explain exactly which gender issues have most impacted on the nursing profession. Notice how the student has used words and paraphrased words from the question in the introduction without rewriting large parts of the question verbatim (note the links to the question indicated by the arrows above).

Now let us consider an example of an ineffective concluding paragraph for the nursing essay topic:

A number of gender issues have impacted on the development of the profession of nursing since Florence Nightingale. The dominance of women as a labour force in nursing has been a major factor. There are various views about this and the most significant one is that the doctors still hold more power than nurses even though nurses are more technologically skilled than ever before (Simms, 2010). Nurses must work harder to improve their professional standing otherwise they will lose the professional status they have gained to date.

Now have another look at the topic and notice how much of the topic appears verbatim in the conclusion.

Examine gender issues that have impacted on the development of the profession of nursing since Florence Nightingale. You will need to consider issues related to the dominance of women as a labour force in nursing and identify some current views about the doctor-nurse relationship.

This type of “parroting” does not convince the reader that the writer is much of a thinker!

Here is an example of an effective concluding paragraph for the nursing topic:

In conclusion, there are still unresolved gender-power differences in nursing. Many of these are based on earlier conceptions of nursing as a primarily nurturing profession and therefore suitable mainly to women. As suggested in this essay, the increasing role of technology in nursing and the subsequent blurring of doctor-nurse roles has significantly reduced inequality. It is likely that inequality will decrease further as nurses continue to develop technological and professional skills which in some cases are at least equal to those of doctors. If this is the case, it is likely that the doctor-nurse relationship will become more of an equal partnership than it has been to date.

Reflection and Conclusion

Documents to help you structure

The following two planning documents may help you to structure your writing. Remember that a detailed and well thought out plan will save you time later because there will be less editing to do. A detailed plan can be like a first draft in keywords and dot points, and it can really help clarify your thinking about the topic.

Choose the Planning Map or the Box Plan and copy it or draw up something similar to help you to plan effectively. You may even use both plans – the concept map to get your ideas down and then the boxes to work out what your first draft will look like. With the concept map idea, draw your own, filling in the details for your essay, for example your topic sentence idea, the evidence you will use and so on.

The importance of linking and structuring

Linking and structuring is more important than reading widely. Of course, both are important, but if you read widely and do not put the ideas together in a cohesive way, all the work you have done will be wasted!

What is the most important thing you have learned about structure in this chapter?

Always have a plan – the clearer and more detailed it is, the easier the writing will be and the less editing you will have to do.

How effective is your current planning strategy? What if anything about your current practice would you like to change?

Gently ‘take your reader by the hand’ as you lead them through your thinking

Is this idea a new idea for you? How will it change the way you write?