Tuesday, September 1, 2009

Academic Essays 1 - Components of an Academic Essay

For the last eight years, I have taught English composition to hundreds of students who range in age from 17 to 67. No student is exempt from having to take it - much to their chagrin.

What I want to do in the next several posts is offer mini-lectures that I typically give to my students that first week of school when I talk about what an essay is and how to develop a good one.

An essay, in its simplest form, is a paper that does two things: states a purpose and supports that purpose with clear, vivid details and examples. Of course, your mastery of the English language and of style can take those two things and develop an essay that either moves readers into action or does just enough to get you a C.

First, an essay must serve a purpose.

Traditionally, there are four purposes in essay writing:
  • to inform - very important in academic writing because no matter what class a student takes, he/she will be asked to explain, to illustrate things.
  • to persuade - another important purpose in academic writing; students (and people in general) should be able to argue a point using logical reasoning.
  • to express - we see this more in journal writing, in creative non-fiction; it's the expression of feelings.
  • to entertain - again, we see this more outside of academic writing and more in works with a creative quality.

Once you have your topic and have figured out your essay's purpose, you need to know the must-have components for any academic essay:

1- Introduction - something that engages readers about your topic and makes them want to continue reading.

2- Thesis - usually seen at the end of the introduction, the thesis expresses two things: the essay's topic and the writer's overall thought on that topic.

This is your argument, and as such, it has to be something that can be ARGUED, i.e., an opinion. FACTS are not good theses; where is there to go once you've stated a fact?

3- Body Paragraphs - The body of an essay is where you SHOW support for your argument, your thesis. Clear points need to be established, support of those points need to be developed, and connection to the essay's overall idea needs to be stated. Within the body section of an essay, you will find three important components: topic sentences, support sentences, and closing sentences. These will be discussed more in an upcoming post on body development. Here, I'll mention this - topic, support, and closing sentences are what give body paragraphs points, support, and connection to essay's overall idea.

4- Conclusion - something that closes the essay without simply repeating what's already been stated. In the worst essays, I've had students who literally cut and pasted parts of their introduction into their conclusion. BIG no no. A conclusion should make a reader feel something, think something, or do something.

In post two on academic essays, I'll dig deeper and talk about the importance of introductions and conclusions.

In post three, I will look at the importance of body development and transitions.

Shon Bacon is an author, editor, and educator, whose biggest joys are writing and helping others develop their craft. She has published both creatively and academically and interviews women writers on her popular blog ChickLitGurrl: high on LATTES & WRITING. You can learn more about Shon's writings at her official website, and you can get information about her editorial services and online programs at CLG Entertainment. Shon has her own sexy little story, Saying No to the Big O, that was published last year: check it out!


  1. You're taking me back to my long ago school days. Actually, almost anything we write these days can be called essays, but we just don't call them that. It's kind of a basic structure.

    Morgan Mandel

  2. Basic and a great reminder! Somehow over the years, we can forget. Thanks for the reminder! Good column.

  3. These are good reminders, Sharon. I hated learning this in school, but it's good for writers to be reminded of these basic principles. They can be applied to blogs, come to think of it.

  4. Yikes, I'd forgotten most of that from school days. It's been a while. :-)

    Great job, Shon. I bet your students enjoy your classes.

  5. Shon, my husband just started back at university I'm sending him this link. Thanks!

  6. Somehow, once you learn the basics, you just incorporate them into your life and forget the 1-2-3. So, it's good to be reminded of that 1-2-3. Thanks.

    Straight From Hel

  7. Oh, this is good. Just what I need. Thank you.

  8. I know all about forgetting what you know, LOL When I first began teaching freshman comp, it was difficult because I had to relearn what I knew so that I could TEACH it to someone else.


The Blood-Red Pencil is a blog focusing on editing and writing advice. Some of our contributors are editors, some are authors, and some are writing sheep. Yes, sheep.


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