How do I structure a college essay?

Most college papers need a thesis that argues a point that can be proven or demonstrated with evidence in the paper. Use this worksheet to help see if  the paper has the points, evidence, and analysis to prove the thesis: Structure of an Essay.

What is a thesis and why do I need one?

A Thesis Statement

*         establishes a boundary around the subject that keeps the writer from wandering from the subject--about this--not about that.

*         can chart an orderly course for the paper and make it easier to write--not just about this--but HOW it is --about this.

*         gives the reader an idea of what to expect, makes it easier for the reader to follow.

To develop a sound Thesis Statement, read the following:

*         Your Thesis Statement should summarize the main idea of your paper.

*         It is the nut from which your paper grows, the engine that drives your paper.

*         In a short paper, place it as the last sentence in your introductory paragraph. In a longer paper, place it a the end of the introductory paragraphs.

Rules for the thesis statement:

1. The Thesis Statement should commit the writer to a single line of argument.

2. The Thesis Statement should predict major divisions in the structure of the paper.

3. The Thesis Statement should be clear, direct and concise.

My research topic may be too big. How can I focus it?




In order to enter selectively into the ongoing dialogue on the issue of your researched essay, you need to decide more precisely on your own agenda as a researcher.  It can be productive to ask yourself some questions and respond to them in writing.  Please begin by responding to each of the questions posed here:

  1. What is my general area of interest, in broad terms the "subject" of my inquiry?
  2. On what ideas or topics within that area might I focus?
  3. What are some of the questions I might ask about those topics?
  4. What do I already know that would help me answer some of those questions?
  5. Where might I go to find more answers?  (Be as specific as you can with this one.) 
  6. What do I anticipate might be some of my findings?
  7. If an all-knowing source presented himself or herself to me, and I could ask of that source only one question, what would that question be?  (The attempt here is to focus on the common denominators in some of the ideas and questions you proposed earlier.  The “research question” often turns into the “working thesis” of the piece.)


[Kathy Skubikowski and John Elder, “Journal and Essay”]

How can I check if I have written a good paper?

Recent research indicates that student writers react best to teacher comments that are specific, elaborated, give useful advice, and are framed as open-ended questions (Richard Straub, “Students’ Reactions to Teacher Comments,” Research in the Teaching of English, February, 1997).  In responding to your peers’ writing, try to transform the textbook words of wisdom below into revision-provoking questions.  


1.  Titles should be both interesting and informative

  1. Titles should begin the process of focusing a reader's attention on the point of the piece, and even prick the reader’s curiosity a bit.
  2. Sometimes titles come early to mind as you’re writing.  Sometimes the piece is finished and ready to hand in, and you still can’t come up with a title.  Try re-reading your final paragraph.  Sometimes a word or phrase from the conclusion will work.  Or look for a recurring image or motif in your work; a “found metaphor” can make an effective title.
  1. An opening paragraph should raise your readers’ interest, grab their minds and rivet them on your ideas.
  2. An opening should provide a context for your discussion, a reason why somebody would want to clear out some space in his or her busy life to read your piece.
  3. Once you have your reader’s attention, the last sentence(s) of an introduction should focus your reader on the thesis of your piece, the one point you will make, the argument you will prove.
  1. Try to get your thesis made in one sentence.  It’s the hardest sentence in the whole piece to write.  It tells your reader what point you are proving, how your are proving it, and why.
  2. Be specific in your thesis, and don’t belabor the obvious – give it an argumentative edge.
  3. As you begin to write you might not be sure enough of your subject to formulate a good, specific, one-sentence thesis.  That’s ok.  Try a trial thesis, the best guess you can make at the moment.  Then as you write, keep coming back to it, improving it as you go on and become more sure.
  1. Sometimes before your readers are ready to launch from your thesis into the body of your argument, they need some backgrounding.  It might be historical background, or a set of definitions for important terms.  If you are arguing one side of an issue, your readers might need to hear the others side first, briefly, just to be assured you considered it.
  1. What’s the one idea being raised, focused on, and proved in this paragraph?
  2. Just as the thesis statement formulates the argument of the whole piece, so a topic sentence, usually the first sentence of each body paragraph, formulates the argument of each paragraph.
  3. Paragraphs prove their points by reporting evidence (data, quotations, descriptions, etc.) and analyzing , explaining exactly how that evidence supports the point
  4. Paragraph development:  Take a stand.  Offer evidence.  Explain how the evidence supports the stand.  Take another stand.  Offer more evidence.  Explain how….
  5.  Be sure your evidence is cited accurately and that credit is given to your sources
  1. Readers should move from the central idea of one paragraph to the central idea of the next without getting lost, without making huge mental leaps.
  2. Transition devices at the beginnings of paragraphs help remind readers of the connections between ideas they have read and the new ideas they are about to read.
  3. Readers should sense each paragraph building on the ideas of the previous paragraphs.  They should feel they are getting somewhere in an essay.  They should enjoy the experience.
  1. The tone of the essay should be appropriate to the subject.
  2. Use technical terms accurately.
  3. The best sentences are concise, clear, emphatic.
  4. Are any of the words unnecessary?  Does it ever take 5 words to say what 2 well chosen words might say better?
  5. Your verbs should be working for you.  Omit bland “to be” verbs.
  6. Correct spelling and punctuation
  7. Vary the lengths and types of sentences you use.  Sentences need not always begin with the subject.
  1. Close up your argument without closing your readers’ minds on the subject.
  2. Avoid circling back to repeat the thesis as a strategy for closing an essay.  Assume that both reader and writer have learned something, and are now ready to engage the implications of the thesis.
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What is the difference between revision, editing, and proofreading? When should I use each of these?

College students are often confused about what it means to “revise” a paper. Catharine Wright explains the difference between revision, editing and proofreading.

Revision means “re-visioning” your paper. It is “big picture” work. Step back and ask yourself: does the paper you wrote respond directly to the assignment and its audience, answer the questions that were posed? Is the argument clear? Is it sufficiently complex? Check to see if any of the ideas need to be developed, and if you’ve articulated the relationships among ideas. See if you need to add further evidence or support. Revision can require adding material, taking material away, working with the big strokes of the paper. It might involve changing the order of paragraphs and re-crafting topic sentences/transitions. It may demand re-drafting the introduction and checking the conclusion to see what should be brought up to the front of the paper. All of this is when you “re-vision” your paper.

Editing: People often refer to all stages of revision as “editing,” but editing is what you do after you revise. Editing involves crafting with a fine tool, and it leads to style and coherence. Here is where you consider your paper as a writer/artist. Try reading your paper aloud, slowly, in parts. Is the voice clear and confident? Is there a sense of rhythm and flow in each paragraph, each sentence? Do the sentences connect up with one another like well-constructed joints? Editing is when you correct any awkwardness that may have occurred in the initial drafting or in revision (revision can be very helpful to the big picture but create problems within paragraphs, for example). While editing is also a good time to check the clarity of your title and the accuracy of your reference or works cited page(s). Careful editing is critical to a polished, well written paper.

Proofreading: Proofreading comes last and consists of a final sweep through your paper with an eye for errors. When proofreading you make your final check for errors in sentence structure, grammar, verb tense and punctuation. You also look for mistakes in spelling, use of quotations, citation details, etc. Look not just for the tricky mistakes but also for any typos. It is important to check that your name is on your essay and it is desirable to number your pages or include a word count. This is the final read-through of your paper, your last chance to impress your reader and show your commitment to your work. Reading aloud at this stage or any other stage of the revision process can help you focus more carefully on your work.

Catharine Wright for the Writing Program and Center for Teaching, Learning and Research

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