This post, How to Structure Your Essay Introduction, is the second post in our five part Essay Writing Series. In it, we’ll explain how to introduce your themes and structure them into an effective thematic framework.
Some common questions students have about structuring an essay introduction are:
- Why is the structure of an introduction important?
- How do I structure an introduction?
- How should I introduce my themes?
- How should I structure and order my themes?
In this post, we will answer these questions and then give you a step-by-step guide to writing a thematic framework.
Table of Contents
1. Essay Structure
2. Signposting your essay
3. How to structure your essay introduction – a step-by-step guide
4. The next step
Students are often told to produce a sustained argument, but they do not know how to do this. This is because they do not realise how the parts of an essay fit together as a unified whole to present a clear and sustained thesis. A good introduction structure is crucial to producing a sustained argument.
In this, part 2 of our Essay Writing Series we explain how to structure your essay introduction. You may want to read the other posts in our series before this one:
The Importance of Good Essay Introduction Structure
Learning how to write a thematic framework is a crucial step in developing essay writing skills. Band 6 essays score highly because they have excellent structure. Readers must be able to follow you argument from the thesis, to the introduction of themes, and then onto your body paragraphs.
Your analysis and insights won’t get you marks unless they are presented clearly and logically. Writing a strong thematic framework is part of good essay introduction structure. You need it to create a sustained argument to score a Band 6 result!
Read on to find out how to do this by writing a good thematic framework.
To get started let’s think a bit more about essay structure.
The Purpose of Essay Structure
The point of essay structure is to develop a sustained argument. Let’s think about this process for a moment:
- A sustained argument is one that asserts a consistent argument throughout. This argument is the thesis.
- The thesis needs to be supported by a series of ideas that are backed by evidence. These ideas will be your themes.
- You need to introduce these themes in your introduction. This means that your readers know what you will argue in the remainder of your essay. These function as signposts.
In this last post, we looked at the structure of an essay. Let’s refresh our memory.
Diagram: The structure of an Essay (© Matrix Education 2017)
This demonstrates that there is a logical sequence to writing an essay. As we considered in the previous post, this process looks like:
- Introduction – Introduce your main argument (thesis);
- Introduction – Explain the key 2 or 3 ideas (themes) that will support your main argument;
- Introduction – Explain how these ideas fit together logically (thematic framework);
- Body Paragraph – Introduce a specific idea;
- Body Paragraph – Present evidence that supports your idea;
- Body Paragraph – Connect this idea to your main argument;
- Body Paragraph – Repeat steps 4,5,6 for the other ideas that support your main argument;
- Conclusion – Restate your argument;
- Conclusion – Make a concluding statement.
What we want to do in step 2, is introduce the key ideas that will:
- Support the thesis (step 1)
- Introduce the body paragraphs (Step 4).
Let’s look at how this works.
Signposting, Topic Sentences, and the Thematic Framework
The thematic framework is a crucial piece of signposting in an essay. But what is signposting?
Signposting is giving cues to a reader so they know where they are orientated in your essay. When we introduce the themes in an introduction, we are telling the reader what to expect as we progress through the argument. This is the thematic framework.
The topic sentences we use to introduce our body paragraphs have a direct connection to the thematic framework in our introduction. When the reader reads the topic sentences, they see a cue that reminds them of what and how we said we were going to argue. This creates a sustained argument.
“Without the thematic framework and topic sentences, you cannot have a sustained argument!”
Now we know what a thematic framework needs to do, let’s put one together.
Writing a Thematic Framework – a Step-by-Step Guide
To build our thematic framework, we will continue look at the question we considered from the first post on Shakespeare’s Macbeth.
Step 1: Unpacking the Question
Before we look at how to write a topic sentence, we need to have a thesis to link to. Continuing on from Part 1 in this series, we will use Shakespeare’s The Tragedy of Macbeth (1606) as our text. We will continue to answer the same question:
“William Shakespeare’s Macbeth is not about revenge, it is a play concerned with morality and madness.”
To what extent do you agree with this statement? Make use of detailed references to the play in your response.
To recap, the thesis we developed was:
“The resolution of The Tragedy of Macbeth (1606) is driven by revenge. However, it is Shakespeare’s interrogation of the morality of Macbeth’s actions and his subsequent descent into madness that is the central focus of the text.”
What makes this a good thesis?
Remember, a good thesis must be clear and concise. This thesis is good because:
- In this example, the first statement rejects the questions assertion: revenge is central to the text.
- The second statement qualifies this by stating that morality and madness are also key themes.
- This position is made nuanced by the language we have used.
- Note how we have avoided saying that “we agree,” “to a great extent,” or “to a small extent.” This demonstrates an understanding of form.
An essay is our opinion on the text, this is reflected in any statement we make. By taking a nuanced position we don’t need to say that we are arguing to a specific extent. It is implicit in our response.
Step 2: Choosing and Introducing the Themes
Now that we have made a thesis statement, we need to explain what themes we will discuss and how we will approach them. We call this section of the introduction the thematic framework.
Let’s look at the themes we need to use and how to outline them.
Our question presents the themes we will discuss – revenge, morality, madness – so we don’t need to decide on them. But we do need to explain briefly what aspects of them we will discuss, and how they relate to our argument. Thus, a good thematic framework should be at least two to three sentences for a three theme essay.
In this example, for the sake of presenting a clear example, we will present one sentence for each theme:
Macbeth’s madness is a response to his awareness of his immorality, it is driven by his fear of the revenge he feels he deserves. Macbeth’s actions are immoral, killing a king is regicide and the murder of his friends demonstrate his increasing depravity. As Macbeth’s madness emerges, he questions his morality and is plagued by visions and haunted by the spirits of his victims.
Let’s unpack why this is a good thematic framework:
The first sentence of the thematic framework:
- connects the themes of morality and madness to revenge. It explains that we believe Macbeth has acted immorally and that this is important to an understanding of the text.
“Macbeth’s madness is a response to his awareness of his immorality, it is driven by his fear of the revenge he feels he deserves.”
The second sentence of the thematic framework:
- explains what is immoral about Macbeth’s actions.
“Macbeth’s actions are immoral, killing a king is regicide and the murder of his friends demonstrate his increasing depravity.”
The third sentence of the thematic framework:
- introduces Macbeth’s madness and frames it as a moral consequence of conscience.
“As Macbeth’s madness emerges, he questions his morality and is plagued by visions and haunted by the spirits of his victims.”
Thus, the ordering of these sentences structures the logic of our response:
- Macbeth is about revenge AND morality and madness;
- Macbeth has acted immorally; and,
- Fear of revenge and awareness of his immorality leads to his madness.
This is the process Matrix English Advanced students are taught to use when writing their introductions. When you write your own thematic framework, you could use two sentences if you want to be more concise. We would recommend that you make it at least two sentences, ensuring you include enough detail to foreground the argument you will present in the body.
What is next?
The Next Step: Developing Topic Sentences
Now we have a thesis and thematic framework, we can look at how to write topic sentences. Topic sentences are an important part of essay structure and signposting.
Read part 3 of the Essay writing series, How to Write Topic Sentences to learn why Topic Sentences are essential to a great essay structure!
Want to take your English skills to the next level?
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Writing an academic essay means fashioning a coherent set of ideas into an argument. Because essays are essentially linear—they offer one idea at a time—they must present their ideas in the order that makes most sense to a reader. Successfully structuring an essay means attending to a reader's logic.
The focus of such an essay predicts its structure. It dictates the information readers need to know and the order in which they need to receive it. Thus your essay's structure is necessarily unique to the main claim you're making. Although there are guidelines for constructing certain classic essay types (e.g., comparative analysis), there are no set formula.
Answering Questions: The Parts of an Essay
A typical essay contains many different kinds of information, often located in specialized parts or sections. Even short essays perform several different operations: introducing the argument, analyzing data, raising counterarguments, concluding. Introductions and conclusions have fixed places, but other parts don't. Counterargument, for example, may appear within a paragraph, as a free-standing section, as part of the beginning, or before the ending. Background material (historical context or biographical information, a summary of relevant theory or criticism, the definition of a key term) often appears at the beginning of the essay, between the introduction and the first analytical section, but might also appear near the beginning of the specific section to which it's relevant.
It's helpful to think of the different essay sections as answering a series of questions your reader might ask when encountering your thesis. (Readers should have questions. If they don't, your thesis is most likely simply an observation of fact, not an arguable claim.)
"What?" The first question to anticipate from a reader is "what": What evidence shows that the phenomenon described by your thesis is true? To answer the question you must examine your evidence, thus demonstrating the truth of your claim. This "what" or "demonstration" section comes early in the essay, often directly after the introduction. Since you're essentially reporting what you've observed, this is the part you might have most to say about when you first start writing. But be forewarned: it shouldn't take up much more than a third (often much less) of your finished essay. If it does, the essay will lack balance and may read as mere summary or description.
"How?" A reader will also want to know whether the claims of the thesis are true in all cases. The corresponding question is "how": How does the thesis stand up to the challenge of a counterargument? How does the introduction of new material—a new way of looking at the evidence, another set of sources—affect the claims you're making? Typically, an essay will include at least one "how" section. (Call it "complication" since you're responding to a reader's complicating questions.) This section usually comes after the "what," but keep in mind that an essay may complicate its argument several times depending on its length, and that counterargument alone may appear just about anywhere in an essay.
"Why?" Your reader will also want to know what's at stake in your claim: Why does your interpretation of a phenomenon matter to anyone beside you? This question addresses the larger implications of your thesis. It allows your readers to understand your essay within a larger context. In answering "why", your essay explains its own significance. Although you might gesture at this question in your introduction, the fullest answer to it properly belongs at your essay's end. If you leave it out, your readers will experience your essay as unfinished—or, worse, as pointless or insular.
Mapping an Essay
Structuring your essay according to a reader's logic means examining your thesis and anticipating what a reader needs to know, and in what sequence, in order to grasp and be convinced by your argument as it unfolds. The easiest way to do this is to map the essay's ideas via a written narrative. Such an account will give you a preliminary record of your ideas, and will allow you to remind yourself at every turn of the reader's needs in understanding your idea.
Essay maps ask you to predict where your reader will expect background information, counterargument, close analysis of a primary source, or a turn to secondary source material. Essay maps are not concerned with paragraphs so much as with sections of an essay. They anticipate the major argumentative moves you expect your essay to make. Try making your map like this:
- State your thesis in a sentence or two, then write another sentence saying why it's important to make that claim. Indicate, in other words, what a reader might learn by exploring the claim with you. Here you're anticipating your answer to the "why" question that you'll eventually flesh out in your conclusion.
- Begin your next sentence like this: "To be convinced by my claim, the first thing a reader needs to know is . . ." Then say why that's the first thing a reader needs to know, and name one or two items of evidence you think will make the case. This will start you off on answering the "what" question. (Alternately, you may find that the first thing your reader needs to know is some background information.)
- Begin each of the following sentences like this: "The next thing my reader needs to know is . . ." Once again, say why, and name some evidence. Continue until you've mapped out your essay.
Your map should naturally take you through some preliminary answers to the basic questions of what, how, and why. It is not a contract, though—the order in which the ideas appear is not a rigid one. Essay maps are flexible; they evolve with your ideas.
Signs of Trouble
A common structural flaw in college essays is the "walk-through" (also labeled "summary" or "description"). Walk-through essays follow the structure of their sources rather than establishing their own. Such essays generally have a descriptive thesis rather than an argumentative one. Be wary of paragraph openers that lead off with "time" words ("first," "next," "after," "then") or "listing" words ("also," "another," "in addition"). Although they don't always signal trouble, these paragraph openers often indicate that an essay's thesis and structure need work: they suggest that the essay simply reproduces the chronology of the source text (in the case of time words: first this happens, then that, and afterwards another thing . . . ) or simply lists example after example ("In addition, the use of color indicates another way that the painting differentiates between good and evil").
Copyright 2000, Elizabeth Abrams, for the Writing Center at Harvard University