Essay Structure Options



Despite what you may have been told, a thesis can appear anywhere in an essay. If it appears near the beginning — typically at the end of the first paragraph, though longer essays can sometimes require introductions longer than a single paragraph — the essay is closed-form. Each paragraph then offers evidence to support the thesis, and the conclusion ties the essay back to the thesis (sometimes re-stating it, but not in a way that seems repetitive) and hopefully adds something to it so it isn’t merely repetitious. The essay takes on the tone of a legal case. The advantages to closed-form essays are that the argument of the essay is clear from the outset, and that the reader can connect every piece of evidence you present along the way to the thesis immediately. The disadvantage is that the tone can be somewhat didactic and confrontational. Also, it can be difficult to write a conclusion to a closed-form essay that is not repetitive. If your introduction and conclusion could swap positions in your essay with no loss of comprehensibility, you have written a bad conclusion.

If an essay is open-form, in contrast, the thesis appears near the end, typically in the first half of the final paragraph. The introduction establishes the issue under consideration, usually by stating the issue directly, although one can also set up an open-form essay with a question. The issue or question is left open at that point; your reader should not be able to guess your answer by the way you have raised the issue or phrased the question. The essay is thus potentially more inviting because you are offering the reader the chance to explore an issue with you. It is as if you and the reader are thinking through the issue together, though in reality you are guiding the reader’s thoughts in the direction you want them to go. Also, the conclusion will automatically differ from the introduction, which eliminates a common problem of closed-form essays. However, the disadvantage is that readers can easily become impatient if they think you are not doing enough of the work.

Open-form is not just a matter of leaving the thesis out. You must define the issue in an open-form essay clearly at the outset. Usually this involves describing an area of controversy, but you should not in any way indicate which answer you favor at this point. For example, an introduction for an essay about Hamlet could end by saying,

Until Act 5, Hamlet repeatedly criticizes himself for unnecessarily delaying the revenge his father’s ghost demands, yet he simultaneously takes several determined and even risky steps toward accomplishing his goal. This apparent contradiction defines the central paradox of the play, and unraveling it provides the key to Hamlet’s character.

The purpose of the essay would thus be unraveling this central paradox and providing the key to Hamlet’s character, and presumably the thesis — which will appear in the concluding paragraph — will do so.

Here is an example of an entire introduction for an open-form essay, this one focusing on a film:

          Hitchcock’s decision to shoot Rope in a series of ten unbroken takes on one small set initially appears a purely technical experiment — something done merely to say he had done it. Indeed, the movie flopped at the box office, Hitchcock himself later referred to it as a technical experiment that had failed, and he prevented it from being shown publicly for three decades. But failure can refer to a lack of artistic merit, a lack of commercial success, or both, and which meaning Hitchcock had in mind is far from clear. That it failed to appeal to moviegoers is unquestionable, but evaluating the film today requires not just that we ignore ticket-sales, but also that we stop seeing the film’s structure as merely a technical trick. Rope stands or falls on whether Hitchcock’s approach involves the audience in the suspense more deeply or drives a wedge between what happens on screen and how the viewers feel about what they see.

Alternatively, you may set up the issue directly by asking a question. How and why questions work better than simpler who, what, when, or where questions, better than questions that present two possibilities (either . . . or questions), and especially better than questions that can be answered with yes or no. Warning: you cannot set-up an open-form essay effectively merely by turning the thesis into a question. When you do that, the answer is almost always obvious, which defeats the whole purpose of writing in open-form. Think of it this way: if your answer to a question someone asks you is “I went to the movies last night with my friends Emily and Kevin,” the question could not have been “Did you go to the movies last night with your friends Emily and Kevin?” If that had been the question, your answer could simply have been “Yes.”

A third structure, called a delayed thesis essay, starts out open-form, and switches to closed-form partway along. But this form is most effective in somewhat longer essays; in essays of under ten pages it almost always causes structural problems.

Note: closed-form and open-form refer only to the way you structure the essay for the reader, not to the way you go about researching the essay, developing your ideas, and deciding what to say. That process is presumably always the same: you keep an open mind while gathering your data, focus on a specific area of inquiry, then gradually refine your ideas until you decide on a thesis.



An essay needs an introduction of some kind. It is not effective to leap immediately into the details of whatever argument you are making: the reader will be confused, as if he or she just walked in on a conversation in progress. A good introduction in an essay is like making a good first impression in person: it encourages the reader to stick around and listen to what you have to say. A bad introduction will usually result in a reader deciding his or her time would be better spent reading or doing something else.

Most people understand that an essay needs an introduction, but they often have a poor sense of audience and purpose — both their own and the reader’s purpose in reading the essay. As a result, one common problem in essays is that the introduction starts out too generally, too far up the Scale of Abstraction. You should usually assume your reader has at least a general interest in your topic, and perhaps more. After all, few people would pick up an essay about William Faulkner’s As I Lay Dying without having read the book. Therefore, you should never start out a literary essay with basic information such as

          William Faulkner’s As I Lay Dying appeared in 1930. It was his fifth novel. The novel focuses on the Bundren family and their journey to bury Addie Bundren. Faulkner writes the novel in a stream-of-consciousness style.

The problems here are twofold: the reader almost certainly already knows everything here (if he or she is bothering to read the essay) and some of this information is probably irrelevant to the essay’s argument. Does 1930 matter? Does it being his fifth novel matter? Each might: the year could matter in an essay that discussed the novel’s relationship to contemporary events such as the beginning of the Great Depression, and when the novel occurs in Faulkner’s career could matter in an essay that discusses the development of his style over time. But right now, those factoids seem irrelevant, and odds are that they are. This also gives the reader the impression you are trying to pad the essay’s length.

One other common error students make in academic essays is to start out writing as if their subject is life in general. This is also a problem of audience: students sometimes think that unless they go out of their way to make their essays relevant to their readers’ lives, the readers will not care. But again, people who decide to read an essay almost certainly already have an interest in the subject — in the case of a literary essay, the play, poem, story, novel, whatever — and do not have to be convinced of its relevance to their lives. Therefore, do not start an academic essay by making an argument about life. More times than I can count, a student has begun an essay with something like this:

          From the beginning of time, teenagers have rebelled against their parents by falling in love. Everybody agrees love is important, but no one seems to know how to go about learning how to act when one is in love. We all expect our first love to be special and last forever, but usually it ends up being ruined by misunderstandings. On the other hand, maybe it is those experiences that allow us to love in a more mature way. People never want to break up with their first loves, but what if the only way to make that happen is to die? Parents want to protect their children from falling in love with the wrong person, but how can they know what their children truly feel? These are the kinds of issues William Shakespeare deals with in Romeo and Juliet.

In a word, ugh! First, teenagers did not exist at “the beginning of time.” Second, this paragraph contains no real thesis statement, nor does it raise an appropriate question. Third, it puts words in the readers’ mouths that they may not accept, such as the assertion that “we all expect out first love to . . . last forever.” But most importantly, none of this will be of interest to a reader looking for help with Romeo and Juliet. Readers of critical essays neither expect nor wish to be lectured about love. The play, and not reality, should be the subject because literature and other works of art never prove anything about reality in any case; you cannot answer questions about love by reading any play, even one by Shakespeare, who incidentally returned to the subject many times. And to be blunt, the odds that a brief college essay can answer the big questions about love (or human nature, or metaphysics, or ethics) — questions that humanity has tried to answer for thousands of years — are infinitesimal, while the odds that you might have something interesting to say about a literary work are actually pretty good. Write about your specific subject, not life.

That also means you should get to your topic more quickly: if the first time you mention your essay’s focus is in the second half of your introductory paragraph, let alone (as I have often seen) in its final sentence, it is probably a bad introduction.

In an open-form essay, the conclusion provides the answer to the question or settles the issue that the introduction presents. In a closed-form essay, the conclusion returns to the thesis and reconsiders it in the light of the evidence the essay has presented, though the conclusion should never simply re-state the thesis. Again, if you can switch the introduction and conclusion without losing any comprehensibility, you have written a bad conclusion.

The task of a conclusion is to pull a paper together and leave the reader on a strong note. Remember that your readers will not take nearly as long to read your paper as you took to write it (at least, so you should hope), and you should presume their memory is good enough that they can remember what you said a page or two earlier. Indeed, the papers required in undergraduate courses will seldom be so long that you need to remind your readers of your own argument at the end. Therefore, phrases such as “As I have argued,” “As stated above,” or “I have already said” are all signs that you are about to repeat yourself in a particularly uninteresting way. These so-called summary conclusions can be helpful at the end of a book or even a densely written chapter of twenty pages or more, but at the end of a five- or ten- or twelve-page paper are unnecessary.

Another usually poor tactic is to end your paper on a quotation from a secondary source (another scholar, for example). After spending all that time trying to convince your reader that you are someone worth listening to, why would you want to abandon the end of the paper — the last chance you have to leave a lasting impression with your reader — to someone else?

Finally, do not throw up your hands and admit defeat, or even worse apologize. I have seen decent college level papers torpedoed by a bizarre form of mea culpa at the end, such as, “No matter how many times one reads this poem, in the end everyone is going to have his own opinion on it. My interpretation is no better than anyone else’s, and that is what makes it a great poem.” Obviously, that completely undercuts whatever point you have been trying to make. Have the courage to stand behind your opinions — at least until someone shows you where the flaw in them lies. Of course, this is easier to do if you have put real thought into them and challenged them yourself first.


Closed- and open-form paragraphs

Like essays, paragraphs need not be closed-form either. A closed-form paragraph begins with the main point of the paragraph; an open-form paragraph begins by stating the issue you are examining, by asking a question, or even by beginning with a supporting point or detail and stating the point in the last sentence; a delayed topic sentence paragraph places the topic sentence somewhere after the beginning of the paragraph. The best essays blend open-form and closed-form. If your overall structure is closed-form, some open-form or delayed-topic-sentence paragraphs along the way make the essay more involving. If your overall structure is open-form, you need to give the reader closed-form paragraphs along the way so that they know they are in good hands.

Note, however, that an introductiory paragraph for any essay — whether the essay is closed-form or open-form — is almost always an open-form paragraph. Introductions make their main points, whether the essay’s thesis or a statement of the issue the essay will examine, at the end of the paragraph. Even when an introduction begin with an assertion about the topic, the introduction then develops that assertion in some way and then presents a more sophicticated statement of that assertion at the end. (That is the case with the closed-form essay on Death of a Salesman

Sample closed- and open-form essays

Here are two literary essays that offer good examples of the advantages of both closed- and open-form. The closed-form essay examines the role of Ben in Arthur Miller’s Death of a Salesman. This is a closed-form essay with a tightly focused introduction: the introduction is the divided and specific thesis discussed above. From the introduction alone, you can anticipate many of the arguments the author will make, yet the introduction avoids being an outline or purpose statement. The conclusion avoids the common closed-form problem of repetition; you would have to have read the essay for the conclusion to make sense. Note: this essay includes some minimal use of secondary sources.

The open-form essay discusses whether Alfred, Lord Tennyson’s Idylls of the King (which are a poetic re-telling of the King Arthur legend) should be considered misogynistic. In this case, the introduction actually requires two paragraphs: the first briefly summarizes the background of Arthurian literature while the second deals with Tennyson’s work specifically. Again, this essay makes some use of secondary sources. You will find the central question at the end of the second paragraph.  Note that it is an either-or question (i.e. there are only two possible answers) but implies “How?” or “Why?” as well — you cannot answer the questions without providing reasons for the conclusion.

Finally, here is a second open-form essay (this one an explication essay, the purpose of which is to examine a poem and explain its meaning and how it conveys it effectively) that ends its introduction with a question. This essay does not use any secondary sources, but it does an excellent job of setting up its focus, asking a question, accumulating evidence, and finally answering the question in its conclusion.