Essay Text Structure

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Many students are used to writing narratives — stories, description, even poetry, but have little experience with analytical writing. This article is an introduction to six analytical text structures, useful across content areas. See also Analytical Writing in the Content Areas.

Students in middle and high school need help structuring their analytical thinking and writing as they are often expected to write about, explain, and analyze fact-based concepts — concepts they can't make up. Analytical writing in all content areas falls into the following six categories. In a longer non-fiction work, such as a book, the author will mix things up, using text structures within text structures:

Examples of topics for each analytical text structure

TopicDefinitionExamples of Topics
Compare-Contrast

(writing tips)

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A compare-contrast essay focuses on the similarities and differences between at least two objects or ideas. The purpose is to develop the relationship between them and, in the process, explain both in detail.Compare-contrast how plants and animals respirate.

Compare-contrast Oedipus and Creon as leaders.

Compare-contrast the major elements in Christianity and Buddhism.
Cause-Effect

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A cause-effect essay first presents a reason or motive for an event, situation, or trend and then explains its result or consequence.How and why do plants grow?

How and why do totalitarian governments form?
Problem- Solution

(writing tips)

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A problem-solution essay informs readers about a complex, real-world, philosophical problem (or related problems), followed by actions that could be taken to remedy the problem.What should be done about global warming?

How can the Federal Reserve help keep economic crises from spinning out of control?
Concept-Definition (descriptive writing)

(writing tips)

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In a concept-definition essay, the writer provides a personal, but still factually complete and correct, understanding of a particular concept or term. The essay conveys what research and experience have taught the writer (what the concept is not is often also part of the definition).Provide a detailed definition of "democracy."

What is figurative language?

What is the Greek heroic ideal?
Goal-Action-Outcome (process or procedural writing)

(writing tips)

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A goal-action-outcome essay either tells the reader how to do something or describes how something is done. Math explanations and science lab reports are good examples of goal-action-outcome writing.A science lab report

An explanation of how to solve a complex, multi-step math problem(s).

A business proposal

A fitness plan
Proposition- Support (persuasive writing)

(writing tips)

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A proposition-support essay uses logic, reason, and supporting data to argue that one idea is more legitimate than another. The argument must include sound reasoning and reliable external evidence, stating facts, giving logical reasons, using examples, and quoting reliable experts and original sources.Are modern values and morals more conservative than those exhibited in the life and times of Henry VIII?

Is racism still a problem in this country?

Tips for writing each text structure

The Compare-Contrast Essay

A compare-contrast essay focuses on the similarities and differences between and among situations, processes, objects, or ideas. The purpose is to develop and explain the relationship between two or more items in order to better understand both.

When choosing similarities and differences, mention those that are the most important, the most descriptive, or the most informative. For example, when comparing-contrasting cars, focus on those elements that truly differentiate them based on their purpose. If a car's purpose is to move people and things from one place to another safely, car color is not that important. However, the difference in the power of the engines would be. Elaborate in such a way that similarities and differences are clear and distinct.

The Cause-Effect Essay

A cause-effect essay first presents a reason or motive for a particular event, situation or trend and then explains the results or consequences of that situation. The study of science and history most often use the cause-effect structure.

When selecting causes and effects, choose those that are the most important, the most descriptive, or the most informative. For example, all ships on the North Atlantic the evening the Titanic sank had to contend with the same weather, ice, and light conditions. Not all ships ran into an iceberg and sank. So, while the weather conditions contributed to the sinking of the Titanic, they were not a primary cause. Similarly, when looking at the effects of an event or situation, we focus on the long-term effects, not the immediate effects. Although 1500 people died the night the Titanic sank, we want to focus on the actions taken after the sinking that contributed the safety of life at sea.

The Problem-Solution Essay

A problem-solution essay addresses a complex philosophical dilemma with no clear right answer, develops criteria for addressing the problem, and informs readers about possible actions that might be taken to remedy the situation. No matter what sort of complex problem is encountered, the chances of solving it improve if it is approached analytically, conscious of the steps one can take and escape routes available if the steps become too rigid.

After describing the problem, the essay should outline a realistic solution. Begin by choosing one possibility. Assess any difficulties involved. Perhaps there are rules and regulations that need to be followed. Perhaps the solution will be prohibitively expensive. Where will the money come from? Discuss the solution in detail. Move onto other possibilities, if required, only after the first solution has been explained in full.

The Concept-Definition Essay

A concept-definition essay provides a personal (but still factually accurate understanding of a particular concept or term. The essay conveys what research, understanding, and experience have taught the writer about the concept or term. What a concept "is not" is often part of the definition.

As the name suggests, the purpose of a concept-definition essay is to define a concept. However, a definition can be developed in a number of ways, some of which mimic other text structures. That is OK. If a definition requires an explanation of cause-effect, so be it. The introduction and conclusion will focus the reader on the concept-definition purpose of the essay.

Here are some rhetorical points about definitions:

    Avoid using the phrases "is where" and "is when": A professional sport is when gifted athletes are paid to play a sport as a job. Or A computer virus is where…
  • Avoid circular definitions (repeating the defined term within the definition itself). A computer virus is a virus that destroys or disrupts software.
  • Avoid using a too narrow definition, one that would unduly limit the scope of the essay. Reggae music is sung on the Caribbean island of Jamaica. In fact, reggae music is sung all over the world, although it was born in Jamaica.

The Goal-Action-Outcome (Process) Essay

A goal-action-outcome essay, or process essay, either tells the reader how to do something or describes how something is done. There are two types of process essays: those that instruct and those that explain or analyze. The goal-action-outcome pattern of organization is especially important in scientific and mathematical writing. For example, it is used to describe biological processes like T-cell lymphocyte production, chemical processes like drug interactions, and technical processes like a colonoscopy. In mathematics it is used to explain how to solve complex, real-world, multi-step math problems.

Clarity is critical. When writing a goal-action-outcome essay, the reader should be able to replicate the process or visualize it well enough to explain it to someone else.

The Proposition-Support Essay

"Proposition" is a fancy word for argument. The purpose of a proposition-support essay is to be as convincing as possible, and to convince readers to accept the proposition as true. A proposition-support essay uses logic, reason, and evidence to show that one idea is more legitimate than another. The argument must always use sound reasoning and solid evidence by stating facts, giving logical reasons, using examples, and quoting reliable experts.

Though the goal is to convince others that a thesis statement is valid, it is important to remember that reasonable people can disagree. The act of writing the essay should help both the writer and the reader to examine their own and others' assumptions and ideas more carefully. Writing a proposition-support essay helps students to weigh evidence, clearly state ideas, fairly consider the claims of the opposition, and justify the position taken.

It is critically important that the tone of a proposition-support essay be reasonable, and that the presentation be factual and believable. Additionally, although this type of essay reflects the writer's opinion, the first-person point of view is not appropriate in analytical essays. The goal is to convince the opposition. In order to write an effective proposition-support essay, the writer must anticipate and overcome objections that an adversary might raise.

A writer, thinker, learner should be able to effectively argue both sides on an argument — no matter his personal opinion or beliefs. In fact, it is good practice to write the opposing argument; it strengthens the writer's understanding of the issue and helps her to intelligently, rather than emotionally, rebut opposition arguments.

About the author

Ms. Stempel has been working in education and education reform for more than 20 years. Prior to founding Lightbulb Learning Services, which specializes in the alignment of curriculum to academic standards, literacy development, and classroom/school leadership, she led curriculum development projects for the Education Trust, Edison Schools, and the Council for Basic Education. In addition to experience in education policy, Ms. Stempel has taught literature in the International Baccalaureate program for many years.

About the book

Compose Yourself! A Guide to Critical Thinking & Analytical Writing in Secondary School supports teaching critical thinking and analytical writing at the secondary level, across content area. This resource includes step-by-step processes, many examples, writing checklists, helpful tips, and black-line masters. It is perfect for teachers, parents, and students who want to strengthen their thinking and writing skills, better learn and retain information, and improve overall academic performance. After using this guide, students will be able to write clear, concise, analytical texts.

Amy Rukea Stempel (2010)

Structure of the whole text

A standard format for analytical and argumentative essays is the three-part essaystructure consisting of Introduction, Body and Conclusion. In the Introduction, the reader is introduced to the topic that will be discussed and to the argument that will be presented. After the Introduction, follows theBody, which is themain part of the text. In the Body, the discussion/analysis is carried out and the results are presented. In the last part of the essay, the Conclusion, the argument is summed up and conclusions are drawn.

A more formalised text structure is the IMRD structure (Introduction - Method - Results - Discussion), where the body part of the text consists of two sections referred to as Method and Results. The concluding part of research articles written according to this format is called Discussion, and has a slightly different set-up than the Conclusion of the three-part essay. For more information on the IMRD structure, see

The information below is based on the three-part essay structure, although most of the advice is applicable to other text formats as well.

Structure of the three-part essay

Each section of the text needs to be structured in a way that helps the reader understand the argument and the points that the writer wishes to make.

The main purpose of the Introduction is to provide the reader with a clear idea of the focus and aim of the text. Therefore, the topic of the essay/article will be presented in the Introduction, often accompanied by a thesis statement (the claim that the writer wishes to make).

Furthermore, depending on the type of essay, the introduction also

  • provides the context/background of the argument
  • introduces the theoretical perspectives, terminology, etc. that will be used
  • explains how the writing will be organised

All the information in the Introduction must be relevant to the points that are subsequently made in the body of the text. The Introduction is usually structured to start with a broad, or general, statement of the topic and then narrow down to more detail and to the particular focus of the essay.

The main section of the essay, referred to here as the Body, is where the essay's (or article's) argument, ideas and results are developed and discussed. What is brought up in this part of the text relates back to what was presented in the Introduction.

Depending on discipline, aim and context, there are various ways of structuring the body of the text. A basic strategy is to deal with one thing at a time and to order the different issues that are brought up in a logical sequence that makes the argument easy to follow. A seemingly trivial method to maintain focus is to frequently ask the question: "Why is this here?". In other words, each piece of the text should have a purpose, and should be in a place where it best can fulfil its purpose. 

The Conclusion is the last part of the essay (or article). Generally, a Conclusion should not contain any new facts or ideas, but rather function as a brief restatement of the main arguments and facts that have been treated in the essay.

The Conclusion might refer back to the Introduction and comment on the thesis statement or the research questions presented there.

In some texts, it is appropriate to include a look forward, in the form of suggestions for further study, for instance.

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