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SPARK: Structure & Purpose

A resource for students wanting to improve their academic and research skills.

Structure and Purpose

An essay’s structure should be guided by its purposes. Just as architects must pay attention to the activities that will take place in the spaces they design, writers must be attentive in the design of their work to the purposes of that work.

Instructors’ assignments usually establish at least a general sense of purpose for a writer, so it is important that you read assignment instructions carefully to ensure that you understand what you are being asked to do.

To describe, to connect, and to argue or analyze are common purposes adopted by writers of academic essays. Click the sections below to view suggestions about structure in relation to each of these purposes.


Common structures for descriptive essays are chronological order and narrative structure. These structures are also suitable for identifying, defining, or outlining a topic or idea. You can think of yourself as telling a story to your readers; keep asking yourself what else they need to know in order to get the whole story. If time is involved, the essay can be organized around repeatedly asking, “so, what happened next?” 

Many writers find it helpful to focus on organizing such essays to answer the basic journalistic questions, “Who? What? Where? When? Why? How?” You should be mindful that most instructors will not be satisfied with simply knowing your opinion about these questions, but will also want to know why and how you came to that opinion. While portions of an essay may be descriptive, it is rarely appropriate for an entire assignment to follow a narrative structure.


To analyze something means to point out its constituent parts, the relation among the parts, and their relation to other ideas or issues.

A common structure for an analytical paper is to first describe the topic or issue as a whole, followed by paragraphs on each of the important constituent parts, followed by paragraphs on the important relationships among constituent parts and with other ideas or issues. Sometimes, however, writers prefer to say everything they have to say about one part – including comments about relationships – before moving on to a second or third part. Either organization is acceptable.


Clarity refers to the ease with which a reader is able to grasp the intended meaning of an essay, or of passages within it. Lack of clarity typically results from gaps in a writer’s train of thought that readers are unable to fill in on their own. Thus, if you wish to achieve clarity, you must consider the needs of your audience. Ask yourself :

  • What do my readers need to know in order to understand my points?
  • How can I help my reader follow as I move from one idea to another?


Argumentative essays typically begin with a claim, usually in the form of a thesis statement. This claim should be something that is truly debatable, and a good portion of the essay should be organized around laying out the evidence in favour of the claim.

Each paragraph in the essay should be clearly related in some way to the primary claim; for example, there will likely be paragraphs in which the author explains the reason why the evidence introduced does actually support the claim. Sometimes neglected by students, but of great importance in an argumentative essay, are paragraphs devoted to introducing counterclaims.

The best arguments anticipate possible criticisms and provide rebuttals to them. The overall structure of this type of paper should be based on asking what your readers need to know in order to be convinced that your claim is important, accurate, and can be defended against its critics.

Connections & Comparisons

When the purpose of the assignment is to draw relationships among ideas, a typical organizational approach is to introduce and explain several separate ideas in early paragraphs and then draw relationships among these ideas in later paragraphs.

A common assignment involves showing the relationship between two authors (or texts) by comparing or contrasting them. An excellent organizational strategy in this case is to introduce a series of relevant issues and to compare the position of the authors on each issue, one issue at a time. 

Issue 1

      — Author/Text A

      — Author/Text B

Issue 2

      — Author/Text A

      — Author/Text B

A summary of the most important similarities and differences presented in these paragraphs would follow in the final portion of the essay. 

An alternate organizational strategy is to first introduce the positions of one author (or text) on all of the relevant issues, before proceeding to introduce the positions of the second. When using this strategy, it can be more difficult to keep the focus on comparing texts/authors.

Author/Text A

      — Issue 1

      — Issue 2

Author/Text B

      — Issue 1

      — Issue 2