Way back in the Third Grade you learned how to give a basic book report. Over the years, you learned how to add in your own opinion and to support your opinions with outside sources. Nearly every paper you write or speech you will give in the future is based upon this basic format. Memorize the basic structure, and you will simply have to fill in the blanks of the outline.
Using a pretend story, here is an example of how you might have given a book report back in grade school:
“The story I read was Charlie Brown Goes to a Baseball Game. He went to the game and bought a hot dog, but Snoopy ate it. Lucy yelled at Charlie Brown, and he was sad. Then he caught a foul ball and everyone cheered. It was funny and is now my favorite book.”
You introduced your topic in the first sentence, then followed it up with several things you read in the story and concluded with your opinion about the book. Everything from a best man’s speech at a wedding to a 15-second sports report on up to a full-length research paper can use this simple structure. In the case of a sports report, you start with your facts, follow through with several details about the game played and conclude with what the team is looking forward to next. If you know that the Wildcats beat the Tigers with a score of 98-12, your sportscast might be as follows:
“The Wildcats stomped on the Tigers 98-12 in last night’s basketball semi-final game. Smith led in points with 52 for the game. Jones and Jackson racked up the most assists and helped rally the Wildcats from a slow start. Once they exploded past the Tigers, they never looked back. The Wildcats now go on to the final playoffs in Raleigh next weekend.”
The difference between the sports brief and the research paper is merely the level of details you go into. Obviously, the more main points with supporting details you include and how much research you include for further subdivision of the point will extend the length of your paper.
When assigned to write an essay, the first thing you need to do is pay close attention to the instructions to be sure you know what the essay is supposed to address. Then jot down several notes to yourself of points in outline format and use that to prompt your thoughts to fill out the paragraphs:
Instructions: Read the following poem carefully. Then, in a well-organized essay, analyze how the speaker uses the varied imagery of the poem to reveal his attitude toward what he has found and how it affects him, paying particular attention to the shifting point of view of the narrator.
The above, taken from a 10th Grade AP English practice essay assignment, requires that (1) you identify what some of the imagery is, (2) how it is used to reveal attitude, (3) how his discoveries affect him, and (4) taking note of the shifting point of view and its significance. Eliminating any aspect of the instructions by failure to include these requirements in your essay will get your grade knocked down. Jotting down a quick outline with the above as checklist items to be addressed will help keep you on track with the assigned essay.
“How to take a shower that conserves as much water as possible.” This would be an intro with the basic premise as stated above followed by an enumeration of steps for optimal efficiency and a brief conclusion such as, “If you follow the foregoing steps,…” Recipes are also “how-to’s” written in this kind of step-by-step format, ending with a conclusion such as, “Chill before serving.”
Debates and arguments
“Proving a point.” Introduce with your statement of overall intent, then set out your main points with supporting details and research that back up your topic. Lawyers use an expanded Three-Point Essay format in courts of law to attempt to prove that their client is not guilty of whatever they are being charged with. They open with a statement of what they are going to prove, then follow it up with individual pieces of evidence, existing law and reasons that collectively support their point in favor of their client. As part of this, they also compare and contrast with what the opposing side would argue, picking it apart to show that the other party’s claims are wrong or not applicable to the case and conclude with a brief summary of why their client should be let off.
“Analyze ‘The Little Mermaid’ for its lesson value or main purpose.” Since fairy tales were originally written to teach lessons to children (mostly about what would happen if they disobeyed their parents’ orders), break down a fairy tale by stating its overall morality lesson or contrasting it with a modern viewpoint, then enumerating several examples of how the storyteller accomplished making his point, then a summary conclusion. In an analysis of any work, it is important to remain focused on just the point you are trying to make, and it can be difficult not to go off on tangents. Sometimes too many details get in the way and make the point you want to make difficult to come through. Be clear about which main points you are focusing on and use only details which support those points. By the way, Hans Christian Andersen wrote “Mermaid” in 1836, and it did not have the happy ending Disney gave it; she turned into sea foam. Don’t forget to track down the original source materials to support your thesis or topic! After all, what better expert to quote to support your position than the original author?
Final words of advice
Your outline may have several subdivisions under each point, and that is okay. Always keep in mind the assignment guidelines or purpose of writing, and when necessary, keep your supporting details as concise and to the point as possible. It’s also okay to have a paragraph acting as a giant “conjunction” or segue to transition into your next thought. Sometimes in order to prove your thesis, topic or position, you need a preface section to a point in order to introduce what you are about to say. Such a lead-in can be historical background, setting the stage or back story in purpose, but remember that in a collegiate essay, your professor is dissecting your work, so unless the back story is relevant to one of your main points (or to the overall topic), keep it brief. Also, give yourself enough time to compose your paper so that you can set it aside and come back to it later with fresh eyes to slash out unnecessary filler that adds nothing to your essay except word count; it’s about quality, not quantity.
Two exercises I will recommend to help you burn the basic essay structure into your brain and make it become like second nature to you are as follows:
(1) Whenever you read an online article or sports report, do a quick analysis to organize it into a three-point essay outline. The more you recognize the format being used all around you, the faster and easier it will be for you to churn out the format on demand in your writing.
(2) Make it a personal challenge to always be able to give three reasons for any opinion you hold. For example: “Blue is my favourite colour.” Why? “Because (1) I look good in blue, (2) when my walls are painted light blue, I feel like I’m outside, and I enjoy being outside, and (3) my true love’s eyes are blue and I think of that person whenever I see something blue.” Conclusion being, “The colour blue improves my mood and takes me to a happy place.” Super-short, portable, mini essay practice.
Seriously, being able to set it up quickly at the start will go a long way in getting the essay or term paper written. The rest is just filling in the details. Good luck!