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Structure and Content

Paragraphs and Structure

Paragraphs are a kind of map for the reader. A glance at a well-written text will be enough to tell quickly what the key ideas are and where the argument is leading. To help the reader, all paragraphs should have a key sentence or "topic sentence". As this is usually the first, looking quickly down the first sentences of each paragraph in a good text will usually give the reader a qick feel for the arguemnt of the essay as a whole.

The essay should have approximately five paragraphs. A longer  well-written essay (close to 350 words) could have as many as seven paragraphs. A shorter (close to 250 word) well-written essay could have as few as four paragraphs. In journalistic writing, writers often use short paragraphs of one sentence to make the reading 'visually' easier. In your AP exam you are not to write a journalistic story, but instead an academic essay.v Paragraphs should therefore as a rule have at least three sentences, and definitely not only one sentence. This also applies to the introduction.

Each paragraph should develop one main idea and should have a topic sentence which expresses this idea. The topic sentence should as a rule be at the beginning of the paragraph, but it can be at the end and, on rare occasions, in the middle.

For further information on basic essay writing, see the online article here.

Addressing the question

Even if you write accurate and fluent English, you will not pass the essay part of the exam if you do not address the question. For example, if the question was "Should Tony Blair resign for his involvment in the Iraq War" and you just wrote about how terrible the war was, without mentioning Tony Blair, you would fail.

Taking a position - and when to do it

We recommend that you make your position clear already in the introduction and arguing throughout from that standpoint.

This does not  mean that in your essay you will  ignore possible counter-arguments; you should refer to them, in order to refute (challenge) or qualify them - not just to list them!

Basic Structure

You need to take a position and develop your argument so that readers are drawn to the conclusion you want them to reach. To do this in such a short essay, you must have the following structure:


Body Paragraphs (between 2 and 5 of them)


Link your paragraphs together so that the essay flows evenly, allowing the reader to follow your argument easily. Transition words will help you to do this. You can find some examples of such words and phrases here.

Please note that the following points on argument are for guideline only: experienced writers may have other strategies but the essay has to flow logically and evenly.

The introduction

This serves to:

  • focus the reader on the topic
  • give them some context or background
  • show them what the question or issue is.
  • if you want, you can at this stage already make explicit your own position (see above)


The body paragraphs - developing the argument

There is not a fixed rule for what you put in the body, or in what order, but it has to follow logically and evenly. You will need to give arguments and examples for your case. Obviously you will need to consider obvious counter-arguments which will be in the mind of the reader, but you will need to address and challenge them (i.e. show them to be wrong, or show how they are limited or less important).

Many students have learned a very formulaic way of writing which is simply to give two body paragraphs, one for arguments "for" and one paragraph "against". This is not steering the reader toward your position. You cannot at the end of your essay say "In conclusion..." if in your body you have not refuted or challenged the "counter-arguments" you have just presented! This is not only rather boring, but also not logically consistent.

Here are some possible stategies, based on a 3-paragraph body:

First body paragraph: statement of opposing viewpoint
Second body paragraph: refutation of opposing viewpoint
Third body paragraph: clarification and justification of your viewpoint


First body paragraph: statement and refutation of opposing viewpoint
Second body paragraph: statement and clarification of your viewpoint
Third body paragraph: justification of your viewpoint


First body paragraph: statement of opposing viewpoint
Second body paragraph: statement and clarification of your viewpoint
Third body paragraph: comparison of your viewpoint with the opposing viewpoint; justification of your viewpoint

The conclusion

Here you can do some (not all, perhaps two of three) of the following:

  • restate your thesis
  • reiterate the strongest arguments
  • stress the importance of your thesis
  • state the consequences of not following your recommendations
  • state of the benefits of following your recommendations
  • finally, challenge the reader with a rhetorical question or bold assertion