Undergrad Essay Writing Principles: III – Simplicity in Structure


Simplicity in Structure

In the previous entry of this series I argued that simplicity is a crucial design principle in crafting a philosophy essay. However, simplicity can be taken in two different directions, (i) application to ideas, and (ii) application to structure. The prior entry addressed (i), and this entry will examined (ii). That is, in this entry I argue that a simple, no-frills approach to structuring an essay – which I call EOR – is in the student’s best interests.

The essay structure which I strongly suggest to students is a simple one:

  1. Introduction
  2. Explanation/explication
  3. Objection
  4. Response
  5. Conclusion

Obviously though, the length of the essay, or the level of study the essay is being written,  can result in adding extra sections. Yet these extra sections are merely repetitions of the above provided structure, and often, if not always, presented in the same order. For example, a longer research paper might be as follows:

  1. Introduction
  2. Explanation/explication
  3. Objection 1
  4. Response 1
  5. Objection 2
  6. Response 2
    1. Objection 2.1
    2. Response 2.1
      1. Objection 2.1.1.
      2. Response 2.1.1.
    3. Objection 2.2.
    4. Response 2.2.
  7. Conclusion

Note that even when there are extra sections, the structure is essentially the same. And what this structure offers is nothing novel nor interesting; I am simply making salient a simple structural procedure that is highly robust because it fits in with our intuitive grasp of how we manage verbal discussions. For example, consider the following dialogue between two car mechanics attempting to fix a car:

M1: I think it’s the ignition.
M2: Why?
M1: These old Volvo’s were designed with cheap material in the ignition part – I’ve seen this before. (explanation)
M2: Yeah, but that doesn’t mean this one is the same – have you checked the engine yet? (objection)
M1: Nah, yeah – engine is in pretty good nick. Oi, look – the wiring in the ignition is stuffed. (response)
M2: I’ll go get the wire out back.

As we can see from the dialogue above, the structure of our verbal discussions when attempting to resolve problems or discuss issues uses the EOR design.  That is the beautiful thing about EOR – because we deploy this structure throughout our lives, we are able to immediately grasp it, even when we don’t know we are doing it.

But there are other reasons for employing EOR, most of which turn out to be beneficial to both the writer and the reader. First, it makes the essay easy to signpost and to follow. This benefits the writer because it allows them to quickly locate sections of their paper and edit or work on them, and it benefits the reader because it makes reading the essay easier. Second, it can help the student ensure they have provided a well reasoned or argued paper. After all, they can see if they have provided an objection, or provided a response to that objection, and they can see whether they have provided adequate words to developing those sections. Third, it means that when the student is given feedback, they can follow precisely where they went wrong and what to fix.

Finally, I want to note that the structure of an essay is not, by itself, ever going to result in a high mark. Structure, like spelling and grammar, if done right will not benefit you directly, but done wrong and they will hurt your mark. Why? Because like spelling and grammar, the structure of an essay facilitates the communication of the ideas within the essay. And you, as a writer, do not want all that hard work you put into those ideas to be lost under a sea of poorly designed and obscure structure.



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