The content of an essay is based around research of the topic. This means explaining and justifying your ideas on based on reliable information and examples from sources. It is important that your essay has a central idea or argument that the essay content is focussed on. This is known as a thesis statement.
Depending on the essay question, the essay may contain:
- a thesis statement (claim, proposition, main idea)
- context (background, framework, setting)
- reasons (support, evidence, examples)
- counter-arguments (objections, contrary considerations)
- responses (refutations, answers to objections)
These ingredients can be put together or organised in many different ways.
The key components of an essay are an introduction, a series of body paragraphs, a conclusion, and a reference list.
The introduction should introduce the context and topic of the essay, outline the structure/main points of the essay, and give the thesis statement which introduces the argument(s) you will be asserting in your essay (this is usually your answer to the assignment question). As a general rule of thumb, introductions make up approximately 10% of the total word count.
The body of your essay then expands on your thesis statement by presenting relevant information and research that supports your argument. It’s important that the information is organised into clear paragraphs with a logical order. Your paragraphs should aim to guide the reader through your reasoning process and offer a clear explanation of each point so they help you develop your argument. Each paragraph should explore just one main idea and have the following structure:
- The topic sentence tells the reader what the paragraph will be about and may link to previous paragraphs.
- The supporting sentences develop the topic of the paragraph and include explanations, examples, details, research, quotations and references.
- The concluding/linking sentence reminds the reader what the main topic of the paragraph was and may link to the next paragraph.
This means that a paragraph needs at least four sentences; one or two sentence paragraphs are not really a paragraph!
The conclusion should summarise the main points and ideas that you presented in your essay. You should draw conclusions from what has been discussed in the essay, which will lead to a restatement of the thesis statement. Avoid bringing up anything new to the conclusion; stick to summarising what you have already said in your essay and reiterating your thesis statement. Like introductions; conclusions make up approximately 10% of the total word count as a general guide.
Essays should incorporate plenty of linking words/phrases and signposts which make your essay easy for the reader to follow. These words/phrases help by making the connections between sentences and paragraphs clear and indicate the flow of your ideas. They also signal to the reader how to approach the information that follows. For example:
- Use words like similarly, also and in addition to indicate that you are adding a similar idea
- Use words like in contrast, however, and on the other hand to make a contrast or add an opposite idea
- Use words like therefore, consequently and as a result to show an outcome
- Use words like for example and for instance to give an example
These words are very powerful; without them, the paper will seem to consist of a list of sentences that do not link to each other!
Argumentative Portfolio Letters
If you’re in a class that requires a writing portfolio, you’ll likely be required to submit a reflective cover letter that introduces your work to your audience. In some cases, that audience is your professor, but in other cases, that audience is a committee of professors.
Many times, this reflective cover letter will have an argumentative angle to it. You may be working to make the case that your work shows you have met the requirements of a course or a program and are ready to move on to the next level in your writing.
Thinking about the lessons you have learned in this area of the Excelsior OWL can help you write that letter. If you’re making an argument that your writing meets the requirements of a course or program, what examples and evidence can you provide to your audience? What examples or evidence should you provide? What tone will you take?
The following sample outline for a portfolio letter shows you how this type of writing is really persuasive and what kinds of things you might consider including in your own letter.
Of course, this is just a sample outline, and different courses and programs will have different requirements. Still, if you approach your portfolio letter as a persuasive letter, you are likely to be more convincing to the portfolio scoring committee, or your professor, that you have met the requirements of the course and are ready to move forward with your writing.
- In your introduction, provide the portfolio committee with a little background about yourself as a writer. Don’t tell your life story, but describe some of your past experiences as a writer. Where were you starting from as a writer when you began this course?
- At the end of your introduction, provide a thesis statement that makes a clear assertion about your growth as a writer and what the portfolio committee can expect to see in your portfolio.
- In your body paragraphs, spend some time discussing each piece of your portfolio. Give specific examples of your work, your revision, and what you learned. Make sure you address the outcomes or goals of your course. How does your work reflect these outcomes being met? You may need several pages to make your case here. Be sure to review length requirements with your professor.
- In your conclusion, explore your continued struggles as a writer, acknowledge where you want to go, but remind the committee that you have grown and made improvements thanks to your work in the course.
The following sample letter will provide you with even more insight on how you might approach your own portfolio letter.
Click the image below to see the sample paper in a PDF format. In the sample, scroll over the dialog boxes to learn about the strategies and techniques the author used in this sample letter. In some browsers, you may need to download or save this file to be able to utilize all of its functionality.