A paper’s line of reasoning, from beginning to end and also within and between paragraphs.

A successful structure is logical, coherent, and easy to follow. In humanistic disciplines, the structure allows for a dynamic development of ideas (is not merely a list of points or examples). In scientific disciplines, the overall structure is typically signaled with subheadings, such as Title, Abstract, Introduction, Literature Review, Methods, Results, Discussion, and References; within each section, the structure allows for a logical development of ideas.

This definition tells us that structure is a paper’s line of reasoning, that it is logical and helps develop our ideas. What the definition forgets to mention is that writing is like building: in order to get to that line of reasoning or that logical development of ideas, we have to build, brick by brick, board by board. Think of the meaning of “structure” in the world outside of writing. It brings to mind something, like a tower or house, that was intentionally constructed and can stand on its own. Although an essay isn’t a house, tower, or bridge, we still have to build our written work, and the structure we choose can determine whether the paper’s ideas stand strongly or fall apart.

In a paper, there are two different forms of structure in play. The first is macro-structure, the paper’s line of reasoning, from beginning to end. The second is micro-structure, way that we build ideas within and between paragraphs. In both of these cases, our goal is to build a paper that the reader can easily understand – a paper that will stand on its own without the author/builder to hold it up. We’ve put together a few guidelines for well-structured writing here, and in the essays that follow, you will find examples of papers that have structures that propel their arguments and make the ideas of the paper accessible to readers.

One element of macro-structure that stays relatively constant across disciplines is that written works generally begin with an introduction or abstract that introduces key terms, background orienting, your motive and argument, and gives your reader a heads up about your structure. We can think of the intro as the first step in welcoming our readers to the paper. If a friend (the reader) stays in the new house we just built (the paper), we will give them a brief tour of the house before they settle in for their visit. In the same way, the paper’s intro gives readers a tour of what’s to come.

Macrostructure also plays an important role in the body of a paper. In the body, the structure dictates how we organize our ideas. Each paragraph or section of the paper is one room in the structure that we are building. It has to be cohesive and organized on its own, but it also needs to fit into the larger whole of the building (the paper).

Micro-structure comes into play within each paragraph or section of a paper. We have to make sure that each paragraph effectively connects to surrounding paragraphs and to the paper as a whole. Each paragraph needs to present a unified thought that readers can easily understand. If we use our building or house metaphor, we wouldn’t want to put a bathtub in the dining room, and we should design the dining room to be near the kitchen, not on a different floor.

We have chosen the following three essay excerpts to show three different examples of successful essay structures: “White Consolidation and Red Panic: Cold War Racial Tensions in Southern Rhodesia” by Kellen Heniford; “Promoting U.S. University-based Hybrid Centers as a New Window for Advancing Rule of Law in China” by Jean Lee; and “Bounded by Beauty: The Influence of Photography on Perception and Approaches to Cultural Landscape Assessment” by Alice Tao. The authors of these papers come from different departments and each paper is a different assignment, but all of the authors included here have built their papers in a way that furthers the main argument or aim of the paper and makes the logical progression of ideas in the paper clear to the reader.

The author


Abigail Kelly is a junior from Beverly, Massachusetts who is majoring in Religion. She sings in several groups on campus.