Structuring essays

Organising ideas in essays and then presenting them in a meaningful, developed manner is one of the most challenging technical elements of the course - but success with structure is an essential means of demonstrating analytical and interpretive skill. 

Examiners often make the recommendation that students spend considerable time practising this element;  the better essays - and indeed spoken commentaries, are almost always ones in which ideas have not just been grouped together meaningfully, but presented in a sequence that allows for the development of an argument, and this is perhaps the most important aim.  

Essay structure:  some important elements...

1.  Make sure, as far as possible, that one paragraph deals with one main topic only

2.  Make sure that each paragraph develops.  By the end of a paragraph, your exploration of the topic should have gone      somewhere - do not just repeat a point or points

3.  Make sure that the essay as a whole develops.  By the end of the essay, your argument needs to have gone somewhere

4.  The best essays are organised in  way the is logical and purposeful.  If swapping paragraph 5 with paragraph 3 makes no difference to the essay or the argument then either:

  • The essay has not developed an argument OR
  • The essay is repetitive

Think in terms of a house or apartment block:  you could not build the 3rd floor before you had built the first, and that, in turn, could not have been built without a foundation.  Everything about the first level, or foundation, depends on what has come before it - and it is exactly the same principle with a well-organised, and well-developed essay.

5.  Make sure that you connect ideas - between sentences, between paragraphs and between sections of your argument.  Ideas are usually connected in one or two ways:

  • Points of similarity and/or continuation
  • Points of contrast or reversal

Particular words and/or phrases that will help with transitions of these kinds are as follows:

Points of similarity and/or continuation Points of contrast or reversal
In addition; furthermore; moreover; similarly; equally; moreover; comparatively; in the same way; correspondingly; besides; indeed; above all; also; therefore; in consequence; firstly ... secondly etc In contrast; on the one hand/on the other; even so/though; although; instead; whereas; however; conversely; nevertheless; on the contrary; despite/in spite of; instead; for all that; alternatively; notwithstanding; all the same; otherwise; and yet; after all 

The essay below is annotated with comments that highlight where features associated with structure are present.  Have a read through, digest the examiner's comments and try to emulate the characteristics in your own writing.

The development of the two main relationships in the novel, ‘The Unbearable Lightness of Being’, by Milan Kundera and ‘Kiss of the Spiderwoman' by Manuel Puig, revolves around the characters’ desires to reconcile rationality and instinct - physicality of experience with abstract ideas.1 The relationship between the two becomes pivotal as the abstract ideas are communicated in and through physicality.  In ‘Kiss of the Spiderwoman’, the body becomes a vehicle of communication as the two characters, one representing ideals, and one representing the body, eventually unite through physical contact. On the other hand, in ‘The Unbearable Lightness of Being’, the body becomes a vehicle of dislocation;  the characters fail in their attempts to conquer the ideals of the soul with the realities of the body.2 It is in this way that physicality becomes pivotal in the development of the two relationships that are primarily dependent on sex as the final means of expression in their relationships with each other.3

In both novels there is a tension between the body and abstract ideas.4 In Tereza’s case, this tension is within herself, her inability to see the body and soul as two separate things. Her attitude towards physicality is partly caused by her mother, who “marched about the flat in her underwear… sometimes, on summer days, stark naked". Her mother is depicted as shameless and from the time she was young, Tereza is shown to yearn for a body which is unique from the "vast concentration camp of bodies, one like the next, with souls invisible". And in this way,5 it can be seen that Tereza’s stance on the body is an act of  retaliation against her mother, who depicts the body as a vulgar and common thing, where the "soul lay somewhere at the level of the stomach and pancreas". It is Tereza's mother's attitude towards the body which is therefore6 translated into her physical actions as the novel progresses

Molina, in comparison7, finds the physical body intriguing and beautiful, and his vivid descriptions of the movie actresses shows his rapture for its aesthetic beauty. The novel starts off with the description of the panther woman:  “she looks fairly young… petite face, a little catlike, small up-turned nose. The shape of her face, it's more roundish then oval, broad forehead, pronounced cheeks too". His interest in the beauty and the delicate nature of the body is the complete opposite to Tereza’s mother. In addition8 to this view, Molina believes in pampering the body, and he does this through providing food and comfort for it. Not only does Molina do this for himself, but gradually, he starts to take care of Valentin. In the novel, Molina explains to Valentin that "the mind has to secrete affection without stopping… same way our stomach secretes juices for digestions", and in this metaphor reveals that he sees his growing affection towards Valentin as an inevitable one: an instinctive feeling which he has no control over.

As ‘Kiss of the Spiderwoman’ develops, the body becomes a vehicle of understanding.9 To begin with, the conflict between the body and abstract ideas in is represented by the opposing characters of Valentin and Molina. Valentin is immersed in his books and the ideals of communism, while Molina is engrossed in his movies, and in particular, the descriptions of the physical attributes of the actresses. In this way, it can be said that Molina is a character who represents the body and Valentin, abstract ideas. When Molina is vividly describing actresses, Valentin rejects the intimacy:  ”No erotic descriptions, this isn't the place for it", implying that he does not want to be aroused in a confined cell with another man. However, as the novel progresses, Valentin is the one who asks for these descriptions: "How is her figure, does she have a good build or she more on the flat side?" This involuntary questioning on the part of Valentin is a clear indication that the relationship is steadily growing into an intimate one, where the body is no longer forbidden topic, and where it begins to merge with ‘abstract ideas’.10

In contrast, Tereza and Tomas's relationship begins to deteriorate as the conflict of ideas that Tereza holds within her becomes a burden on their relationship. Throughout the novel, she is haunted by her mother and when she first sees Tomas,"her stomach started rumbling terribly she felt as though she were carrying her mother in her stomach". In an attempt to remove herself physically from her mother, she moves to Prague, But her mother follows her in the form of a stomachache, and is a reminder to Tereza that her body is vulgar and ordinary. The reason she had "come to him [Tomas] to escape her mother's world, a world where all bodies were equal. She had come to him to make her body unique, irreplaceable. But he too had drawn an equal sign between her and the rest of them". Tereza wants her body to become the only one in which Tomas is interested, but is rejected because Tomas has other mistresses. Tomas sees love and lovemaking as two separate things, but Tereza sees them as the same, and she cannot come to terms with the "lightness and amusing insignificance of physical love”11 because of her belief that the body and soul are one, and this is where the relationship starts to deteriorate. There is an attempt by Tereza in the novel to sleep with another man, but she soon realises "that she would never allow her body, on which has so left its mark to take pleasure in the embrace of someone she needs a new no wish to know", and this epitomises her ideals which take priority over her physical body, while Tomas’s ideals are directly related to his physical needs. It is this essential difference between Tomas and Tereza that prevents them from finding reciprocal happiness.

Another conflict that arises in Teresa is her inability to “reconcile herself to the idea that the human body pisses and farts"; in other words, she cannot get used to the idea that the body’s functions are part of her.  In contrast, Molina is able to deal with this reality. His relationship with Valentin is strengthened, for example,12 when Valentin's body becomes weak and helpless after eating the poisoned food. Valentin soils himself and vomits in the cell, and it is Molina who cleans him up, saying warmly “vomit in my sheets then, wait, I'll fold it up and you can throw up in it afterwards.  We’ll wrap it up tight and there won't be any smell". Valentin asks Molina whether he is "disgusting" to which Molina replies that he is not. Therefore13, it is the compassion towards the body which unites these two seemingly opposite characters.

As the novel progresses, there is a sense that the initial tension between Valentin and Molina disappears. This is most evident when Valentin allows himself to be physically aided by Molina, and when he begins to understand his point of view. The body therefore, becomes a vehicle of understanding in the novel, and towards the end, they have sex. The scene is a quiet one, with very few words are spoken, and in this way, there is a sense of serenity. When asked if he is enjoying it, Valentin answers,"I don't know, don't ask questions… I don't know anything", and this is significant because it contrasts with what we have always known Valentin to be. In the majority of the novel, Valentin is an intellectual and realist, that his sexual encounter with Molina changes his outlook and makes him a more sensitive character.  There is a sense that the physical joining of the two characters becomes far more significant as it becomes a point of abstract understanding.

On the other hand, sex between Tomas and Tereza is where the physicality of the body becomes a vehicle for dislocation.14 Tereza screams while making love, and they are "aimed at crippling the senses" while she tries to "banish the duality of body and soul". Through her screaming, Tereza hopes to erase the sensuality that the body was feeling and to make love and love making the same:  to banish her mother's ideals out of her life. But Tereza’s body lacks "the power to become the only body in Tomas’s life. It had disappointed her and deceived her”. In other words15 her aim to fight against her mother’s influence friends. She ends up just another body amidst all the others; their sex is therefore always overshadowed by her concerns, and becomes a burden more than a means of communication.

The difference in the two novels, therefore16, lies in the way in which the tensions between the body and ideals are reconciled; whether it hinders the relationships as in ‘The Unbearable Lightness of Being’ or whether it serves as a way in which the characters can connect, as seen in the ‘Kiss of the Spider Woman’. Both novels therefore explore the degree to which the mind and body place significant roles in the development of human relationships,17 and how the human condition revolves around the various ways in which we make sense of the relationship between physical and rational experience.

1:  This opening sentence engages with the title straight away (i.e. avoids unnecessary background detail, for example) and yet provides clarity on it - it does not just repeat it.

2:  The second part of the introduction provides a sense of the main ideas the essay is going to explore, and an overview of the thesis.

3:  In that final sentence is the essay's argument - clearly stated.

4:  A focused topic sentence, which clearly identifies the subject of the paragraph

5:  Throughout the essay are words and phrases that link ideas

6:  Another useful connecting term

7:  The paragraph is effective connected with the previous  through the identification of a point of comparison.

8:  Another connective which clearly identifies a second point in development of the topic of the paragraph.

9:  A fairly significant point in the essay, where the argument is taken to the next stage.  It is as if at this point we are moving up to the second story of our house.

10:  Notice how the student, at the end of each paragraph, takes stock of how far the argument has progressed.  S/he doesn't fall into the trap (which students often do) of simply re-stating the topic of the paragraph, or a point which has already been made.

11:  Throughout the essay, quotations are seamlessly integrated into the sentences.  There are a range of longer and shorter text references, but equally, there are plenty of references to particular events or scenes in both works. Remember that 'knowledge and understanding' can be demonstrated through both direct quotation, paraphrase and allusion fo particular moments. 

12:  The phrase 'for example', like 'for instance' is another example of the way the essay creates a sense of flow - of onward movement, which is partly why it feels quite easy - and natural, to read.

13:  If you feel able to use the word, 'therefore', this is very likely to be a good thing as it is a way to register the sense of a point that can be made with validity, or a conclusion drawn.

14:  These two paragraphs, split evenly, very effectively return to the argument outlined in the introduction - but rather than just re-state, they expand upon and develop its significance.  This is an essay that moves continuously forward.

15:  Another phrase that is well used as a means to connect ideas and provide meaningful points of transition.

16:  It is very likely that the word 'therefore' will appear somewhere in the conclusion  because of course, here is where the 'answer' to the question is likely to be most explicitly stated.

17:  Again, nicely avoiding basic repetition of ideas, the essay extends the reach of the argument by connecting it with human experience more generally.  In so doing, the student exhibits an impressive degree of independent critical thinking - as well as infectious personal engagement int he subject matter. 

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