Basic Academic Essay Components

By Kelli McBride


Academic essay writing is a specific type of writing that has its own rules and expectations. No matter what your writing experience is, you must adapt to these rules and expectations to get the best grade possible. My Composition/Rhetoric research shows that most college classes require these basic elements. Follow the links below to specific sections of this handout.


Document Contents and Links:


Standard academic English in a fairly high diction



Rhetorical Triangle




Essay Writing: The MEAT Method

Sample Essay with labeled parts


1.  Standard academic English in a fairly high diction.

If you cannot communicate proficiently in English, grammar and mechanics, then no matter how good your argument is, readers will find the mistakes distracting. Worse, they may find your paper incomprehensible. Your LB Brief handbook, as well as a variety of resources on the Internet, can help you correct the errors I point out on your essays.

2.  Structure:

Formal academic essays are rigid in structure: intro, body, conclusion, thesis statements and topic sentences.


In contrast, professional essays, many of the ones in our textbook, will not always strictly adhere to a formal structure. In some cases, readers may not even see a clearly written thesis statement, and people will even disagree over what the point of the reading is. The purpose of professional and literary writing is not always to present a clear argument. Instead, it is often to provoke thought and discussion by leaving ideas open ended. In academic essays, though, writers must present a clear thesis-driven paper with the three-part structure, evidence to support the thesis, and an awareness of persuasive appeals. These appeals comprise the Rhetorical Triangle


Rhetorical Triangle:

Aristotle called these "pisteis." The 3 major ways we appeal to our audience are through logos, pathos, and ethos. Logos is reason: common sense, facts, figures, and objective data. I'm using information that I know will invoke an emotional response in my reader, The author in making an argument uses research and word choice to convince the audience by appealing to its logic and reason. This is the preferred appeal in academic writing.  Pathos is emotion. The author uses empathy and sympathy to convince the audience by appealing to its emotions, such as pity, fear, anger, patriotism, etc.  Ethos is credibility and trustworthiness. The author uses the credibility and ethics of resources (which can include personal experience and the tone the author writes in) to appeal to the audience by appealing to its trust. For more on classical rhetoric, check out the following web pages:





If authors use the appeals illogically or dishonestly, then they are guilty of propaganda and logical fallacies. We will cover these in the second unit.


3.  Audience:

The teacher is rarely your audience in college classrooms. We are your evaluators, but not the group that you are writing to necessarily. You must identify and target a specific audience - know enough about them to make important decisions concerning vocabulary, background information provided, types of examples to use, sources to stay away from, and which rhetorical appeal to use.


what is my audience's education level? What words will appeal to them or turn them off? For example, if I have a conservative audience and I label something liberal, I will probably distance that audience. Instead, I need to find another way to describe it that won't get a knee-jerk reaction.

Background info to provide:

what does my audience already know about this issue? What do they NEED to know to be able to understand the argument I'm making? Be sure you provide only necessary relevant info - don't stuff your introduction, or your essay, with trivial facts or biographical information that does nothing to further your argument.

Types of Examples:

what will appeal to my reader - anecdotal evidence? Statistics? Hypothetical examples? Examples come in 3 types: 1) specific: you are giving the reader an example of a real person or real event (e.g., Tommy drives home from work in rush hour every day, and this adds to his stress). 2) Typical: you are painting a picture that is a composite of what usually occurs, but not citing specific people or places (e.g., Many residents of Shawnee drive home from work in rush hour every day, adding to their stress). 3) Hypothetical: you are playing the "what if" game to show people what might happen or may have happened because there is no specific evidence available (e.g., If Shawnee residents drove home from work in rush hour every day, their stress levels would increase). You would use this last one when speculating about the effects that something might have, or when trying to figure out what may have occurred. No one type is better than the other because it all depends on the situation and the audience. You do need to use specific evidence in academic essays at some point, but you have some wriggle room.


Again, what will turn off your reader? Consider a paper on qualities of a great leader. If I cite Hitler, then automatically, no matter how valid the info that I'm using from him, I will get a negative reaction from most reader. If I am writing about the qualities of great leaders according to Machiavelli, who famously advised princes that they should encourage fear rather than love in their followers in order to maintain control, then citing Hitler is completely reasonable. I’ve added a context, Machiavelli’s definition, that would make the choice of Hitler obvious rather than potentially racist. My audiences personal profile (including politics, culture, religion, age, gender, and geography – just to name a few), may require I rethink exactly who I will use to support my thesis, the types of examples I provide, and even the diction, tone, and style I use in my writing. To ignore the audience is to make my ethos vulnerable. Of course, may arguments target a general audience who are bound together simply by a common interest in the issue, a common  nationality, or something else.


4. Context:

What is the situation that I'm creating in which to argue my point? We rarely argue topics in a vacuum. Instead, we must connect them to something the audience will see as relevant. That could be time, place, ideology, etc. For example, a discussion of tuition hikes as Harvard will not likely be interesting to an SSC audience. However, if the writer connects what is happening at Harvard to changes in Oklahoma higher education, then suddenly that tuition hike is relevant and more interesting.  Time can also be an important context.  No one can write a paper that talks about “since the beginning of time” or “since the first human appeared” because that is simply too large a time frame to cover, and no one knows what was really going on then. However, I can limit topics by choosing specific time contexts. A discussion of civil liberties in America would be very different if I choose to look at the 1990s as opposed to the post-9/11 era.  My audience might also provide a variety of limiting contexts. Perhaps I want to use the Christian Bible as part of my reasoning for supporting legislation. Religious freedom makes it impossible to justify that legally to general audience. However, if I limit the audience context to Southern Baptists (and specify that in my introduction), I can reasonably expect them all to acknowledge the Bible as a guide to ethics, from which most laws spring.  The fact that all of your essays must follow standard Academic English provides an important context that you must incorporate in your writing. Context will be different for every essay.


Essay Writing: The MEAT Method


An academic essay is a group of paragraphs, organized into three sections. Those sections are: introduction, body, and conclusion. These sections may have more than one paragraph in each, though the body section must have more than one paragraph. Body paragraphs differ in structure and function from introduction and conclusion paragraphs, so we will study each section separately, identifying the common characteristics in a traditional academic essay. Using the MEAT method, we can write well-developed (dare I say “meaty) paragraphs. MEAT stands for: Main point – Examples and Explanations – Analysis – Transitions.

Main point:

An essay has two layers of main points: the thesis and the topic sentence.

The Thesis:

this is the overall point of the essay, and you derive all topic sentences from the thesis. The thesis statement should have two major components: the subject and the purpose.  The subject announces what the essay is about, and the purpose announces what you are going to tell us about the subject.  You can also provide an “essay map” in your thesis. This means previewing the topics in each body paragraph. 

Example thesis:  Though Malcolm X and Martin Luther King, Jr. provided important leadership during the Civil Rights Movement, King’s leadership style proved more appealing to the mainstream who sought integration for America not more segregation.


·       Subject: Contrasting Malcolm X and Martin Luther King, Jr. as leaders during the Civil Rights Movement.

·       Purpose: Show how Martin Luther King, Jr.’s style of leadership appealed to those wanting to integrate rather than segregate.

·       Audience: People interested in diverse leadership styles of the two and why one spoke to a wider audience.


Another way of thinking about the thesis is more mathematical, what I call the

“Thesis Equation.”


Text Box: Thesis Equation: For Z, X is Y because {a, b, c} where
•      X = essay subject narrowed to a length suitable for assignment
•      Y = writer’s attitude about subject or what he/she is going to tell us about the subject
•      {a, b, c} = reasons to support X/Y statement, formulated as topic sentences in the body section of the essay (# of reasons vary per paper)
•      Z = limiting/focusing factors, such as audience and context of essay


Note: a thesis statement does not always include Z and {a, b, c}, but it should always have an X and Y. However, your essay must always make clear what the Z and {a, b, c} are to the reader. Z begins in the introduction and continues throughout the essay in the choice of reasons to suit the audience and context as well as the tone and diction levels. {a, b, c} come directly from the X/Y statement and the Z because they are reasons that logically support the essay’s thesis and also will appeal to the essay reader.


Example:  Students should not complain about tuition hikes at Seminole State College because the money provides many useful services to them in computer labs, the library, and in classrooms.



SSC tuition hikes



students should not complain

{a, b, c}


money provides services in computer labs, the library, and in classrooms



the limiting factors are: students (the audience and complainers) and SSC (where the tuition hikes are occurring)

Thesis statements are not:

o   Statements of fact: SSC raised tuition this year.

o   Statements of the obvious: Students don’t like paying tuition.

o   Announcements of intent: This essay will explain how SSC uses tuition money in ways beneficial to students.


Topic sentences:

These drive the body of the essay. For each specific point you make to support your thesis sentence, you must have a topic sentence and at least one body paragraph that provides detailed support. For the thesis on King and Malcolm X, the topic sentences must come from the aspects of leadership you have established as important for this discussion.  You must do that in your introduction, before you announce your thesis.  You must tell your reader why this is an important discussion to have – why should we analyze these two? How are you defining leadership in this context?


Sample Topic sentences:

· Martin Luther King, Jr. lead his supporters into any conflict by first teaching them how to maintain a peaceful attitude that would not provoke or justify a violent response from police.

· Malcolm X encouraged aggression in his followers.


Topic sentences have two parts: the topic and the attitude.

The Topic: The topic of a paragraph is a word or phrase that the author has narrowed down. By “narrowed down” I mean that the author has found a topic that he can cover effectively in one paragraph. Instead of “tuition costs,” I might write about “SSC tuition hikes.” Authors narrow topics with prewriting techniques, such as brainstorming, freewriting, and clustering. These techniques ask the writer to jot down as much as possible about the topic. These prewriting techniques have multiple purposes:

o   They clear the author’s brain

o   They allow the author to get down, on paper, everything he knows about a topic

o   They allow the author to begin organizing information through grouping of like information and deleting of irrelevant information

Choosing a particular prewriting technique depends on the author and the purpose. Some techniques lend themselves to more detailed information, and others appeal to particular learning styles. Authors should practice using several techniques and discovering which work the best for them under certain circumstances.

Prewriting might yield the following topics on “tuition costs:”

o       Recent hikes in tuition at SSC

o       Breakdown of tuition use at SSC

o       Comparison of tuition at SSC and other area colleges

o       Getting financial aid at SSC


Notice that all of these topics deal with SSC. This is another way of narrowing a topic – adding a geographical CONTEXT. Since tuition may change from school to school, an author cannot easily make a blanket statement about tuition in Oklahoma or America. The more he can narrow the scope of his topic, the more he can accomplish in the paragraph. This, however, is only half of the topic sentence. At this point, the author has not informed the reader what he will say about the topic. This is the “attitude.”


The Attitude: Before a writer has a topic sentence, he must figure out what attitude he wants to take. We can take the four topics above and add attitudes to them:

o       Recent hikes in tuition at SSC + will prevent many current SSC students from continuing their education.

o       Breakdown of tuition use at SSC + reveals the college’s commitment to providing advanced technological resources for students.

o       Comparison of tuition at SSC and other area colleges + shows the great bargain offered to students attending Seminole for their first two years of college.

o       Getting financial aid at SSC + can be easy with the right planning.


Now we have a complete topic sentence for the paragraph. Writers must be careful that they do not begin a paragraph with simply an announcement of a topic rather than a complete statement of purpose: topic + attitude.


After the author has settled on a topic sentence, he can begin planning his paragraph.  Planning is an important part of writing. When a writer has some idea of where he’s going with his paragraph, he can better prepare for any obstacle to his position on the topic that he might face and/or that the reader might have. Obstacles can present themselves in several ways:

o       Lack of basic knowledge of topic: the reader does not know enough background information to fully appreciate or understand the author’s point.

o       Different opinion about topic: the reader has an opposing position and may strongly disagree with the author or challenge the author’s evidence and reasoning.

o       Different education level than author: the reader may not have the same vocabulary or educational background as the author, so the author must modify his diction and style to suit his audience.

o       Difficulty finding evidence: the author may not find or have trouble finding the facts and examples he needs to prove his position on the topic.


Even the best planning might not help the author prevent some of these problems, but it helps lower the odds of major problems late into the writing process.


Explanations and Examples:

Following the topic sentence, you must explain your point to your reader.  What does it mean when you say that King taught his followers how to respond? What does “aggression” consist of concerning Malcolm X’s methods? Without this explanation, your reader may not understand the specific point you are trying to make. Explanation would also include important definitions: any words or terms the reader may not know, or that have potential multiple means that the reader may misinterpret. Explanation usually remains at the general level. You discuss what was the overall behavior like. To fully explain, you must also provide readers a specific example to illustrate your explanation.  In this case, you could use a common knowledge incident or cite (and document) from a source that shows King’s methods. If necessary, you might even present two or more examples to show a variety of techniques or to prove that this was the dominant method. Examples also provide evidence to support your point. If the topic warrants, the author must back up his position with facts, statistics, authoritative testimony, and other objective evidence that supports his attitude on the topic. The more debatable or argumentative the attitude, the more likely the author will need objective evidence outside his own experience or opinion.



Just providing materials for the reader is not always enough to make our case. The writer has to tie them all together by analyzing what they mean, what their significance is, why the reader should be concerned or pay attention, etc. Analysis can also provide evaluation (e.g., which is the better choice) and synthesize two ideas to form a new concept or present a new perspective. Often, academic argument asks students to read a source, like a literary or philosophical text, and make a connection to current events. The author’s role is to synthesize the different elements by providing a context that connects them. For example, if I have to write a paper that justifies Hitler as an excellent leader, how can I connect these two ideas (Hitler + excellent leader) in a way that makes sense to most ethical people today? By using Machiavelli’s definition of an excellent leader in his book The Prince, I can make a logical argument. You will use this technique in this class. I will provide the text and a context (such as Plato’s “Allegory of the Cave” and a modern issue), and you must synthesize the two.


between each component, you must provide connections that help the reader see the relationship between these parts, like cause, effect, comparison, and contrast, etc. You simply don’t list these elements in order. It is up to you to provide the coherence and unity through transitions that logically guide your reader through your reasoning.


As you continue to work on your essays, print out a clean copy and mark each of these items on your draft.  If you are missing any one, then you should work on adding that component to your paper. If your essay is falling short of the required length, chances are you are missing some of these components.


Essay components

Just Say "No" to Joe

Introduction that starts broad and narrows to thesis; provides background information and context for essay.

This organization today faces many challenges. One of the crucial decisions that members must make is setting five-year goals. For this, the directors must appoint a chairperson for the development committee. This position requires someone who can work well with others, provide responsible leadership, and consider suggestions from other members of the committee.

Thesis statement

Though the directors are considering Joe Smith for this position, they should not appoint him as committee chair because he exhibits none of these crucial qualities.

First body paragraph: opens with intro sentence that isolates one part of the definition from the previous paragraph and adds more specificity.

New paragraph: The chair must be able to work with a variety of people within the organization and outside of it. At times, the chair will encounter people who are of higher or equal rank, and he/she must be able to adjust to these different situations.

Topic sentence: reason that supports thesis

However, Mr. Smith only likes to work with people he can dominate.

Evidence that develops topic sentence and proves author's point

For example, last year, he chaired the festival committee and managed to anger the president of both town banks, the president of the chamber of commerce, and the assistant to the event’s keynote speaker, not to mention the many organization members to which he was rude. An inquiry into the many complaints revealed that Mr. Smith was unable to respect the authority of other people and always wanted to be the top dog. A similar problem occurred when he was in charge of the 2002 Charity Drive and the 2003 Christmas Auction and Dinner. The organization received many letters and phone calls complaining of his highhanded manner.

Summary of paragraph

This is hardly the quality of an outstanding development chair.

Second body paragraph: opens with intro sentence that isolates one part of the definition from the intro paragraph and adds more specificity.

New paragraph: The person heading the committee must show responsible leadership. This involves giving credit to everyone involved in successful ventures and shouldering the responsibility for any problems that occur.

Topic sentence: reason that supports thesis

Mr. Smith, though, likes to take credit for any success but blame others for failures.

Evidence that develops topic sentence and proves author's point

Two years ago, the Charity Drive raised more money than in the 2000 and 2001 seasons combined. This was the result of a team effort and the work of Lindsey Beresford who arranged for Reba McIntire to be the keynote speaker. However, Mr. Smith took credit for these accomplishments and never mentioned any other member of his team or Mrs. Beresford's contribution. Yet, a year later, when the keynote speaker backed out at the last minute because Mr. Smith failed to confirm the date of the festival, he refused to acknowledge his fault and instead let people believe that it was a team failure. No one on either of these committees will work with Mr. Smith because of the ill will he built.

Summary of paragraph

The organization does not need a chair who will drive people away. It needs someone who provides strong leadership and draws in people.

Third body paragraph: intro sentence with last definition

New paragraph: Finally, the chair should encourage all team members to participate and submit ideas for developing the organization. Having many talented minds working together will create a stronger future.

Topic sentence: reason that supports thesis

Here again, Mr. Smith has proven that he cannot accept input from anyone else. In fact, he sees any suggestions at odds with his own plans as challenges to his authority.

Evidence that develops topic sentence and proves author's point



No summary of paragraph

This year, he proceeded to implement his own plan for streamlining the yearly membership drive. One of his committee members had previous experience in this job and offered advice that would improve Smith’s plan and make the system more efficient. Mr. Smith ridiculed this person in front of several members and refused to listen to any of his ideas. The result was a catastrophe. The new plan cost the organization twice as much as the old plan, and in the process of implementing it, Mr. Smith lost several years worth of computer records that support staff had to later re-type. This took seventeen hours to finish. The person Mr. Smith ignored suggested a complete system backup to prevent such loss and cost-saving measures that would have saved money.

Transition and summary of essay/ Restatement of thesis

New paragraph: Mr. Smith's record speaks for itself: he would make a very poor committee chair.

Conclusion gradually broadens by summarizing points, establishing why issue is important in author's point of view, and calling for action from directors.

The directors cannot afford to give him any more opportunities to antagonize and belittle members, waste money, and take this organization down the wrong path. This position is too important to organization’s future to put in the hands of someone who has very little concept of teamwork and leadership. Other members have much more experience and have proven that they have the necessary qualities to chair this committee. The directors should consider them instead of Joe Smith.