Essay Basics

For college, an essay is a collection of paragraphs that all work together to express ideas that respond appropriately to the directions and guidelines of a given written assignment. Depending on the instructor, course, or assignment, you might also hear essays called papers, term papers, articles, themes, compositions, reports, writing assignments, and written assessments, but these terms are largely interchangeable at the beginning of college.

Essays and their assignments vary so much that there is no single right kind of essay, so there are no clear answers to questions such as, “How many paragraphs should a college essay have?” or, “How many examples should I use to help convey my ideas?” etc.

But with that said, most essays have a few components in common:

  1. The Introduction: the beginning parts that show what is to come
  2. The Body: the bulk of the essay that says everything the assignment calls for
  3. The Conclusion: the ending parts that emphasize or make sense of what has been said

One rudimentary type of essay that displays these components in a way that’s easy to demonstrate and see is the five-paragraph essay.

The Five Paragraph Essay

The term “five-paragraph essay” refers to a default structure that consists of the following:

  • One paragraph for the introduction
    • This should clearly state the main idea of the whole essay, also called the essay’s claim or thesis.
    • This should also include a brief mention of the main ideas to come, which is the essay map.
  • Three paragraphs for the body
    • Each paragraph should be about one main point that supports the main idea of the essay (the claim or thesis).
    • The topic sentence of each paragraph should be its main point.
    • The rest of the sentences of each paragraph should explain or support that topic sentence. In general, the method for this support is to provide an explanation, then an example or analogy, and then a conclusion. See more in the textbook section Paragraph Basics.
  • One paragraph for the conclusion
    • This should clarify the most important ideas or interpretations regarding what the essay has said in the body.


Example Outline of a Five-Paragraph Essay:

  • Introduction:
    • Claim/Thesis: Unleashed dogs on city streets are a dangerous nuisance.
    • Essay Map: They scare cyclists and pedestrians, present traffic hazards, and damage gardens.
  • Body Paragraph 1:
    • Topic Sentence: Dogs can scare cyclists and pedestrians.
    • Support:
      • Cyclists are forced to zigzag on the road.
      • School children panic and turn wildly on their bikes.
      • People who are walking at night freeze in fear.
  • Body Paragraph 2:
    • Topic Sentence: Loose dogs are traffic hazards.
    • Support:
      • Dogs in the street make people swerve their cars.
      • To avoid dogs, drivers run into other cars or pedestrians.
      • Children coaxing dogs across busy streets create danger.
  • Body Paragraph 3:
    • Topic Sentence: Unleashed dogs damage gardens.
    • Support:
      • They step on flowers and vegetables.
      • They destroy hedges by urinating on them.
      • They mess up lawns by digging holes.
  • Conclusion:
    • Emphasis: The problem of unleashed dogs should be taken seriously by citizens and city council members.


Exercise 1

Using a subject assigned by your instructor, create an outline for a five-paragraph essay following these guidelines. Complete sentences are allowed but not required in such outlines.

  • Introduction
    • Claim/Thesis
    • Essay Map
  • Body Paragraph 1
    • Topic Sentence
    • Support (Explanation, Example or Analogy, and Conclusion)
  • Body Paragraph 2
    • Topic Sentence
    • Support (Explanation, Example or Analogy, and Conclusion)
  • Body Paragraph 3
    • Topic Sentence
    • Support (Explanation, Example or Analogy, and Conclusion)
  • Conclusion
    • Emphasis


When the above example outline is turned into complete sentences, arranged in paragraphs, and further elaborated here and there for clarity and transition, it becomes a complete five-paragraph essay, as seen here:

Problems Unleashed

With unfamiliar turning lanes branching and numerous traffic lights flashing and aggressive drivers weaving and honking, the last surprise you need as an urban driver is to suddenly see a dog run by in front of you. Unfortunately, given the current ordinances allowing unleashed dogs, this is the case. Unleashed dogs on city streets are a dangerous nuisance. They not only present traffic hazards, but they also scare cyclists and pedestrians, and they damage property such as gardens.

Loose dogs are traffic hazards. Many dogs won’t hesitate to run across busy roads, and as soon as they do, people must suddenly swerve their cars. But the cars swerve where? In crowded city streets, the chances are there to swerve accidentally into other cars or pedestrians. And this danger is made worse by the tendency of children, who often don’t know any better, coaxing dogs across busy streets. These kinds of dangers are frequent enough for causes that can’t be controlled, and the problem of unleashed dogs, which can be controlled, adds to them unnecessarily.

And these dangers aren’t limited to swerving cars, for dogs can scare cyclists and pedestrians too. When dogs dart across their path, cyclists are forced to zigzag on the road. This leads to wrecks, which for cyclists can cause serious injury. And while adult cyclists might maintain control when confronted with a darting dog, children riding home from school can’t be expected to. They typically panic and turn wildly on their bikes. Even among pedestrians, unleashed dogs present a real danger, for no one can predict how aggressive a loose dog might be. When confronted with such dogs, people who are walking at night freeze in fear.

These are some of the most severe problems with unleashed dogs, but there are others still worthy of concern, such as the damage unleashed dogs do to lawns and gardens. Property owners invest significant time and money into the value of their lawns, but dogs can’t understand or respect that. Let loose without a leash, dogs will simply act like the animals they are. They will step on flowers and vegetables, destroy hedges by urinating on them, and mess up lawns by digging holes.

With the city ordinances as they currently stand, unleashed dogs are allowed to cause danger, injury, fear, and property damage. But this doesn’t have to be the case. The problem of unleashed dogs should be taken seriously by citizens and city council members. We would be wise to stop letting dogs take responsibility for their actions, and start taking responsibility ourselves.


Exercise 2

Read the above example outline and essay carefully. Then identify any significant changes in ideas, wording, or organization that the essay has made from the original plan in the outline. Explain why the writer would make those changes.

Exercise 3

Using your outline from Exercise 1, create a five-paragraph essay.


Keep in mind that the five-paragraph essay is a rudimentary essay form. It is excellent for demonstrating the key parts of a general essay, and it can address many types of short writing assignments in college, but it is too limited to sustain the more complex kinds of discussions many of the higher-level college essays need to develop and present.

For those kinds of essays, you will need a deeper and more complete understanding of the general essay structure (below), as well as an understanding of various writing modes and strategies, research, and format (the sections and chapters that follow).

Complete General Essay Structure

The following explains how to write an essay using a general essay structure at a far more complete level and with far more depth than the five-paragraph essay. This complete general essay structure can be applied to many of your essay assignments that you will encounter in many of your college classes, regardless of subject matter. Although innumerable alterations and variations are possible in successful essays, these concepts are foundational, and they merit your understanding and application as a student of writing.

Also note that there is no set number of paragraphs using a complete general essay structure, as there is in the five-paragraph essay (one introductory, three body, and one concluding). A good introduction can be broken up into more than one paragraph, as can a conclusion, and body paragraphs might number more than three. But this complete general essay structure can indeed be achieved in five paragraphs as well.

Here are the components of complete general essay structure:

  1. Title (see more details in the section Titles, Introductions, and Conclusions)
    • Use a phrase that identifies the subject.
    • Consider a title that also suggests the main claim, or thesis (see below, and see the section Thesis for more information)
    • Remember that the title is the writer’s main opportunity to control interpretation.
    • Don’t use a phrase that could easily apply to all the other students’ essays, such as the number or title of the assignment.
  2. The Introduction (see more details in the section Titles, Introductions, and Conclusions)
    • The Introduction gives the audience a stark impression of what the essay is about.
    • Begin in medias res (“in the middle of things”): Immediately offer a glimpse at a specific idea, example, or scenario that delves deep into a fascinating aspect of your subject. This is often called “the attention grabber.”
      • In choosing this glimpse, consider that which is surprising, counter-intuitive, or vivid.
      • Don’t use false questions, such as those about the reader’s personal experience, those that have obvious answers, or those for which you won’t attempt specific or compelling answers.
    • Context: Explain the subject you just introduced.
      • Give a larger understanding of the glimpse above, such as what the important issue is, or why it is significant.
      • Don’t get detailed. Save details for the body paragraphs.
    • Main Claim or Thesis: State the main claim  or thesis of your entire essay in a single sentence.
      • Your main claim or thesis is your position or point about the subject, often confirming or denying a proposition.
      • For more details on thesis statements, see the section Thesis.
      • Don’t use a question or a fragment as a main claim or thesis.
      • Don’t confuse the subject with the main claim or thesis.
    • Essay Map: Briefly name the three or more main points of the paragraphs to come, using the same order.
      • Don’t reference your own essay. State your main points by discussing the subject itself rather than by discussing the essay you’re writing.
      • Don’t get detailed here either.
  3. The Body (see more information in the sections Body Paragraphs and Organizing Body Paragraphs)
    • The Body forms the support for your main claim or thesis.
    • Keep in mind that you are not limited to three body paragraphs only, but that three body paragraphs form a good base regardless.
    • Give each main point a separate paragraph. Aim for at least three body paragraphs, which means you should have at least three main points that support your main claim or thesis.
    • Use topic sentences and supporting sentences in each paragraph. Supporting sentences often come in the form of explanations, then examples or analogies, and then conclusions. For more information on the structure of a paragraph, see the section Paragraph Basics.
    • Remember that separate paragraphs not only help the audience read, but they also help writers see their ideas as clarified segments, each of which needs to be completed, connected, and organized.
    • For details and strategies about how best to connect paragraphs, see the section Transitions.
    • Don’t combine two different focal points into the same paragraph, even if they are about the same subject.
    • Don’t contradict the order of your Essay Map from the Introduction, even if minor points require paragraphs in-between the main points.
    • Don’t veer away from supporting your main claim or thesis. If any necessary minor point appears to do this, immediately follow it up by conveying its support to your thesis.
  4. The Conclusion (see more details in the section Titles, Introductions, and Conclusions)
    • The Conclusion brings your essay to its final and most significant point. Use any one or combination of the following components:
    • Emphasis: Find a new way to encapsulate the most important ideas that have been conveyed in the essay.
      • One good strategy is to use a brief and poignant phrase or quotation.
      • Another good strategy is to use a metaphor: description of an interesting image that stands for an important idea.
      • Don’t re-state the introduction or be redundant.
      • Don’t bring up new details or issues.
      • Don’t end on a minor point
    • Humility: Be honest in admitting short-comings in your ideas, explanations, or comprehensiveness.
      • Don’t weaken your essay here with contradiction, false humility, self-deprecation, or un-rebutted opposition.
      • Don’t issue commands, get aggressive, or sound exclamatory in the Conclusion.
    • Elevation: Hint at higher, nobler possibilities relating to your subject.
      • For more information, see the section Rhythms of Three.
    • Combine or rearrange Emphasis, Humility, and Elevation as needed.

Exercise 4

Using a subject assigned by your instructor, create an outline for a complete general essay structure. In your outline, identify the types of ideas that you would use to address the components and principles explained above. Complete sentences are allowed but not required in such outlines.

Exercise 5

Using your outline from Exercise 4 and the concepts above, compose a complete general essay.


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The Writing Textbook Copyright © 2021 by Josh Woods, editor and contributor, as well as an unnamed author (by request from the original publisher), and other authors named separately is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

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