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Building the essay


Building the essay is the constructing and composing stage of the writing process.  It involves

  • developing ideas logically in individual paragraphs
  • including only ideas that are relevant to the central focus of the essay
  • ensuring that each paragraph flows smoothly and logically to the end of the essay

If you have planned well, by the time you come to write the first draft of the essay, you should know where you are going, how you will answer the question, and roughly how many main points you will have in the body of the essay within the given word limit.

In this section, you will learn how to:

  • construct an effective introduction that shows your understanding of the question and the key issues to be discussed
  • build key ideas into unified and coherent body paragraphs
  • write a strong conclusion to end your essay effectively


"The introduction and conclusion to a paper can be understood as a type of transition ... the introduction serves as a transition by moving the reader from the world outside of your paper to the world within.[...] the conclusion works in the opposite direction by moving readers from the world of your paper to their own world."


Commonly asked questions about introductions

When should the introduction be written - first or last?

For undergraduate essays (between 700 and 3000 words), it is advisable to write the introduction first (even if it is just a draft). At the very least, you should have a tentative thesis (point of view) about the topic. The introduction defines the topic, clarifies the context, and prepares the reader for the discussion to come. As the writer, you will find it easier to build the body of the essay if you know what the scope (main discussion points) of the essay is.


What information should be included in the introduction?

In the Planning the essay section, you learned that the introduction of an essay has the following features: the background or context to the topic, the topic introduction, a thesis statement, scope, and appropriate length. Ideally, the main ideas identified for the scope of the essay should be written in the order that they would be discussed, to reflect the organisation of the essay (that is, telling the reader what to expect).



Let us look at one introduction for this question:

Discuss the effects of the unemployment benefit system on the New Zealand economy.
Which of the following features does the example introduction have?

A model for writing introductions

You may find writing introductions difficult because you think you have to construct something from nothing. This is not the case. This model is about building from and towards something.

In fact, if you have analysed the question carefully (using some of the tools from the Planning the Essay section), you will realise that the key content words you have identified fit well into the broad to narrow model and can immediately give you a logical way to start the essay.


Here is an example of how the initial analysis of the question (using the bull’s eye strategy) translates quite easily into the broad to narrow model.

The broad to narrow model: an application

View the introduction to the essay question, Discuss the effects of the unemployment benefit system on the New Zealand economy, developed using this model. 

Hover over each section of the introduction to see its purpose.

A word on the thesis statement

Most academic writing involves discussion and argument, so a thesis (usually found in the introduction) is expected. A thesis can only be arrived at after you have weighed up all the evidence you have collected. A thesis statement states the main point of your essay and your point of view (which is formed from your research). It usually consists of one or two sentences.

A thesis statement is useful for two reasons:

  • For the writer: it helps you control what to include in your essay and how to organise your ideas.
  • For the reader: it helps your reader to know quickly what approach you intend to take in the essay.


What is an effective thesis statement?

Click through the slideshow to find out about thesis statements.

Thesis statements

Practice 1

Scrambled introductions

In this activity, each set of sentences form an introduction, but they are not in the correct order (ie, each set is a scrambled introduction). Revise the introductions by putting the sentences in the correct order to reflect the broad to narrow model. Can you identify the thesis statement?

1. Introduction for an essay about proteins:

Rearrange the sentences so they fit the broad to narrow model.

  • They are composed of carbon, oxygen, hydrogen, nitrogen and sulphur.
  • Protein molecules are large and complex organic compounds.
  • These five elements are found in all naturally occurring protein molecules.
  • This essay examines in detail the sources and properties of proteins, how they work in the human body, and their importance to general health and well-being.
  • The element nitrogen provides the key to protein's uniqueness in the body.
The thesis statement is:

2. Introduction for an essay about living in the 21st century

Rearrange the sentences so they fit the broad to narrow model.

  • Some people are excited by the challenges that these changes bring; others want to return to the simpler, less automated lifestyle of the past.
  • Living in the 21st century has certain advantages such as a higher standard of living with the conveniences afforded by the new technologies. However, there are also some disadvantages such as an increasingly polluted environment and the depersonalisation of human relationships.
  • This essay discusses some obvious drawbacks of living in the 21st century, resulting from the increased stress of a faster pace of life, and the advantages that outweigh them.
  • Yet, despite the inevitable consequences, the 21st century is still the best era to live in.
  • People born in the 21st century have seen a lot of changes take place in almost all areas of human life.
The thesis statement is:

Body paragraphs

The topic must now be described, discussed and developed in unified and coherent body paragraphs.

What is a paragraph?

A sentence is a group of words that convey a complete thought; a paragraph is a group of sentences that advances the thought further. A paragraph introduces and develops one controlling idea or one aspect of an idea related to the central focus and thesis of the essay.


A paragraph’s first sentence is often indented a few spaces with further spacing between paragraphs. Note: Indentation is not always required, if you have spacing between paragraphs. Check with your department about the style you should use. In typed scripts, spacing between paragraphs must be clearly visible and consistent with conventions or departmental guidelines. Whatever format you use, paragraphing – making divisions in the text – is essential. When done well, paragraphing improves the reader’s understanding of your writing.


Which text is easier to read?

Below are two versions of a text: one with and one without paragraph divisions. It is clear that version 2 is easier to read because the ideas have been separated out. The reader can see that there is an introduction, three main points and a conclusion.

Number of paragraphs and paragraph length

Go to the Organise ideas tab in the Planning the Essay section for a simple way of working out how many body paragraphs of an appropriate length you should have.

Unity and coherence 

A paragraph has unity if all the facts, examples, reasons and other details included in it are relevant to the idea introduced at the start of the paragraph. A paragraph has coherence if all the ideas are related to each other in a logical sequence, with each sentence building on the previous sentence.


The SEC model for paragraph construction

One of the difficulties that students have is building and developing an idea into a unified and coherent paragraph: there may be more than one controlling idea in the paragraph; the paragraph may be too short; or the ideas are not logically developed.

The SEC model is easy to use and ensures that each body paragraph is developed logically and unity and coherence are maintained throughout. The following is the first body paragraph from Bertrand Russell’s prologue to his autobiography, which is a classic example of a well-constructured, unified and coherent paragraph. He writes about the first of three passions that have governed his life-love.

Paragraph construction: The SEC Model

The presentation below shows how a paragraph is constructed using the SEC model. 

Paragraph construction

Practice 2

Identifying topic sentences

A topic sentence (the S of the SEC model) is important because it states precisely the main point you are making.

In the exercise, the topic sentence is missing from each of the paragraphs. You are given only the E and C elements of the SEC model. Read each paragraph and then select the most appropriate topic sentence from the options given. Make sure it is one that states the main point clearly and expresses the controlling idea.

The customs associated  with giving gifts vary from country to country.

It is beneficial therefore for anyone visiting a foreign country for whatever purpose to be familiar with the gift-giving customs of that country. Even more important is the knowledge of what gifts suit different occasions and to avoid unnecessary offence. Flowers, for example, are generally safe and appreciated gifts throughout the world for dinner invitations. However, the colour of the flowers may be culture-bound. In much of Europe, red roses symbolise romance and would be inappropriate to take when invited for dinner. In Austria and Germany, it is considered bad luck to receive an uneven number of flowers. In Hong Kong, the gifts to avoid are clocks, which symbolise death, and scissors or knives, which indicate the end of a relationship. In Japan, giving four of anything is to be avoided as the Japanese word for the number four is also the word for death. While it is generally acceptable to open gifts when they are presented, it is not customary to do so in many Asian countries. Indeed, it would be embarrassing for the presenters of the gifts. Therefore, no matter where in the world one is visiting, it would pay to take the time to learn some of the local gift-giving customs before leaving. (p.23)

Source: Blanchard, K. & Root, C. (1997). Ready to write more: From paragraph to essay. NY: Addison Wesley Longman.


2 Household pets bring many benefits to their owners.

Most importantly, they are kept for pleasure and companionship. In fact, many people consider their pet to be part of the family. In addition to their value as loved and loving companions, pets serve practical purposes, such as protecting homes and poperty, destroying vermin, and even providing means of transportation. They may also serve as emotional outlets for the elderly or the childless.  A recent study in John Hopkins Hospital in Los Angeles has also demonstrated the benefit of pet-facilitated psychotherapy. Finally, some people keep pets for their beauty or rarity, or, in the case of birds, for their singing.(p.23)

Source: Blanchard, K. & Root, C. (1997). Ready to write more: From paragraph to essay. NY: Addison Wesley Longman.

Building a body paragraph

Now you try. Choose another main point from the map of ideas for the question “The motorcar has wrecked civilisation”, or use the model with an essay you are working on.

  • Write an appropriate topic sentence to introduce the point [S].
  • Then write another 8 to 10 sentences to expand the point made in the topic sentence, with details, evidence and specific examples [E].
  • Write a final comment to finish your discussion of this point [C].


“Great is the art of beginning, but greater is the art of ending.”

H.W. Longfellow

Conclusions are difficult because you feel that you have nothing left to say and you are merely repeating the same information. On the contrary, the conclusion is your last chance to impress. It is often what your reader remembers best. It should, in fact, be the best part of your essay.

Here is a model for constructing an effective conclusion. You can see that it is the opposite of the introduction (Broad to Narrow) model.

Click here to view an example conclusion.

Practice 3

Scrambled conclusions

Earlier you looked at the scrambled introductions for The changing styles of rock and roll music and The motorcar has wrecked civilisation. Below are the scrambled conclusions for these topics. Put the sentences in the correct order to reflect the narrow to broad model:

1. The changing styles of rock and roll music

Rearrange the sentences so they fit the narrow to broad model.

  • Rock and roll music is constantly changing.
  • The colossal popularity and eventual worldwide view of rock and roll gave it a unique social impact.
  • However, all contribute to the power and excitement of rock and roll music of the time.
  • Far beyond simply a musical style, rock and roll influenced lifestyles, fashions, attitudes and language.
  • It was a music movement that changed a generation.
  • New styles are born; they grow, change and produce offshoots, which in turn grow, change and produce new offshoots.
  • Some styles enjoy lasting popularity, but others disappear rather quickly.

Text source: Oshima, A. & Hogue, A. (1997). Introduction to academic writing (2nd ed.)N.Y.: Addison Wesley Longman. (modified)

2. The motorcar has wrecked civilisation 

(This conclusion restates the thesis that the motorcar has wrecked civilisation.)

Rearrange the sentences so they fit the narrow to broad model.

  • Clearly, the introduction of the motorcar has been more of a bane to civilisation than a benefit.
  • In the 21st century, the economic survival of the planet is further threatened by the looming global warming crisis.
  • Not only is the motorcar a health hazard, but it is also one of the largest consumers of fuel, which is one of Earth's already depleted energy resources.
  • Finally, and perhaps the most disturbing effect of all, the motorcar is responsible for the creation of a human race given to uncivilised behaviour and excess.
  • Unless serious measures are taken by governments to control the use and ownership of motorcars, and to improve and actively promote other modes of transport, the future of this civilisation will be under serious threat.
  • The facilities built to accommodate the use of the motorcar have encroached upon valuable open spaces and turned the urban environment into a concrete jungle.

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