Author: Sydney Bauer
This lesson introduces essays and common essay formats.
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Introduction to Psychology

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An essay is generally considered to be a piece of writing, such as an academic paper,  that focuses on a specific topic or subject. The word "essay" means "to make an attempt or an effort." 

For the most part, when a teacher gives you an essay assignment they are looking for you to give an interpretation of an experience or facts regarding a specific subject, situation, or event. An essay requires a controlling idea that will guide which details are included in what order. The controlling idea is the thesis statement and it is your stance on the topic or the main idea you are trying to convey to your audience. Once you've given your thesis statement, you'll devote the rest of the essay to explaining, defining, and analyzing the topic through your perspective. You might even attempt to persuade others to adopt your reasoning. 

Although a general essay assignment will be broad enough to give you freedom of choice, there is a right and a wrong way to respond to an essay assignment. 

It is a good idea to logically order your details so that your paragraphs transition easily from one idea to the next and the reader is able to see your thought process. Don't just throw information at the reader, they might not know how the pieces fit together.


It is a good idea to create connections and relationships amongst the facts, ideas, and information you include in your paper. Using signal and transition phrases is a good way to avoid giving your reader a list of facts. Not only do the facts need to connect to each other, they need to relate to the overall question or prompt to which you are responding. Your words will build a system of bridges between each part.

           Don't give your reader a list of facts, even if they are organized in a particular order. You need to explain the connections between them. Never leave the reader guessing as to what you meant to say. 

Including only the necessary details and information will help keep your essay clear and concise. 

          Don't pad your essay with useless additional information. The essay will feel cluttered or disjointed, and the true message might get lost in the chaos. If you find yourself grasping at straws to fulfill a length requirement, do some high-speed, last-minute research to find additional (and appropriate) information to include. Perhaps you could expand on your own ideas to fill that space. However you do it, fill the space meaningfully. 

A good essay relies on specific language. Use strong verbs that convey a clear action. Use specific nouns to identify the agents or subjects of your sentences. General statements really only belong at the beginning of the introduction, and even then it would be a good idea to limit how many you use. Even specific statements need credibility, so be sure to support your statements with appropriate evidence. 

              Do not fill your essay with general statements that lack any support. 

Always use complete sentences in your essay. 


Essays can be written in varying lengths using various formats. The most common are the Three, Four, and Five paragraph essays. 

The Three Paragraph Essay is made up of an introduction that includes a thesis statement, a body paragraph, and a concluding paragraph. Both the introduction and conclusion paragraphs are each about 5 to 8 sentences long. The Body Paragraph is roughly 9 to 11 sentences long and develops a single focus, which is most likely the support for the thesis statement. This essay format should be used for shorter assignments, or less complex essay assignments. 


The Four Paragraph Essay is made up of an introduction paragraph that includes a thesis statement, two body paragraphs, and a concluding paragraph. Both the introduction and the conclusion paragraphs are each about 5 to 8 sentences long. The body Paragraphs each develop an idea by either elaborating on two different parts of the topic or giving a progressively more complex analysis of a single subject or topic. Each Body Paragraph should be about 8 to 10 sentences long. 


The Five Paragraph Essay is by far the most commonly assigned essay format. Thesis statements are often structure with three "provable parts" or three ideas (expressed in parallel structure) that become the topics of each of the three Body Paragraphs. For example, if the topic of the essays is the recent flooding in your area, the thesis statement could be structured as follows: 
"The level of devastation left behind after recent flooding was caused by more than the excessive amounts of rain; the lack of good drainage, wetlands, and organized response systems in our town were the three major causes." 
The three provable parts would be "lack of good drainage," "lack of wetlands," and "lack of organized response systems." These each become the three body paragraphs of the Five Paragraph Essay. The thesis will always dictate the topics and order of the body paragraphs.