What matters more when writing an essay: the content or structure? You will be surprised at what actually matters. It’s the structure. Essays with good ideas without logic or a connection which leads you seamlessly from one sentence into another is hard to understand and even worse to have to grade! Imagine going to a movie where the end came at the beginning, the plot twist comes at the end, the main character is introduced halfway through the movie, and there is no resolution to the main conflict. Not a good idea and that’s why no one has ever produced this movie.
Nevertheless, here is a common conversation I have had with students during office hours relating to comments and feedback I have given them about an essay they may be writing.
Me: So I have read your essay and the major problem is that the essay is structurally defective in a way that undermines the clarity of your ideas and arguments. I can’t follow what you are trying to argue.
Student: Okay. Okay. But you still know what I mean right? I mean the argument I want to make is clear in my head.
Me: Errr well no. Apart from the fact that I can’t read your mind, the structural problems with your paper make it impossible to identify your argument. And, well, fuzzy writing denotes fuzzy thinking.
This last point is usually met with an expression of bewilderment. Many students believe that even if an essay they are writing is structurally flawed, these flaws do not provide evidence of a deeper intellectual difficulty.
Indeed, often students respond that I am being overly pedantic. Or, ironically, being “too academic.” They think that I should not focus on the ways in which the essay is structurally problematic. Instead, I should focus on the quality of their ideas.
The problem with this response is the assumption that there is a bright line distinction between, on the one hand, content or substance and, on the other hand, structural integrity. This assumption is false. If an essay is poorly structured, then it will be very difficult to comprehend and to evaluate the quality of its content. Therefore, a poorly structured essay is almost always also a substantively bad essay.
While many students fail to appreciate the relationship between content and structure, not all students fail to do so.
It tends to be the case that for students whose first language is not English, they are acutely aware of this relationship. Because they are still working to grasp the skills of writing in English, including vocabulary and writing structure, these students are receptive to feedback about essay structure. They understand that unless the come to grips with the structural requirements of writing an essay, they run the risk of producing poor work that a reader cannot properly understand.
This anecdotal observation suggests that when students engage the enterprise of academic essay writing, they should adopt the mindset of a language learner. They should not merely be open to learning new ideas and gaining new knowledge about the world at school or university, they should also be open to the continued learning of the structural requirements of writing, analysis, and argumentation.
To hark back to my response to students who are bewildered by my comments on the structure of their essay and the claim that “fuzzy writing denotes fuzzy thinking,” I want to develop this claim by suggesting that we can never really know what we think unless we try to express our thoughts to another person in writing.
Indeed, the whole point of putting our ideas into writing is so that we can communicate with someone else.
The structural rules of writing apply to make our message clear to a reader. For these reasons, a poorly structured essay equals a bad essay. No matter how brilliant we might think we are “in our heads,” this thought remains untested until we can clearly convey what we think through well-structured written expression.
So until we are all able to read each other’s minds, it makes sense to communicate clearly according to expected structural conventions.
Useful samples and examples: