How Essay Style is Related to Essay Structure


In the previous video we reviewed the structure of a typical academic essay, and talked about the practical functions that the structure serves; how, in spite of a certain dryness and predictability, it actually serves the interests of its intended audience quite well. The key is to see that this audience is a very specific type of audience — it’s an audience of professional peers.

This is an example of how essay style can relate to essay structure. Having the main thesis of the essay be stated up front in the introduction is a structural feature of an essay, but it’s also a feature of academic writing style.

In this video I want to introduce the distinction between style and structure, as a way of setting up the videos in the next section of this course, which focus on issues of style.

My main goal here is to clarify how structure and style are related to each other, so that when we do start talking more about style, you’ll be able to see how style choices will influence the structural features of an essay.

Structure in Essay Writing

Here’s how I think about essay structure.

If you’re talking about the features of an essay that can be mapped out on a diagram, where you abstract away from word choice and sentence structure and the specific voice you’re using, then you’re talking about structural features.

Now, there are lots of different features that can be represented this way, depending on what you’re focusing on and the kind of essay you’re writing, and the level of analysis. You can look at structure at the level of the essay as a whole, or in a particular section of the essay, or within an individual paragraph. There are many different kinds of properties that can count as structural properties, so this is still a very loose definition.

Example: Structure of an Argumentative Essay

Here’s an example. In this case we’re looking at the structural features of an argumentative, or persuasive, essay. At this level we can distinguish the three main parts -- the introduction, the main body and the conclusion -- and within each of these parts there are sub-units, and in some cases the sub-units are broken down even further.

The main body is where most of the action is, and because this is an argumentative essay, the structural features that we’re paying attention to in this diagram are specifically the argumentative features.

This is where we can see how many distinct arguments are being offered, whether we’re considering objections at all, and whether each distinct objection has a distinct reply.

I’ve chosen one way to represent this structure, but there many ways of representing structure, this isn’t the only way.

Now, if we wanted to pay attention to a particular argument-objection-reply unit within the essay, we could zoom in further.

For example, we could look at this unit, where the first argument given has an objection and a reply. We can imagine opening this up to see how the logical flow is organized. In this case, the objection that is being considered happens to be one that challenges the truth of one of the premises in the main argument.

This diagram represents not just the logical structure, it also happens to represent the order in which premises and objections are presented within the text.

This shows that a choice has been made to present this objection and reply to it right away, after the first premise is given, rather than wait until the full argument is given.

Now, one of the points I made in earlier videos about traditional academic essay format is that the format was determined in part by the practical context in which the writing is being done, and specifically, the context determined by the needs of an audience that doesn’t have time to waste trying to figure out what you’re trying to say.

Example: Structure of Essays Written for Media (the "inverted pyramid")

Here’s another example of a structural feature of a writing style that is determined by the practical context. It’s not widely known or followed in academic writing, but in writing for news media it’s very well known — it’s called the “inverted pyramid”.

Inverted pyramid structure says that you should try to present the most important information in the text as early as you can, in the first few paragraphs if possible, and save less important and supplementary material for later in the text.

So, what’s the practical context that would motivate this kind of structure?

The practical context is publishing when either space or number of characters is limited or a scarce resource.

In the early days when news was reported at a distance by telegraph, each character cost money, and it was expensive to send a long story, so there was pressure to keep news stories as short as possible.

An even more important factor was that in the days of hot press typesetting for newspapers, stories often had to be trimmed to fit a finite physical space. The editors had to structure the stories on a page that had fixed column widths and lengths.

The inverted pyramid allowed editors, even the compositors who made up the pages in the back shop, to cut stories to fit the space requirements, by literally trimming paragraphs, from the bottom up.

Given these constraints, a reporter had to write your story in such a way that it could survive such a cut and still be readable as a complete news story — you had to communicate the essential facts and their newsworthiness, quickly and concisely, in the opening paragraphs of the story.

Now, writing in this style has been criticized in many of the same ways that standard academic essay writing format has been criticized. Critics of the inverted pyramid say it’s unnatural, boring, and artless. It tells the story backward and in so-doing runs counter to the natural human psychology of storytelling that moves a reader through a beginning, middle, and end. It’s engineered so that it doesn’t reward a reader with a satisfying conclusion — the pyramid just loses steam and peters out.

On the other hand, supporters of the inverted pyramid say that it remains a valuable formula because in many areas of journalism and news media, similar constraints on time and space still apply, even if physical page limitations aren’t as big an issue anymore.

With more and more people reading the news online, and studies showing that online readers have shorter attention spans and will click away from a story unless it grabs their attention very quickly, it’s not surprising to see that modern news providers continue to write in the inverted pyramid style.

So this is another example of a structural feature of a writing style that is determined in part by context and how the writer relates to their audience within that context. And this is the general point I want to make about how write style relates to writing structure.

Essay Style

I said that essay structure is about the features of an essay that can be mapped out on a diagram. That’s a very crude definition, but it’s still a useful one. The examples we’ve looked at in this video give a sense of the sorts of properties and relationships I’m talking about. Essay style is a harder concept to capture, and that’s why I have a whole set of videos following this one that elaborate on the concept.

But the key idea is that essay style is determined a set of fundamental choices that a writer makes — choices about who their audience is, how they view their audience, how they view themselves, as authors, in relation to that audience, and what their broader communicative goals are, within the context in which the writing is taking place.

Style is the broader category and the more fundamental category, that’s why I’m putting it above structure.

Also, structural features of the writing tend to be determined by, or strongly constrained by, these stylistic choices. So the direction of dependency is from style to structure, not the other way around.

This is going to sound backwards to people who think of writing style primarily in terms of usage rules, like the codified rules for good writing that you see in a style manual like Strunk and White’s Elements of Style.

This is not the way I’m using the word “style” here.

But I elaborate on this in our next set of videos, which focus on writing style, and how choices of writing style relate to good versus bad academic writing.