You have just been dropped on a trail in an unfamiliar state park. You have no snacks, no water bottle, and no GPS. Although you can probably accomplish some and maybe even all of the hike in just the clothes on your back and the shoes on your feet, you will be at the mercy of the terrain, the temperature, and the length of the trail.

Wouldn’t it be so much better for the outcome if you could back up a moment and at least plan for the basics? A few moments planning would allow you to grab some things for the backpack, put on lug sole boots, and print out a trail map.

Sitting down to write an essay is a bit like this scenario – you can just start writing and see how it goes, but why not think ahead somewhat? The basic structure of an essay looks like this:  an introduction, including a thesis statement; the body, including topic sentences in each paragraph; and a conclusion.

If that is about all the planning you can manage, fine, but before putting pen to paper (or fingers to keyboard), give some thought to at least those elements. Let’s start with the introductory paragraph(s).

An essay’s introduction sets the tone for the entire piece. Use an opening compatible with both your thinking and your audience’s expectations. Be academic, philosophic, argumentative, humorous, or reflective. If you tell a story as a “hook,”  follow it with a sentence or two to guide your readers’ thinking about how it applies to your essay’s subject. Whatever opening you choose, make sure it complements your thesis statement. If your hook and your thesis don’t pair well, one of them isn’t quite right for your essay.

A thesis statement is the one-sentence commercial for the entire essay. It tells readers not just what they will read but also reveals an author’s intended bias toward the subject. If you are writing a large paper, your introduction may be detailed enough to mean your thesis statement is a page or two into the writing. For homework and exam essays, however, thesis statements are usually the final sentence in the first or second paragraph.

Erik Simpson, an English professor at Grinnell College, provides his students with a template called the “Magic Thesis Sentence.” It has three components:  (1) “By looking at _____,” (2) “we can see _____, which most readers don’t see;” and (3) “this is important because _____.”

After you’ve become comfortable filling in the template, you should stop using Simpson’s words and write your own to his three components: (1) item/idea, (2) your unique way of thinking about it, and (3) why people should care.

Planning the thesis statement helps plan the body of the essay. If you know you get sidetracked easily once you start writing, prepare the thesis first and use it as a guide for the various paragraphs needed to support it. If your essay alters during revisions, be sure to make the needed changes to your thesis. Don’t worry if this back-and-forth happens a few times during your writing. Many writing instructors believe writing is a process that cycles through the planning, drafting, writing, and editing stages a few times before an essay is finished, and should be expected — so budget time for that to happen!

Since writing is a cyclical process, it’s okay to work in reverse. If you are the type to let words flow, then freewrite. Somewhere in your process you’ll notice that writing the body has developed your major points and identified your point of view. Until then, remember to type “insert thesis” at the end of the introduction so you won’t forget to include one.

To review the companion set of slides to this post, go to Introduction slides. For another way to think about introductions, read unrequired modesty. For some specific examples of thesis statements for persuasion or argument essays, see Thesis statements. Finally, here is a slide set on conclusions.