Essay Structure

This is the second of four hand-outs designed to help you as you prepare your assessed work. The others are "Reading and Note-Taking", "Referencing and Bibliography Construction" and "Essay Presentation" Any comments or suggestions are welcome.

Intellectual Health Warning: These handouts are for advice only. How to study is, by definition, a personal question and so these handouts reflect my personal preferences and are only meant to make you think about what is the best way for you to study. Ask around for advice from other sources and experiment with what suits you best.


What often differentiates a good essay from a poor one is a structure. The structure needs to be both logical and clear. What might be obvious to you often remains only implicit. Make it as easy as possible for the reader to discern the structure of your essay. If you have problems doing this, then it may mean that your essay does not have a structure. Structuring an essay basically comes down to planning an essay. Below are some ideas about planning your essays.

Plan your essay as soon as you can
Do not wait to "finish" reading before you start planning your essay. A provisional essay plan drawn up early on in the writing process can be an invaluable guide to what reading you should be doing.

If you are having problems getting started try brainstorming all the ideas you can think of. In five minutes write down on a sheet of paper all the ideas, points, evidence that you can. Use the "back of your brain" to pull together any relevant material from lectures, seminars, other materials you read in the course etc. Once you have done this you can start to sort out the issues and statements you have made and try and distil them into a logical order.

Evolve your essay plan
(or "The Origin of the Specious")
As you read more (and write more) you will change what you think. Do not be afraid to alter the essay plan as you go along. Perhaps as you write the essay, keep another document open on the word-processor with the plan in it so that you can amend it as you go. If you are going to hand-write the plan, writing it in pencil might make you see it as less final.

Say it!
In the plan say what you are going to argue rather than saying which areas you will cover. Think in terms of statements rather than topic headings. Do not leave the thinking until later. Draw up essay plans that actually contain within them a one sentence answer to the question being addressed.

Use the essay plan as a way of starting writing the essay
If you have a detailed essay plan then try putting the text into that as you write the essay so that you never start with the dreaded blank screen in front of you. There is nothing wrong with writing the middle of the essay first.

Put different sections of the essay plan on different pieces of paper
(or "The Ancient Art of Section Juggling")
This will allow you to experiment with the order of the sections and to see what is the most logical order (it may not be the first one you try) and it also means that you will be forced to see the different sections as distinct and, to some extent, self-contained.

Use essay plans in talking about your essay
(or "How to improve your social life through the careful planning of essays")
If you are going to talk to your tutor, try and go with an essay plan which will give you a structure and something concrete for you to both focus on. Also discuss your essay plans with fellow students and get them to comment on what you are attempting.

Different sections may be different lengths
(or "All sections are equal but some are more equal than others")
There is no reason why all sections of an essay need to be equal. Some points are easier to make than others and so require less space. Some points are more important than others and therefore require greater elaboration.


Essay Question
Who Governs?

Introduction Context

  • Basic question of politics = question of power
  • "Governs" = here defined as who determines the shape of public policy
  • Democracy, as an institutional arrangement, is about distribution of power and therefore makes important normative and empirical claims about who governs
  • Scope of the answer = liberal/capitalist democracies

Theme or Hypothesis
No-One Governs: public policy as outcome of intended/unintended inter-institutional dynamics

Plan of Essay
Part 1 about the nature of the possible groups that could dominate, Part 2 about the importance of institutional interaction to political process, Part 3 about the output of the policy process.


  • No single group dominates
Suggested groups (capitalist class for Marxists [e.g. Miliband, 1976]/business for neo-pluralists [e.g. Lindblom, 1977], or social elites for elitists [e.g. Mills, 1956]) that dominate are in fact internally divided (therefore lacking agreed goals) and unable to control entire outcome of political system


  1. Capitalists/Business = fragmented along national/international lines (e.g. division over whether protectionism is promoted or decried)
  2. Social elites = lacking homogeneity with changing nature of class (e.g. new middle class interests in public sector conflicting with old middle class defence of private sector entrepreneurialism)


  • Public Policy is often determined by institutional interaction which no single group could control (even if it were unified)
Although social groups can (and do) dominate institutions, it is the interaction between the institutions that determines the overall contours of public policy and it is that interaction which is so hard for social groups to control because it is a dynamic process


  1. Division between different institutions of government with differing agendas (e.g. legislature, executive, judiciary and bureaucracy)
  2. Division between institutions of politics apart from the formal institutions of government (e.g. market/state interaction, government/economy interaction)
  3. Different levels of politics (e.g. national vs. local)


  • Public Policy does not have a unified character
Public policy favours different social groups in different policy arenas and even favours different social groups in the same policy arenas at different times


  1. Labour favoured in welfare/social policy and business favoured in fiscal/taxation policy (e.g. policy in the 1990s)
  2. Different regions getting different policy preference (e.g. contrast between the policy towards the North in the 1960s and 1980s)

Statement of Argument:

  • No-One Governs because (1) no social group is unified enough; (2) the complexity of institutional interaction mitigates the possibility of a dominant social group; and (3) public policy is essentially diverse in its outcomes
  • Essentially negative conception of power (form of anarchy perhaps?)
  • The conditions for one group to dominate might exist if the scope (and therefore complexity) of state action is reduced and is society becomes dichotomised (rather than fragmented). This might be the way politics is going and so we are nearer the potential of the dominance of a social group but are currently under the reality of no-one governing

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Paul Taggart Last modified 14 October 1996