Structure and formatting tips to help you understand how to write a formal essay

A very large part of all academic writing at school and college is designed to teach you academic conventions. The idea is that you will learn how to write, how to reference sources, how to structure an argument, and how to format a professional looking paper. Of course, this is easier said than done! But, below is a list of some of the essential elements of a formal essay.


Every piece of formal writing will have the same basic elements, regardless of the discipline:

Introduction: Here you tell the reader what you will be exploring – ‘In this essay I will be discussing the basic elements of a formal essay’.

Literature Review: Here, you tell the reader about existing scholarship on your subject, and this lets the reader know that you have done your research – ‘As Smith has previously suggested…, but Jones argues that…’

Main Body: The main body is where you carry out your argument. Depending on the length of the essay, you should have at least two distinct part to the main body, comprised of two separate arguments for your point, with evidence, and which hopefully take into account existing refutations. Your main body is an engagement with the topic in an informed way.

Conclusion: This is where you sum your argument up. Go back to the beginning and recap everything – ‘I wanted to demonstrate that… as I have shown by reference to. Therefore, it seems that A is the case’.

Extrapolate: If possible, draw wider conclusions from your study, broaden out the conclusion to suggest why it is important for more that this single study.


The format of the essay will be determined by the requirements of your school and the subject. Certain disciplines have required formats, such as psychology which uses APA, and the humanities which usually use Harvard Referencing. Whichever you are using, the single most important necessity is that you be consistent, and that you format in the same way for the entire document.

So, the most important thing is to include all essential elements, as outlined above. The formatting is the thing that provides a consistent form for your work, so, if you can get these two aspects correct, then your essays should earn you high marks!