Gordon Harvey’s Elements of the Academic Essay

The “Elements of the Academic Essay” is a taxonomy of academic writing by Gordon Harvey. It identifies the key components of academic writing across the disciplines and has been widely influential. Below is a complete list (with descriptions).

Elements of an Essay


“Your main insight or idea about a text or topic, and the main proposition that your essay demonstrates. It should be true but arguable (not obviously or patently true, but one alternative among several), be limited enough in scope to be argued in a short composition and with available evidence, and get to the heart of the text or topic being analyzed (not be peripheral). It should be stated early in some form and at some point recast sharply (not just be implied), and it should govern the whole essay (not disappear in places).” — Gordon Harvey, “Elements of the Academic Essay”


“The intellectual context that you establish for your topic and thesis at the start of your essay, in order to suggest why someone, besides your instructor, might want to read an essay on this topic or need to hear your particular thesis argued—why your thesis isn’t just obvious to all, why other people might hold other theses (that you think are wrong). Your motive should be aimed at your audience: it won’t necessarily be the reason you first got interested in the topic (which could be private and idiosyncratic) or the personal motivation behind your engagement with the topic. Indeed it’s where you suggest that your argument isn’t idiosyncratic, but rather is generally interesting. The motive you set up should be genuine: a misapprehension or puzzle that an intelligent reader (not a straw dummy) would really have, a point that such a reader would really overlook. Defining motive should be the main business of your introductory paragraphs, where it is usually introduced by a form of the complicating word ‘But.'” — Gordon Harvey, “The Elements of the Academic Essay”


“The data—facts, examples, or details—that you refer to, quote, or summarize to support your thesis. There needs to be enough evidence to be persuasive; it needs to be the right kind of evidence to support the thesis (with no obvious pieces of evidence overlooked); it needs to be sufficiently concrete for the reader to trust it (e.g. in textual analysis, it often helps to find one or two key or representative passages to quote and focus on); and if summarized, it needs to be summarized accurately and fairly.” –Gordon Harvey, “The Elements of the Academic Essay


“The work of breaking down, interpreting, and commenting upon the data, of saying what can be inferred from the data such that it supports a thesis (is evidence for something). Analysis is what you do with data when you go beyond observing or summarizing it: you show how its parts contribute to a whole or how causes contribute to an effect; you draw out the significance or implication not apparent to a superficial view. Analysis is what makes the writer feel present, as a reasoning individual; so your essay should do more analyzing than summarizing or quoting.” — Gordon Harvey, “The Elements of the Academic Essay”


“The recurring terms or basic oppositions that an argument rests upon, usually literal but sometimes a ruling metaphor. These terms usually imply certain assumptions—unstated beliefs about life, history, literature, reasoning, etc. that the essayist doesn’t argue for but simply assumes to be true. An essay’s keyterms should be clear in their meaning and appear throughout (not be abandoned half-way); they should be appropriate for the subject at hand (not unfair or too simple—a false or constraining opposition); and they should not be inert clichés or abstractions (e.g. “the evils of society”). The attendant assumptions should bear logical inspection, and if arguable they should be explicitly acknowledged.” — Gordon Harvey, “The Elements of the Academic Essay”


One of the most common issues we address in the writing center is the issue of structure. Many students never consciously address structure in the way that they consciously formulate a thesis. This is ironic because the two are inseparable – that is, the way you formulate an argument (structure) is essential to the argument itself (thesis). Thus, when emphasizing the importance of structure to students, it is important to remind them that structure cannot be developed in the absence of a strong thesis: you have to know what you’re arguing before you decide how to argue it.

As a writing tutor, your first task in addressing issues of structure will be to try and gauge if the student writer has an idea of what good structure looks like. Some students understand good structure, even if it’s just at an intuitive level, while others do not. If comprehension seems lacking, it may be useful to actually stop and explain what good structure looks like.

Some Ways of Thinking about Structure:

The structure of the paper should be progressive; the paper should “build” throughout. That is, there should be a logical order to the paper; each successive paragraph should build on the ideas presented in the last. In the writing center we are familiar with the scattershot essay in which the student throws out ten arguments to see what sticks. Such essays are characterized by weak or nonexistent transitions such as “My next point…” or “Another example of this…”.

Some students will understand structure better with the help of a metaphor. One particularly nice metaphor (courtesy of Dara) is to view the structure of an academic paper as a set of stairs. The paper begins with a small step; the first paragraph gives the most simple assumption or support for the argument. The paper then builds, slowly and gradually towards the top of the staircase. When the paper reaches its conclusion, it has brought the reader up to the top of the staircase to a point of new insight. From the balcony the reader can gaze out upon the original statement or question from higher ground.

How Gordon Harvey describes structure in his “Elements of the Academic Essay”:

“The sections should follow a logical order, and the links in that order should be apparent to the reader (see “stitching”). But it should also be a progressive order—there should have a direction of development or complication, not be simply a list or a series of restatements of the thesis (“Macbeth is ambitious: he’s ambitious here; and he’s ambitious here; and he’s ambitions here, too; thus, Macbeth is ambitious”). And the order should be supple enough to allow the writer to explore the topic, not just hammer home a thesis.”


“Words that tie together the parts of an argument, most commonly (a) by using transition (linking or turning) words as signposts to indicate how a new section, paragraph, or sentence follows from the one immediately previous; but also (b) by recollection of an earlier idea or part of the essay, referring back to it either by explicit statement or by echoing key words or resonant phrases quoted or stated earlier. The repeating of key or thesis concepts is especially helpful at points of transition from one section to another, to show how the new section fits in.” — Gordon Harvey, “The Elements of the Academic Essay”


Persons or documents, referred to, summarized, or quoted, that help a writer demonstrate the truth of his or her argument. They are typically sources of (a) factual information or data, (b) opinions or interpretation on your topic, (c) comparable versions of the thing you are discussing, or (d) applicable general concepts. Your sources need to be efficiently integrated and fairly acknowledged by citation.” — Gordon Harvey, “The Elements of the Academic Essay”


When you pause in your demonstration to reflect on it, to raise or answer a question about it—as when you (1) consider a counter-argument—a possible objection, alternative, or problem that a skeptical or resistant reader might raise; (2) define your terms or assumptions (what do I mean by this term? or, what am I assuming here?); (3) handle a newly emergent concern (but if this is so, then how can X be?); (4) draw out an implication (so what? what might be the wider significance of the argument I have made? what might it lead to if I’m right? or, what does my argument about a single aspect of this suggest about the whole thing? or about the way people live and think?), and (5) consider a possible explanation for the phenomenon that has been demonstrated (why might this be so? what might cause or have caused it?); (6) offer a qualification or limitation to the case you have made (what you’re not saying). The first of these reflections can come anywhere in an essay; the second usually comes early; the last four often come late (they’re common moves of conclusion).” — Gordon Harvey, “The Elements of the Academic Essay”


“Bits of information, explanation, and summary that orient the reader who isn’t expert in the subject, enabling such a reader to follow the argument. The orienting question is, what does my reader need here? The answer can take many forms: necessary information about the text, author, or event (e.g. given in your introduction); a summary of a text or passage about to be analyzed; pieces of information given along the way about passages, people, or events mentioned (including announcing or “set-up” phrases for quotations and sources). The trick is to orient briefly and gracefully.” — Gordon Harvey, “The Elements of the Academic Essay”


“The implied relationship of you, the writer, to your readers and subject: how and where you implicitly position yourself as an analyst. Stance is defined by such features as style and tone (e.g. familiar or formal); the presence or absence of specialized language and knowledge; the amount of time spent orienting a general, non-expert reader; the use of scholarly conventions of form and style. Your stance should be established within the first few paragraphs of your essay, and it should remain consistent.” — Gordon Harvey, “The Elements of the Academic Essay”


“The choices you make of words and sentence structure. Your style should be exact and clear (should bring out main idea and action of each sentence, not bury it) and plain without being flat (should be graceful and a little interesting, not stuffy).” — Gordon Harvey, “The Elements of the Academic Essay”


“It should both interest and inform. To inform—i.e. inform a general reader who might be browsing in an essay collection or bibliography—your title should give the subject and focus of the essay. To interest, your title might include a linguistic twist, paradox, sound pattern, or striking phrase taken from one of your sources (the aptness of which phrase the reader comes gradually to see). You can combine the interesting and informing functions in a single title or split them into title and subtitle. The interesting element shouldn’t be too cute; the informing element shouldn’t go so far as to state a thesis. Don’t underline your own title, except where it contains the title of another text.” — Gordon Harvey, “The Elements of the Academic Essay”


A student’s argument serves as the backbone to a piece of writing. Often expressed in the form of a one-sentence thesis statement, an argument forms the basis for a paper, defines the writer’s feelings toward a particular topic, and engages the reader in a discussion about a particular topic. Because an argument bears so much weight on the success of a paper, students may spend hours searching for that one, arguable claim that will carry them through to the assigned page limit. Formulating a decent argument about a text is tricky, especially when a professor does not distribute essay prompts—prompting students to come to the Writing Center asking that eternal question: “What am I going to write about?!”

Formulating the Idea of an Argument (Pre-Writing Stage)

Before a student can begin drafting a paper, he or she must have a solid argument. Begin this process by looking at the writing assignment rubric and/or prompt assigned by the professor. If no particular prompt was assigned, ask the student what interests him or her in the class? Was there a reading assignment that was particularly compelling and/or interesting? Engage the student in a conversation about the class or the paper assignment with a pen and paper in their hand. When an interesting idea is conveyed, ask them to jot it down on a paper. Look for similarities or connections in their written list of ideas.

If a student is still lost, it’s helpful to remind them to remember to have a motive for writing. Besides working to pass a class or getting a good grade, what could inspire a student to write an eight page paper and enjoy the process? Relating the assigned class readings to incidents in a student’s own life often helps create a sense of urgency and need to write an argument. In an essay entitled “The Great Conversation (of the Dining Hall): One Student’s Experience of College-Level Writing,” student Kimberly Nelson remembers her passion for Tolkien fueled her to write a lengthy research paper and engage her friends in discussions concerning her topic (290).

Additional ideas for consultations during the pre-writing stage.

Formulating the Argument

The pre-writing stage is essential because arguments must “be limited enough in scope to be argued in a short composition” according to Harvey’s Elements of the Academic Essay. Narrow down the range of ideas so the student may write a more succinct paper with efficient language. When composing an argument (and later, a thesis), avoid definitive statements—arguments are arguable, and a great paper builds on a successive chain of ideas grounded in evidence to support an argument. It is of paramount importance to remind your student that the argument will govern the entire paper and not “disappear in places” (Harvey). When composing an actual paper, it’s helpful to Post-It note a summary of your argument on your computer screen to serve as a constant reminder of why you are writing.

Difficulties with Arguments and International Students

When international students arrive at Pomona College, they are often unsure of what the standard academic writing expectations are. If a student submits a draft to you devoid of any argument, it’s important to remember that the conventions of their home country may not match up to the standards we expect to see here. Some countries place more of an emphasis on a summary of ideas of others rather than generating entirely new arguments. If this is the case for your student, (gently) remind him or her that most Pomona College professors expect to see new arguments generated from the students and that “summary” papers are frowned upon. Don’t disparage their previous work—use the ideas present in their paragraphs as a launching point for crafting a new, creative argument.


“Students, like all writers, must fictionalize their audience.”

– Fred Pfister and Joanne Petrik, “A Heuristic Model for Creating a Writer’s Audience” (1980)

The main purpose of imagining or fictionalizing an audience is to allow the student to position his/her paper within the discourse and in conversation with other academics. By helping the student acknowledge the fact that both the writer (the student) and the reader (the audience) play a role in the writing process, the student will be better able to clarify and strengthen his/her argument.

Moreover, the practice of fictionalizing the audience should eventually help the student learn how to become his/her own reader. By adopting the role of both the writer and the reader, the student will be able to further develop his ability to locate his/her text in a discourse community.

During a consultation, you may notice that a student’s argument does not actually engage in a conversation with the members of its respective discourse community. If his/her paper does not refer to other texts or ask questions that are relevant to this particular discourse, you may need to ask the student to imagine who his/her audience is as well as what the audience’s reaction to the paper may look like.

Although the student’s immediate answer will most likely be his/her professor, you should advise the student to attempt imagining an audience beyond his/her class—an audience composed of people who are invested in this discourse or this specific topic.

If your student cannot imagine or fictionalize such an audience, it may be because the student may not believe that he/she know enough about the topic to address such a knowledgeable audience. In this case, you should advise the student to pretend that he/she is an expert on the topic or that the student’s paper will be published and read by other members of the discourse community.

The student, however, should not pander to the audience and “undervalue the responsibility that [he/she] has to [the] subject” (Ede and Lunsford, 1984). Advise him/her to avoid re-shaping the paper so that it merely caters to or appeases the audience.

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