The Anatomy of a Ten-Page Paper

October 2001

Undergraduates intimidated by the task of writing a ten-page term paper may find it helpful to break the assignment and the paper into smaller units. Here is a model breakdown, showing the structure of a hypothetical 22-paragraph essay, which would normally work out to about 10-12 pages. Each gray rectangle represents one paragraph. Of course, this is an overly formulaic proposal. History will not fit into such neat boxes. Some sections will be longer than others. But this is a starting place for your wanderings.

The hard part about writing is that there is no set order in which the elements should be written. Among the first tasks are to break the story into sections, write a topic sentence for each planned paragraph, and come up with a working hyopthesis. All will change in the course of actually writing. Your evidence will change your thesis. Your thesis will suggest ways in which to present your evidence. Keep rereading and rewriting thesis and evidence and conclusion until all tell the same story.

The Introduction (2 paragraphs)

The first paragraph poses the research question. Often, it tells a brief story, then explains why that story needs interpretation. E.g., “In August 1814, a British force invaded Washington and burned the White House. Why was the city so poorly defended?”
Paragraph two explains how the paper will answer the question posed in the lead. The paragraph ends with the thesis statement: a one-sentence summary of the argument of the essay.

The Body (3 X 6 = 18 paragraphs)

It is often useful to break down the body of the essay into two, three, or four parts, each identified with a subhead. Three is an especially strong number. For example, Section I could state one side”s position in a debate, Section II could state the opposing case, and Section III could explain how the conflict was resolved.
Each body paragraph should begin with a topic sentence that supports both the main point of the section and the thesis of the paper. It may be helpful to write all eighteen topic sentences first, then flesh them out. (Of course, some may be dropped in the writing process, while others fragment into multiple paragraphs.)

The Conclusion (2 paragraphs)

Paragraph 1 of the conclusion reiterates your thesis, explaining why it is the best means of understanding the evidence you presented in the body.
Paragraph 2 explains why this argument matters, and how the story and its interpretation help us understand Faulkner’s universal truths—”love and honor and pity and pride and compassion and sacrifice.”