How To Format Your Extended Essay

When it comes to writing a brilliant first draft of your Extended Essay, or any essay, I fully believe that a solid structure is one of the surest guarantees of success there is. It’s the skeleton of the essay that makes it into a fully formed being instead of a pile of jelly. And the best way to make sure you have a skeleton instead of just gelatine (is that a rhyme?) is to create a plan or outline.

We’ve talked about how to choose a topic, go about your research, and pin down a research question. So now we’re going to address how you can take all of that work and turn it into a concrete plan. It’s all about organising your ideas so that they are as clear as possible. After you’ve done this, writing the essay will be about simply filling in the gaps!

Preparing to construct your Extended Essay Outline

Know your destination

Although your research question should already suggest what you are aiming to achieve in the essay, your conclusion needs to take this a step further. It can’t just be the same as your introduction but in different words (as tempting as that option is!). Everything in your essay should take the reader on a journey to this conclusion. It should help progress your argument so that we get closer with every paragraph.

If you’re now realising that you don’t know your destination, take the time to figure this out before you start writing. The results of a Science experiment will make it pretty obvious, but even in more subjective subjects such as English, History and World Studies you need to decide what conclusion your research points towards.

My advice to you, if you simply aren’t sure, is to follow your instincts. Think about how your evidence has affected what you personally think about the topic. Chances are it will have convinced you of something. For a reminder of different types of essay conclusions, there are some useful summaries in this article.

Exercise 1: summarise your conclusion in one sentence. Even if it’s not exactly right, or if it doesn’t include everything you feel is important about your topic, compress it as much as you can into one core idea. If you can’t do this right away then set a timer for five minutes and start drafting sentences about what you ‘think’ your essay might conclude. At the end of the five minutes pick the one that you feel summarises it best.

Define your ideas

Take a moment to free your mind from all the details, facts, quotes and data. Go back to the essence of your essay, which is the argument you are trying to make. Without using your research to speak for itself, identify all the different ideas you want to include, and the things you want to say.

For example, you might have evidence that Virginia Woolf uses imagery of flowers frequently throughout Mrs Dalloway, but what does this actually mean in the context of your question? The idea behind it might relate more to her affinity with nature, or the parallels she draws between flowers and people.

Exercise 2: write down all the ideas you want to include in your essay. Don’t worry about an order yet. Focus instead of getting all of your ‘points’ written down somewhere. Not only is this likely to help your organise your thoughts, but it will also mean you can refer back to it later to make sure you haven’t forgotten one of your favourite ideas! This can take the form of a mind map, a list, a Word Doc. Do whatever feels easiest, because chances are this is what will help your ideas flow naturally.

Filter your evidence

I can 99% guarantee you that you won’t be able to use all the research you have done. A lot of it will be:

  1. Irrelevant to the question
  2. Repetition of what you already have
  3. Not quite right for your line of argument

THEREFORE it is important that you filter your evidence so that you only have the best examples and information.

Use your research question as your starting point and your conclusion sentence (the one you wrote earlier) as the end point. It is your job to make sure that every piece of research is part of a bridge between the two. Absolutely every quote, fact or piece of data that you include should actively answer your question. If it doesn’t, don’t include it.

Exercise 3: First, highlight the clearest, most informative research that you have gathered. Next, take all of these pieces of research, and write a short, one-sentence summary next to each one, describing how it relates to your question. Use your own words. You will hopefully start finding that they are backing up some of the points you know you want to include.

Constructing your Extended Essay Outline

There are different techniques you can use to structure an essay. Because the Extended Essay is much longer than what most of you will be used to, I strongly recommend using a particular technique or process to do this. Below are some examples, and you should do whatever works best for you.

The Bullet-Point Outline:

You know this one. It’s the most classic example of how to structure an essay and the one most of you have probably tried before. The trick with this one is to start small and expand outwards afterwards.

  • Summarise each paragraph into one line that defines the idea or sub-topic behind it.
  • Expand each paragraph summary by adding 2 extra bullet points:
    1. Evidence, data or a quote
    2. How the example relates to the idea you are trying to convey
  • Expand your paragraph bullet points by adding in other ideas or points that are directly relevant to the overall idea behind it

The Post-it Note Outline:

I’m defining this as anything that involves you breaking down your paragraphs into defined pieces. Post-it notes, cards, and scraps of paper are the most common examples. This option is brilliant if you struggle coming up with an order for your ideas straight away. Instead it lets you play around with all the different parts of your essay as you go, until you have put them in the best possible order.

If you like the idea of this process but can’t stand the idea of lots of physical pieces of paper, there are some apps that perform a similar function such as Gingko or Evernote.

The Spreadsheet Outline:

For the structure nuts among you. The beauty of this is that it lets you easily compare paragraphs in terms of length and content by breaking each one down into clear sections. You can choose how exactly you format it, but it might look like this:

As with the post-it version it is super easy to use this method to change the order of your paragraphs. You can also tailor the columns depending on what categories are most relevant to you. If you want to go a step further you can even colour code your sheet, for example according to 1st hand data or 2nd hand data, or close analysis and thematic analysis.

The key is to have a view of the bigger picture of your essay. How you go about it is up to you!

Read Part 5: How to Write It

Your extended essay is a formally written research paper and you should strive to present it as professionally as you can.  See the boxes on the right for IB documents giving detailed requirements for presentation, required elements, and suggestions on formatting. See the box below for guidance on what should be on the title page.

Font and spacing

Use a readable 12-point font and double spacing. You will be helping your examiners read and assess your essay on-screen.

Referencing and citations

The IB does not specify what referencing/citation format you should use. Whichever system you choose, make sure that you follow it consistently. Check, too, that it meets the minimum requirements for acknowledging both written and electronic sources expected by the IB. See the IB publication:

  • Effective Citing and Referencing

    Explains why citations are needed, what needs to be cited, when citations are necessary, and how to cite, and also provides a list of citation definitions, a documentation checklist, and a chart showing the elements to be included in a reference.

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