The Writing Pyramid

The writing section of an exam can be daunting: an expanse of blank lines, after several hours grappling with dense text, tricky math problems, and linguistic trivia. The emptiness of the writing section, save for a brief prompt, can be terrifying, especially to tired test-takers.


In-class writing assignments, term and research papers can also loom large. Students are bombarded by other people’s ideas, their lives are saturated with the process of parsing and analyzing fully-formed concepts. So it’s not surprising that being asked to materialize their own comprehensive interpretation—frequently on the spot—can be one of the most difficult aspects of student-hood.


In her recent article, “Lessons on the Craft of Scholarly Reading,” Professor Joli Jensen tackles the issue of effective reading[1]. Embedded within Jensen’s article are three “phases” of reading—inverted, they serve equally well as phases for effective writing. Jensen defines the stages of reading as “Gathering,” “Engaging,” and “Deploying.”


I like to think of academic writing as a pyramid structure. The first thing to consider is the broad parameters—the base. Whether it’s for an SAT essay question, an in-class writing assignment, or a longer paper, you have to know what the boundaries of your piece are first. It’s better to spend a few minutes noting these before-hand than it is to be unclear about them once you’re half-way into a piece. Rather than gathering information, this phase is about defining information. Phase two is engagement, and just as a reader would engage with a text they’re trying to understand, you the author are engaging with your reader to present them with what they are supposed to understand. That is, you’re narrowing the pyramid for them. The most effective academic writers will use this phase to lead their readers to the point: communicate your thesis, and clarify the process you’ll use to bring them to the top—your conclusion.


Phase three—deploying—is about putting the first two phases together. Using the parameters you’ve set for yourself, you have to show that your engagement is true, effective, credible, etc. In a short piece, this might look like noting several pieces of information that support your thesis. In a longer piece, you would draw on resources and cite specific text, historical events, or commentary to drive your reader’s perspective up to the pyramid’s apex. At the very top is the conclusion that you’ve been working towards.


This basic structure can be transposed onto effective academic writing of any length, and just about any field. It can be especially useful for organizing your thoughts for an exam writing section, or calming your mind during an in-class writing exercise. For longer papers, it can be a tool for building the outline that you follow to craft a paper, helping you to keep your point at the top of the pyramid.


[1] Jensen, Joli “Lessons on the Craft of Scholarly Reading.” ChronicleVitae, 06 August 2018.


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