The Rule of Thirds: A Simplified Approach to Essay Writing

Writing essays can be rewarding. It’s rare, but sometimes the research fits together organically, sentences flow crisp and clear, and Word doesn’t throw a paddy at your citation formatting. Most of the time, however, an interruption to at least one of these ideal conditions announces itself, and the most common result is that you stare deep into an existential crisis with no idea what your essay should look like. The rule of thirds can help, and once you’ve used it a few times, it does the work for you.

The rule of thirds is an essay structuring method that orders your thoughts, interrogates your question, and lays out your arguments in the process. It follows one rule: repeatedly break up your essay into thirds until each part has only one job. Because you begin from the whole (top-down) rather than the beginning (bottom-up), the rule of thirds makes it near-impossible to write a useless or ill-fitting sentence.

Let’s say for a moment you want to write a very short essay about Francis the Corgi. Bear with me. You could start listing details, but it might not make for a very coherent read. For it to feel like you started and ended in the right place without any obvious omissions or sense of arbitrariness, you can and often should use the rule of thirds.

Let’s say this essay has been issued by a professor who really doesn’t care for lesson prep: in a hundred and fifty words or less, describe the appearance of Francis the Corgi. Let’s say you’d rather expedite things so you can get on with pretending to write your thesis.

Firstly, segment every essay you ever write into an introduction, body, and conclusion, like so:

  1. Introduction
  2. Body
  3. Conclusion

Then, examine the question, identify its crucial element, and use it to break up the body section. You get as much from an essay as possible by basing its structure on its subject, and this essay is about Francis the Corgi’s appearance:

  1. Introduction
  2. Body
    • General Appearance
    • Movement and Behaviour
    • Specific Details
  3. Conclusion

Notice that my three body sections progress from general to specific. You can choose which part of your question lets you do this. Just remember that an essay with a logical structure – where there are reasons for the order of your sentences and paragraphs – will always make for coherent argument and easy reading. The rule of thirds makes doing this a breeze. In this case, a single paragraph will suffice for each section, but you could further sub-divide as is needed.

What next? Divide again. It doesn’t necessarily have to be into three sentences, because style is more subjective that that, but we should look to place three statements or observations under each heading:

  1. Introduction
    • Francis is a corgi. He was born in 2014. He likes jazz and long walks.
  2. Body
    • General Appearance
      • Francis is thirteen inches tall. He is a creamy shade of brown. He has longer fur than most corgis.
    • Movement and Behaviour
      • There is a spot of fur he can’t reach, but he spends hours trying to lick it. Because he is immature, he nibbles people’s fingers. He walks in a slight zig-zag because he hurt his left back leg when he was a puppy.
    • Specific Details
      • Francis has also has one claw missing from that leg. There is a patch of off-white fur near his tail. He has brown eyes.
  3. Conclusion
    • Francis the Corgi is a puppyish character with a bad leg and unusual fair. While generally well-behaved, it’s best that petters watch their fingers around him. You can often find him preening to the smooth sounds of jazz.

And there you have an essay plan that has written the piece for you. All that remains is to turn it into standard paragraphs and smooth out the prose:

Francis is a corgi who was born in 2014. He likes jazz and long walks.

He is thirteen inches tall and has relatively long fur that is a creamy shade of brown.

There is a spot he can’t reach, but he still spends hours trying to lick it. He nibbles people’s fingers out of immaturity, and walks in a slight zig-zag because of a puppyhood accident involving his left back leg. He has one claw missing from that leg.

There is a patch of off-white fur near his tail, and, adorably, he has brown eyes.

Francis the Corgi is a puppyish character with a bad leg and unusual fair. While generally well-behaved, it’s best that petters watch their fingers around him. You can often find him preening to the smooth sounds of jazz.

The more observant reader will note that the statement about his missing claw has been moved to the second body paragraph. This is because it fits better and the rule of thirds is designed to help rather than enforce. So long as you plan rigorously, you’ll have time to play around with the odds and ends of paragraphs.

There are few writers who can see their way through more than seven hundred to a thousand words without putting plan to paper first. Even they would take far longer to write this essay without the rule of thirds in particular. Imagine just writing one sentence after the next without forethought. Imagine having to consider every facet of your style, structure, form all at once. Imagine doing so over ten thousand or even a hundred thousand words.

The rule of thirds allows you craft an essay that is fundamentally designed to answer its question. It also allows you to chart out the progression of your argument and consider structure and style at different times, giving you space to focus on each. Finally, it breaks down huge tasks into something less daunting, allowing research and writing to be done in a modulated and less chaotic manner.

It can be used for fiction too. The three-act structure works well for this very reason. Films, plays, poems: many can be broken sensibly into three parts. I planned out and wrote this thousand word blog post in just under ninety minutes using the rule of thirds.

The next time you feel overwhelmed by a piece of work, remember the rule of thirds. It might even give you time to work on that thesis.

*hysterical laughter*


Phillip Sutcliffe-Mott (@tobeormotttobe)


The Flavian Amphitheatre and the Impact of Public History.

Joe Clark is studying on the MRes Humanities course at Newman University. He is currently researching the reasons why Emperor Domitian was subject to damnatio memoriae (damnation of memory) by the Senate following his reign. The Senate attempted to wipe a ‘bad’ emperor’s reign from history, and he is interested in the intentions behind the Senate’s move as well as the effectiveness of damnatio memoriae. You can find him on twitter @Joe96Clark.

I visited Rome for the first time in 2015 on a Newman University field trip. It was the first opportunity I had as an undergraduate to travel abroad with my cohort, and I made sure I seized every opportunity to visit as many historical sites as I possibly could. We visited sites such as the Pantheon, Trevi Fountain (although just our luck it was closed for that summer), the Roman Capitol Building and the St Peter’s Basilica. Though seeing Rome from what felt like the top of the world at the top of St Peter’s Basilica was incredible, the highlight of the trip was well and truly the Flavian Amphitheatre.

I stood inside the Colosseum in awe, appreciating the history that it held with the huge number of gladiatorial shows, and it was at this point that I knew I wanted to study its history further. I explored for two hours, reading descriptions on models of how the Colosseum once stood upon its completion and I had so many questions that needed answering. I spent a great deal of time admiring the amphitheatre from all different angles on both the ground and the upper floor. I was completely encapsulated by the scale of the building work and appreciated how well preserve the amphitheatre was – considering it is nearly 1,950 years old. Henceforth, it became one of the focusses in my undergraduate dissertation just over a year later when preparing for my final year. I knew the Colosseum had to play a role. Eventually, my dissertation’s focus was on the Emperor Domitian. He was the second son of Emperor Vespasian (who commissioned the Colosseum’s construction) and the third of the Flavian Dynasty to become Emperor.

The consensus amongst both ancient and modern historians alike is that Domitian had a bad reputation. That he ran a largely tyrannical regime and he forced the Senate to take a position against his rule. However, thanks to my research, I put forward the case in my undergraduate dissertation that Emperor Domitian was in fact, not a ‘bad’ emperor, and instead his reign was a continuation of his Flavian predecessors’ successful reigns before him. Both Emperor Vespasian and Emperor Titus had successful and popular reigns, and I found that Emperor Domitian had an equally successful reign in most aspects of his reign.

I decided to continue with postgraduate study because I felt that more had to be done to prove that Domitian was in fact a successful emperor. This has led me to research further the concept of a ‘bad’ emperor across Roman history. My MRes dissertation will be looking at the impact damnatio memoriae had on various emperors including Domitian. I will be arguing that Domitian did not deserve the treatment he posthumously received when comparing his reign to other emperors who also succumbed to damnatio memoriae such as Commodus, Elagabalus and Caracalla. I chose these emperors as they ruled across each of the first three centuries and this will emphasise changes in patterns for how Roman emperors suffered damnatio memoriae, as sanctioned by the Roman Senate.

The link between studying the Colosseum through primary and secondary literature and visiting the Colosseum just a couple of years ago is a strong reason behind why I chose to study ancient history for my undergraduate dissertation. I originally struggled to choose a specific period to study when choosing my undergraduate dissertation topic, and often felt uncomfortable talking to my peers about it. However, the university trip to Rome and visiting the Colosseum inspired me and helped me to decide the direction I want to take in my studies. Furthermore, it is the reason why I am studying on the MRes course at Newman University for the next year.


Newman Humanities Research Seminar Series 2017-18


The series will start with Dr Kate Katafiasz (Senior Lecturer in Drama at Newman University) who will be presenting Living on two sides of a piece of skin: drama and the real’ – see below for a brief outline of the paper.

Dramatist Edward Bond makes surprising claims for the political power of drama. Because it involves pretence or mimesis it is an art form many (following Plato) have dismissed as escapist, even childish. In any case, drama is often overlooked these days in favour of what Hans-Thies Lehmann (2006) usefully terms ‘postdrama’.  Yet according to Bond, drama helps us create ‘the patterns and forms of being human’ in response to great crises of culture. Bond cites ancient Athens and Jacobean London as places where drama radically changed human reality, to inaugurate the classical world, Roman Christianity, the industrial revolution. This is he states, a process so multiple and complex that ‘only drama can do it – not technology, administration, the economy or salesmanship […] Drama itself is the form of reality’. (Bond 2012: 6; 2016: vii, viii).

This paper will be published next year in Registres, Theatre Research Journal of the Université de la Sorbonne Nouvelle, Paris 3. Its version for the Newman Humanities Research Seminar will use slides, and aims to offer an intelligible, at times performative engagement with early Poststructuralist Philosophy, in an attempt to understand how drama may provoke the profound cultural change to which Bond refers. It may be of interest to anyone interested in critical theory and especially those actively involved in any aspect of postgraduate Humanities research.

For details on upcoming seminars please see the following link:

BOOK REVIEW: Rachel G. Fuchs, Gender and Poverty in Nineteenth Century Europe, 2005.

MA Victorian Studies student Natasha Ami Wiseman has reviewed Rachel G. Fuchs, Gender and Poverty in Nineteenth Century Europe, (2005).

This book is Rachel Fuchs attempt to bring attention to the lives of the poor people of Europe during the nineteenth century. Fuchs aim is to provide a social and cultural history of the destitute and convey the extraordinary difficulties they faced,  paying particular attention to the textures of women’s everyday lives. She believed that historians of the mid to late twentieth century concentrated on industrial development and political issues and merely portrayed the poor as weak, passive victims or lazy vagrants. According to Fuchs information in this area was insufficient in portraying the true diversity of the lives of men and women. She wanted to provide a social and cultural history of the poor, depicting the texture of their everyday lives, providing a human face to poverty and reclaiming poor men and women of Europe from anonymity. Therefore allowing us to sufficiently be able to answer the question of ‘who were the poor and what did it mean to live in poverty during the nineteenth century?’

Choosing to pay particular attention to the women of this period and focus on the importance of gender allows Fuchs to attempt to present a more in-depth understanding of relationships and distribution of power.  She attempts to show their strength as they structure a life and set of relationships within a ‘climate of calamities’ (Pg. 5). By acknowledging how the poor negotiated power within a complex web of structural and discursive family constructs, combined with the fact historical studies of women and sexuality have flourished over the past few decades allows Fuchs to furnish us with new perspectives and allow us to successfully understand how a woman’s role was vital in a families survival and far more poignant than we have previously been led to believe.

Ever mindful that much of the information on poor women comes to us through sources penned by propertied men, Fuchs still manages   to portray the hardships women faced successfully, especially with the issue of pregnancy and child birth  in Chapter 2. This is by far the most harrowing section, particularly for a female reader of the twenty-first century. Her frank descriptions of the way hundreds of thousands of newborn babies were abandoned (Pg.46) and how desperate mothers would become wet nurses for the bourgeoisie and would have to watch their own babies die so that the infant they were being paid for lived is heartbreaking yet compellingly vital in enabling Fuchs to achieve her aims of depicting the texture of the poor’s everyday lives. Most importantly though it provides that essential human face to poverty. The fact that this information comes very early on in the book also feels like a strategic move that is extremely beneficial.

This book is ambitious, given the range and scope of the subject it is addressing, but by pointing out very early on that this is a book intended for the none specialists and is a basic summary of the issues involving women and gender history. You go into reading the book with no misconceptions of what it may contain. It is nevertheless a highly informative and accessible overview of the experiences of poverty. Its fluid way in which it is written and organised enhances it success and mirrors her statement that poverty is a fluid and unstable construct (Pg. 9). It is organised around five main themes which all aid the development of the concept that the poor lived in a climate of calamities marked by economic and social forces beyond their control (Pg. 5). It is comparative and highlights both the subtle differences and similarities between societies and cultures.

During the long 19th Century European women and men of all countries undoubtedly experienced dramatic and enduring alterations to their daily lives. The developments regarding the revolutions and industrialisation are documented well and by the end of the book you have a clearer understanding of what happened. Fuchs tends to only insert dates where they are specifically needed thus highlighting their relevance, which works well, however with so many subheadings certain material feels repeated several times as spheres overlap. Some areas are also very brief and you are left questioning their relevance. Fuchs claims that diversity is one of the major characteristics of the 19th Century (Pg. 17).  However it is difficult to agree with this statement when reading the book. It is awkward to be able to distinguish any significant differences between specific countries. In actual fact this book seems to highlight how European countries overall followed the same journey, experienced the same hardships, challenges and developments, just not at exactly the same time.

Fuchs use of sources comprises of few working class autobiographies, dossiers and police archives which provide a glimpse into the lives of poor men and women. She cleverly decided to limit herself to using key books only written in English because subject area is so broad and the historical literature is more prevalent for England, France and Germany so understandably the book focuses on these areas.

19th Century European culture revolved around the importance of the family and the woman’s pivotal role within it. The poor were not poor through choice which was the dominant ideology of the nineteenth century. They were not simply shiftless and lazy. The women were not weak demure creatures controlled by their husbands. Instead they were strong versatile beings that developed a culture of expediencies in a climate of calamities, aided by their own agency, community connections and systems of exchange.

Overall Fuchs has achieved her initial aims easily. She has more than successfully portrayed the complex nature of what it meant to live in poverty during the nineteenth century. Her frank and honest tone throughout, but especially regarding the lengths that women had to go through to ensure their family’s survival are truly eye-opening. She has not romanticised facts in any way. It is a solid introduction to the issues involving women’s and gender history that accurately portrays that class and poverty were not fixed constructs, but rather a fluid category that people moved in and out of depending on time, location and economic factors. She has effortlessly achieved her aim of increasing knowledge and understanding of a previously brief area of history.


Dr. Chris Upton Memorial Lecture

Monday 6th November – 5:30pm – Room 101 (Level 1) Library of Birmingham

To book your place at the lecture, please e-mail

Dr. Chris Upton’s Newman legacy still lives on today. A prolific writer, academic, historical consultant and reader in public history at Newman University, his passing on the 1st October 2016 was a sad day for all who knew him and his work.

Speaking on behalf of myself and every student that worked with him, Chris was truly one of a kind. Coming to Newman as a nervous, 18 year old undergraduate, Chris immediately took myself (and my entire year) under his wing. He was a beacon of light on many a stressed day.

He had a unique and joyous sense of humour which filtered its way through to every seminar, lecture, presentation or meeting he gave. This combined with his kind nature made him a vital part of the support system for many students here at Newman and also within the History department. His work was renowned amongst scholars and organisations within the West Midlands and further afield.

Upon leaving Wolverhampton Grammer School, he won a place at Kings College, Cambridge where he read Classics and English and completed his doctorate in Scottish Latin Poetry at St Andrews University. In 1980, he moved to Birmingham as a research assistant to Dr John Fletcher at Aston University. He then moved to archival work in the Archives and Local Studies departments of the Central Library and studied for a diploma in Librarianship and Information Studies at the University of Central England (Birmingham City University now). Following on from this, he became visiting lecturer at Birmingham University, became the chairman of the Birmingham Urban Studies Centre and was editor of the now defunct Birmingham Historian journal.

His flourishing career continued when he was awarded a fellowship at the University of Birmingham’s Institute for Advanced Research in Humanities and became a regular contributor to the Birmingham Post. When he was appointed senior lecturer at Newman College of Higher Education (now Newman University) he thrived even more.

He continuously published articles for over 25 years spanning from Ancient Greek to Industrial Birmingham. He wanted to make history accessible for all and his love of local history led to the publication of arguably some of the most popular and well read books on the history of the West Midlands; A History of Birmingham (1995), A History of Wolverhampton (1998), A History of Lichfield (2002), and my favourite of his works Living Back to Back (2005).

His incredible knowledge was utilised by many in the heritage sector with whom Chris continuously cherished the opportunity to work closely with. The Ikon Gallery, Thinktank, Birmingham Museums to name a few, as well as his involvement in the recreation of the Birmingham Back to Backs with the National Trust.

His bubbly personality made him an asset for TV and he made appearances on the local news, Who Do You Think You Are? and in 2013 he was invited to be the historical consultant on the BBC’s Peaky Blinders for their first season.

This is just a whistle stop tour of Chris’ career and certainly does not do him complete justice, which is why even after his passing his legacy continues. In
November 2016, his dear friends at the Central Library held the first of what is to become an annual event; The Chris Upton Memorial Lecture. The overflowing room full of students, academic staff, friends and family, heritage workers and many more was a delightful sight to see.

I for one, owe my pursuit of post-graduate study to Chris as he was one (along with others within the History Department here at Newman) that repeatedly encouraged and supported me to continue my research. He inspired my love for local history, and was not only a brilliant mentor, but also a dear friend.

I’m sure I am not the only one that needs to thank Chris for his influential and inspirational work both at Newman and further afield, which is why I am writing this post, to invite you to join many of us here at Newman in celebrating the legacy of Chris on the 6th November 2017 at the Library of Birmingham.

– Sophie Allen

For further details about the lecture, please see the following post from the team at Library of Birmingham.