Weak writers find it useful to have a structure for their ideas.  Our favorite structure is the ‘Hamburger Essay. Let’s try one.

If you are writing for school, start with a title.  It should be short and catchy, perhaps “How I Spent my Summer Vacation”, or “The Maple Leafs are Hopeless”.  Underline the title, because teachers LOVE that.

Now the TOP BUN:  Tell your audience what you are GOING to tell them.  What is the main idea that you will argue.  If this is your first essay, it might not be different from the title.  Let’s go with “The Maple Leafs are the worst team in the league.’”

THREE PIECES OF MEAT:  Now we need to provide some arguments to support that.  Three is about the right number, but we can use a few more or less.  How about:

  • They almost always finish in last-place.
  • No one likes their players.
  • Tickets are way too expensive.

BOTTOM BUN:  Finally sum it up.  Find another way to tell your audience again what you just told them.  Close your essay in a way that ties everything together.  Maybe “I can’t watch them anymore.”  Or “I’m embarrassed to be a fan”, or “ESPN calls them the worst team in the league”.

And here it is:

mapleleafsThe Maple Leafs are Hopeless

The Maple Leafs are the worst team in the league. They almost always finish in last-place. No one likes their players. Tickets are way too expensive. I can’t watch them anymore.


Gosh, that wasn’t hard.  And it’s a huge improvement over what many struggling reader can do.

Your little writer needs to start practicing, at least one essay a day as part of his daily reading time, but don’t put a pencil in his hand yet.  Start by practicing ‘talking essays’.  Just the way we did.  Pick a topic and turn it into an essay discussion.  The topics can be serious or ridiculous, this should be fun for both of you.

What’s the title?  Hmm, not snappy enough.  OK, top bun.  Three pieces of meat.  Bottom bun.  Awesome.


How about this one:  Grandma gave you socks for Christmas (instead of the Nintendo you hoped for?).  Let’s write a thank-you note.   Title?  How about ‘Thank You.’

The top bun comes easily:  ‘Thank you for the socks’.  Now three pieces of meat:  They were warm, they were colourful, there were two of them.  Sum it up. “I’m very happy with them”.  Glue it together and it’s the greatest Thank-You note EVER.

socksThank You.Thank you for the socks. They were warm, colourful, and there were two of them. I’m very happy with them.



Keep practicing. Once your student can do an spoken Hamburger, then scribe for him. Make him find a sentence for the top bun, three burgers, and bottom bun, and write it out for him cleanly. Next step is to get him to write simple bullets, even just single words. Then expand the bullets into full sentences. Over time each sentence becomes a paragraph, and the Hamburger becomes a “Five-paragraph Essay”.

The one day, he needs to knock off 1,000 words for an major assignment? No problem.  Start with the same small outline and just build it up.  Here’s one

Big Sugar’s Secret Ally?  Nutritionists

The Sugar industry claims that sugar is just ‘food’, but that’s not true.

  • Our bodies treat sugar differently from other foods.
  • Sugar increases our risk of obesity and diabetes.
  • Yet nutritionists point at fat as the problem.

Nutritionists are protecting the sugar industry.

Now tart it up, add some background, replace small words with bigger ones, and stick in a graphic.  I took this subject randomly from an opinion piece in the NYTimes that had probably started life as a Hamburger, click here see what it looked like all dressed up.

I used to bring in the NYTimes Weekly Review section to the clinic and ink it up with my students.  A surprising number of those op-ed pieces were obvious Hamburger Essays.


The Hamburger Essay will get you through university.  Really.  Every class assignment and every term paper will look smarter and better organized if you start with a Hamburger outline.  When you get to graduate school, you only have to add a piece of lettuce and a tomato.  The lettuce is “I am interested in this subject because…”, and the tomato is “On the other hand, …”.

My 100-page thesis was just a Hamburger Essay.  A chapter of introduction, three sections, and a chapter of conclusion.  And each section was a Hamburger, introduction, meat, wrap it up, hand it in.  I once has a student write a one-sentence summary of each of the 25 chapters of a Goosebumps, and sure enough the first two were a clear introduction, then three narrative sections, then a conclusion chapter – it was a Hamburger expanded to a book.


There are four TYPES of essays
  • Narrative Essays: Telling a Story about a real-life experience.
  • Descriptive Essays: Describing someone or something, like painting a picture.
  • Expository Essays: Telling the facts.
  • Persuasive Essays: Making an argument.

All four can benefit from a Hamburger structure.  Weak writers tell a narrative like “We did this. Then we did this.  Then this.”  Or worse, run it all into a single sentence.  The Hamburger writer knows better, he might say “I had a terrific time at the zoo.  I saw the animals.  I fed a giraffe.  I played in the park.  It was a wonderful day.”   That little bit of structure makes all the difference.

Hamburger Essays are the greatest invention ever for struggling writers. Start your little writer on the path to good structure by teaching him the Hamburger Essay.


So here’s what this essay said:

Hamburger essays give structure to writing.

  • Here’s what they look like
  • Here’s how to teach your student
  • Hamburgers are not just for beginners

Every essay can benefit from a Hamburger.