Following the MEAL Plan in Academic Writing

Posted June 20, 2019

The MEAL plan is an approach advocated by many advisors and schools to help ensure students write well-structured paragraphs in their academic papers. Students often come to me confused saying, “My Chair wants me to use the MEAL plan. What do I do?” I respond, well, probably not much more than you have been doing throughout school: making sure you write well-structured paragraphs your reader can follow.

MEAL stands for Main idea, Evidence, Analysis, and Lead out. You may have learned this paragraph structure early in your schooling as having a main or topic sentence, supporting sentences, and a concluding sentence. Structurally, the MEAL plan is no different. The only difference is in content. At advanced academic levels, evidence must come from reputable scholarly sources, and analysis is expected to be concise and astute.

The problem for some of us at advanced academic levels is the material we are studying. The ideas may be new, and the reading may be challenging. The material requires us to think at a high level. It is expected that we grapple with this challenging new material. However, we are also required to write intelligibly about concepts that are difficult to understand. This is where confusion enters and can interfere with our ability to write clearly. So, who needs the MEAL plan? Anyone who needs to be reminded how to write a well-structured paragraph.

If you are struggling to make sense of new ideas and your writing is consequently confusing or jumbled, look at your paragraph structure. Take one paragraph at a time. See if you can identify the main idea or topic of your paragraph. If you cannot, start there. Then, see whether you provided supporting evidence or examples for your main idea. If not, provide it. Then, analysis: see if you need to explain your supporting material or make connections to the main idea for the reader. Finally, make sure you have a concluding sentence. This sums up the idea of the paragraph and ideally leads into the idea of the next paragraph, where you should repeat the process.

To some degree, many of us have internalized the process of writing well-structured paragraphs. In other words, we do not always need to think about this structure to make paragraphs intelligible and reader friendly. However, when writing about difficult and challenging material, which is often required at advanced academic levels, we may struggle with the material and encounter difficulties crafting well-structured paragraphs. This is when the MEAL plan can help us. Remember to see whether your paragraphs contain main or topic sentences, supporting sentences with explanation, and concluding sentences.

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