How to plan an essay
Regardless of what you are studying, the chances are that you will have to write an essay at some point. Writing essays can seem daunting if your approach is just to launch straight into it with no sort of plan. Now, I know you might be thinking that by planning an essay you are wasting time that could be spent writing but this isn’t the case. In my experience, planning an essay doesn’t need to take too long and having a plan saves time writing the essay (I don’t want to waste your time any more than I want to waste mine!). In this blog post I will explain how I like to plan essays. This is specifically aimed at coursework type essays that you have more time for, rather than essays in exams.
Before you start to plan an essay, make sure you have everything you will need. Read any guidance you might have been given and make sure you understand what the essay is about and what is expected of you (this will all have been written to help you so make good use of it). Make a note of the word count and any other details about the format of the essay. Then gather any important materials. I like to have a selection of pens (including coloured pens – because studying is far more exciting when it is colourful), A3 paper, page markers, and some little post-it notes. Make sure that you also have any relevant notes or textbooks with you. Make sure you have all these things before you start so you aren’t constantly getting up to find stuff and getting distracted.
Focus on the essay question
Next, look at the essay question and any guidance in detail and make sure you understand EXACTLY what it is asking you to do. What specific topic do you need to write about? Are there any particular dates or theories you need to focus on? Are you being asked to compare two things? Or to discuss the implications of something, for example? Annotate around the question so that you are very clear about what you need to do (I like to use my coloured pens to underline key information so I can be sure I won’t forget it). Don’t skip this stage because you know the general topic of the question because whoever marks your essay won’t care how much information you know on the general topic if it doesn’t actually answer the question!
Read relevant materials
Depending on how well you know the topic the essay is on you might want to read over any relevant information in your textbooks or notes. This will remind you of the types of things you should be discussing. While you are reading try to think about what information relates to the essay question (you could even mark these with little page markers to make it easier to find relevant information later. There is nothing worse than knowing there is some really useful information somewhere but not being able to find it so make your life easier by doing this now). It can be helpful at this stage to read information about the general topic of the essay and any issues surrounding it, rather than just information specifically related to the essay question. This will help you to put the essay question in context (which markers always seem to like…).
Now that you know what is being asked of you, and information surrounding the general topic, brainstorm any relevant information (this could include any information you put page markers by earlier). This can be done in a number of different ways. For example you might like to make a big spider diagram, a table, or bullet points. Don’t worry at this stage about how to combine this information into a logical essay, just focus on writing any ideas down. Make sure that you have ideas from both sides of the argument.
Once you have written down all the relevant information, try to group this into logical categories. These could be of different arguments, or different paragraphs. I like to do this by colour coding the points I have written down so that related points have the same colour (this also makes it easier to see visually how many points you have per category and if this seems like a good balance).
Decide on what paragraphs to use
At this point you will need to consider your word count and therefore how many words each paragraph should have by the time you have allowed for an introduction and a conclusion. Once you have decided this, start to decide what information should go in each paragraph. Try to make sure that each paragraph has some evidence in it and links back to the essay question so you don’t go off topic. If it doesn’t link back to the question then it probably isn’t relevant so don’t waste words (and marks) writing about it. I like to write a brief overview of each paragraph on a little post-it note. It can also be helpful to give yourself a rough word count allowance for each paragraph so you have a guide to work to when writing the essay.
Decide on an argument for your essay
If you haven’t already decided on an argument for your essay, then you should now. Consider the evidence from both sides and decide which side you think is strongest. Once you have done this write your argument/ conclusion down on a post-it note and also make a post-it note with an overview of your introduction.
Decide what order to have your paragraphs
I then like to use my post-it notes with my paragraph outlines on to create a sensible order for my essay. The good thing about using post-it notes for this is that you can shuffle them around endlessly until you have a logical order. Try to make sure that each new paragraph somehow leads on from the previous one, it can sometimes be helpful to make a note of what the link is so you don’t forget. Also, make sure that the order you choose leads logically into your final argument so it doesn’t seem like your argument appeared randomly from the middle of nowhere.
Now, when you write the essay you will have a clear idea of what you are going to say and in what order to say it.
Leave a comment to let me know how you normally plan essays and if you found this blog post helpful 🙂