Unit 5: Essay Planning

Shouldn’t I just be able to sit down and write like a proper student?

Essays don’t come fully formed from the brow of the ‘perfect student’. They are produced rather by the sweat of one’s brow, as well as being, hopefully, the product of the pleasure that one can take in engaging with ideas, developing a position and stating it in writing. Planning is an essential part of the labour of essay writing.

Planning works best when it is conjoined with thinking, reading and writing.

Isn’t planning time-consuming, messy and unnecessary?

Yes, planning does take time – and it can be ‘messy’. Academic writing is not, in fact, a smooth, trouble-free process. That’s simply not the way it works – for anyone. The idea that it does is a fantasy that cannot be fulfilled, something that makes it considerably more difficult to write. But writing and planning CAN be enjoyable – just don’t expect miracles!

When should I do the essay plan?

You could do this: go straight to the library or Internet, spend days or weeks reading, plan, then write. This is what most students do. This is why most students get lost in the essay writing process.

Better ways of planning:

  • Begin with the title: analyse it carefully
  • Begin considering areas of focus by drawing out sub-questions from the title. For instance, with the question ‘In Shakespeare’s Hamlet is the prince mad?’ One could draw out the following sub-questions: what is meant by ‘mad’? Who has written what on this topic? Is there a generally agreed response to this question? If not, how and why do critics differ? Write these sub-questions down.
  • Think about what you already know that might be relevant (it will probably be more than you think)Write this down.
  • Generate ideas through speaking to fellow students, brainstorming ideas together, freewriting (writing continuously for five minutes or so – not stopping at all; if you can’t think of what to say just repeat the last phrase you wrote and carry on). Write down what you come up with.
  • Look at what you’ve written down. Pull out the points that are relevant to the title, discard the rest.
  • During each study session (at home or in the library) stop for ten or fifteen minutes. Write! Write in full sentences – not worrying about spelling or grammar. Write in response to the questions: in what ways is what I’ve been reading interesting and relevant to my essay? What more do I need to find out and why? How does what I’m reading link in to what I already know? Keep everything you write. You might be able to build up, mosaic-style, the greater part of your essay like this.
  • Eventually you must be clear about the order of things. There is a time for spanning outwards (playing with ideas, pulling on threads) and a time to focus things (bring things back together, unify). Put all your points in order and number them (is there one that would seem to go first or one that would seem to go last? Are there any two that are closely linked?).

You can, if you like, sketch out a plan – even before you start reading. Look upon your plan as something that evolves as you engage further with your topic and develop your understanding. Planning is a process.

If you are really writing as you read, and using writing as a means or thinking, of working out ideas, then you’ll already have much written. Some of it might by now be pretty fully formed. You might have a few paragraphs that require little revision. Other bits of writing might require considerable re-writing. That’s fine! The point is, you’ve got something to go on.

I recommend most strongly the writing-as-you-go-along approach. By doing this, you avoid the potentially dangerous split between research and writing. You will avoid doing loads and loads of reading – and putting off the writing (the dreadful encounter with the blank page) until the last minute

What should an essay plan look like?

It might look like lots of things. If, after a few days or a week or so of studying, you have a few well-written paragraphs here and there and a few bits of writing that need re-doing, put all your words in something like a sensible order. Then think about what needs re-doing, what needs adding to. Then do it!

But you might also need a punchier, more focused plan.

Should your plan be a mind map or words on a lined page? It might be diagrammatic or line after line of written text: that’s not the point. Plans can come in different shapes.

Your plan should provide the following:

  • a clear indication of which areas you will be covering, why they are important and how they relate to the question
  • a clear indication of how your argument is going to unfold

More specifically, I recommend that your plan should show clearly:

  • Each point you’re going to be making (write down each point in a single sentence).
  • How each point is going to be developed (jot down the ‘skeleton structure’ of the paragraph).
  • If there is any danger of you straying from the question, include a sentence saying how each point you’re going to make relates to the question. (If you can’t see how it relates to the title, cross it out: it’s a waste of space.)
  • Which texts you’re going to refer to (jot down titles, authors, page numbers and possibly bibliographical information).
  • The order in which each point is to come (number them).
  • A few notes to get you started with the introduction and conclusion (do these last: you can’t know how you’re going to introduce or conclude something until you’re clear about what you’re going to say).

This is how an essay plan might look (it should be possible with a short essay of 2 000 words or so to get the plan on to two or three sheets of paper):


A few lines of notes on how you’re going to introduce the essay. Three or four lines will be sufficient. Write this part of the plan and the conclusion last.

Point no. 1

Single sentence statement of the point to be made ..... ..... ..... ..... ..... ..... ..... ..... ..... ..... ..... ..... ..... ..... ..... ..... ..... ..... ..... ..... ..... ..... ..... ..... ..... ..... ..... ..... ..... ..... ..... ..... .....


Notes on how the point will be developed (include references to texts, page numbers etc). ..... ..... ..... ..... ..... ..... ..... .... ..... ..... ..... ..... ...... ..... ..... ..... ..... ..... ...... ..... ..... ..... ..... ..... ...... ..... ..... ..... ..... ..... ..... ..... ..... ..... ...... ..... ..... ..... ..... ..... ...... ..... ..... ..... ..... ..... ...... ..... ..... ..... ..... ..... ..... ..... ..... ..... ..... ..... ..... ..... .....


Additional sentence showing how point is relevant to title (necessary if you have a tendency to stray from the title)
..... ..... ..... ...... ..... ..... ..... ..... ..... ...... ..... ..... ..... ..... ..... ...... ..... ..... ..... ..... ..... .... ..... ..... ..... ..... ...... ..... ..... ..... .....

Carry on with the above (Point 2, Point 3, Point 4, etc.) until you reach the last one.


A few lines giving you an idea of how you might conclude your work. Remember, it’s always best to write the essay, add a few tentative lines in the way of a conclusion, then put it to one side for a couple of days before returning to it to complete the conclusion.

Here is an example of a mind map-style plan that I got from an Australian University’s web site (James Cook University):
http://www.jcu.edu.au/office/tld/learningskills/mindmap/sampleessay.html (accessed 29/09/08).


It shows the principles of mind mapping but I think it could be improved by adding indications of the order and adding texts to which the writer is going to refer.

End of Unit 5. Continue with Unit 6.


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