Planning your essay

Planning an essay


A recommended starting point for thinking about and researching your essay topic, is to write the question down on a card, and write the definition below this of the verb in the question. Bring the card with you at all times when you are researching the topic to keep the focus of your essay at the fore of your mind at all times. This will prevent you from reading unnecessary irrelevant information.

Gathering of Information  

Remember, it is highly unlikely that you are the first person to write on the topic you have been given in your essay question! You must show knowledge of previous academic research on your topic and incorporate it into your essay. This can be a good starting point as it gives you something to agree or disagree with. Remember that you must back this up textually.

Make sure you know all of the resources available to you, that is, books in the library, journals, internet, lecture notes, etc. If there is a database specific to your course, this may be very useful to do specific keyword searches using words in your essay title. Awareness of and use of these databases can cut down the time you spend researching your topic. Also, any secondary reading lists that lecturers provide you with are provided to you to cut down such time in searching for relevant material. Be sure to incorporate any relevant material in your essay, and in some way show that you are aware of such research.

Ordering of Information 

At this stage you must discriminate between what is relevant and what is not. Don’t try to include information merely because you find it interesting or have spent a lot of time reading something which makes you determined to include it. This is always important, but particularly so when the essay is short. In an essay of 2,000 words you really must keep to the point!

Rough Outline

At this stage, you need to work out where your argument is going. Take the ‘Main Body’ of your essay first and divide it into paragraphs. You will be able to assess how in-depth your argument must be and how many points per paragraph based on the length of your essay.  You can do this using a writing frame or planner:  spider diagrams, flow charts, lists or boxes. Your preferred learning style – visual, auditory, kinaesthetic or combination – will determine the most effective way to plan an essay.  The main ways to capture your ideas are:

  • Using a Dictaphone record your ideas, this can be done over a period of time.  It avoids the situation where thoughts may be lost whilst you are writing them down. 
  • Writing your ideas down into a frame or planner, or by constructing a mind map.  You could also use a large sheet of paper and post-it notes.  In this way you can move your ideas around until you are happy with the structure or flow.  It isn’t necessary to write in complete sentences, key words or phrases will do.
  • If you are a competent typist and prefer to work directly onto a computer, you might prefer to get your ideas down quickly.  Don’t worry too much about spelling or grammar mistakes at this point.   You can use editing tools to re-organise your points.

Draft 1.

Read a paragraph of the main body of your essay to consider whether or not your points flow together smoothly. Make sure that each paragraph marks a development in your argument. Also ensure that the last line of each paragraph either leads on to the next paragraph, or summarizes the paragraph’s argument.

Draft 2.

At this stage, the creative ‘ideas’ work of the main body of your essay should be finished, (still needing to be proofread). You can now write your conclusion. This should not introduce new material, but should sum up your argument and the logical conclusion to what you have argued. You may suggest further research which could be carried out on the topic, if you think this appropriate (you may wish to check this with your department). You may also wish to end with a definitive quotation from your research, if you read something which particularly struck you as an excellent summation.


Make sure that you write down all the information that you need for referencing as you do your research. For a book, you need: Author, Title, Place of publication (i.e. city) and Year of publication. For other types of publications, see document of writing a bibliography.


You should leave enough time before you hand in your essay to leave it for a day or two after finishing writing to leave your essay and proofread it later, a day or so before it is due. You will not be so involved with the logic of the essay and can read it ‘fresh.’ It is likely that you will notice improvements you can make and you will then have time to make them. Consider the flow of logic as you read the essay. Does it make sense? Have you done a ‘spell-check’? Also it is very helpful to get someone else to proofread your essay for an outside opinion on whether or not you have presented a clear argument.  More detailed information on proof reading is available in a separate leaflet.