How to Plan An Essay

This is part of the Essay Writing Crash Course Blog Series.

Once you have gathered your research, done all your notes, it is time to start planning your essay.

In the beginning, many of my students don’t see the point in planning, they have all the information in their head, it’s an extra step in the process – why can’t they just get writing straight away?

However, your brain automatically starts organising information, but when it’s all in your head, you won’t know if it makes sense, or whether you have fully understood your research until you start writing it down. The PLANNING stage is about working out the ideas down on paper.

What’s the Purpose of a Plan?

The purpose of a plan is to give yourself time and space to organise and validate your ideas. By writing a plan you will determine your thesis statement and organise your research into a coherent structure that answers the essay question.

Your essay must answer the question, if it doesn’t you will lose marks. By taking the time to plan you will be able to stop yourself from going off track and make sure you are only including relevant information in your essay. Your planning will take more time than the writing (approximately twice as long) if you do the planning stage thoroughly. But the result is a strong answer built upon a logical argument that keeps building upon the previous point with only relevant evidence and analysis. 

What Happens if I Don’t Plan?

Think about an essay you’ve written without a plan. Have you had any of this feedback before?

  • Introduction is ok, but a bit vague.
  • You’ve repeated the same argument in the first few paragraphs.
  • Some of the points are in the wrong paragraph.
  • Last 1 or 2 body paragraphs show some thought and an argument, but the information should have been mentioned earlier.
  • Conclusion is ok, but could do with more consolidation.
  • Added new information to your conclusion..!

As mentioned, your brain will automatically start organising information and the above comments show that is what you have done in your unplanned essay, albeit badly. Those 1 or 2 paragraphs at the end of the essay you wrote are alright because you have now clarified what you want to say – but its a bit little too late.

It is much more confusing and time consuming to re-organise your essay after you’ve written it, rather than just planning it properly from the beginning. So let’s now look at how to plan an essay.

The Structure of an Essay

I. Introduction

An introduction introduces your essay topic. You will state the question, state your thesis statement, and list the points you will make to prove your thesis.

The introduction is where you state and or clarify any definitions and boundaries to your argument, as well as stating what you will argue in your essay.  For example, if we follow on from our history question on the “revolutions of ’89,” (see example on Part 1 of this series: How to Understand an Essay Question) I could start by defining what constitutes a revolution. If you go back to the brainstorm you will see some questions on the nature of a revolution, can revolutions be peaceful or must they be violent to constitute a revolution? In the introduction I would clarify whether I am discussing revolutions which can be defined as physical and violent events during the period and so would not include non-violent  protests; or I would define revolution by the outcome of the event, such as the overthrow of a government power. I may decide that I need to investigate this more in my essay and so, this may be a point to discuss in a body paragraph. As you can see, to include this information and these questions in my introduction I introduce my reader to the problems inherent in the question, and in order to provide a logical argument these words must be defined and perhaps the location too. This way I can keep the boundaries of what I will argue clear.

A thesis statement is your answer to the question in one sentence. This is what you will argue and link back to throughout the essay. If someone only read the introduction and conclusion of your essay they should be able to layout what you argued and how you argued it. The thesis statement is your argument in one sentence; it is your point of view and thus must be clear and to the point.

The points you make to prove your thesis can be incorporated into the sentence or written separately. There are a minimum of 3 points or topics used to prove your thesis and these points are the topics of your body paragraphs. You will list them starting from least important to most important. This helps build the momentum of your argument throughout the essay.

N.B. A basic essay must have 5 paragraphs: introduction, 3 body paragraphs and conclusion. This is the absolute basic minimum. For longer and more involved essays, you can, of course, have more than 3 body paragraphs.

II. Body Paragraph 1 

Paragraphs follow a basic structure of Point-Evidence-Explain-Analyse-Link (PEEAL). 

Each paragraph will argue one point/topic. This is stated in your first sentence, the topic sentence.

You will state EVIDENCE gathered from your research and explain its significance to support your point. For well developed essay paragraphs, you will need at least 2 pieces of supporting evidence with explanations and analysis. For higher level essays you will need to think more critically when analysing your sources and provide counter arguments.

Your EXPLANATIONS tell the reader what the evidence is saying in your own words. you may give some background information too, about where the information came from or who said it for example, but only what is relevant. The reason you explain in your own words is to help your audience understand it and also to give your understanding of it. The length of you explanation will depend on the type of evidence you present. Facts, figures and dates may need less explanation than a quote or description of a poster for example.

When you ANALYSE your evidence you will show why it is significant to the point you are making in your paragraph and how it impacts your argument as a whole. You may use comparisons, contrasts, for and against your argument; you want to think why am I using this piece of evidence? How is it relevant to my thesis? To what extent does this evidence prove my thesis statement? Does it help me answer the essay question.

Your final sentence will LINK the paragraph to the question. You want to show that the information in your paragraph is relevant and also to help your readers along by reminding them what you are talking about. Your final sentence is the way you do this.

Other useful points to note:

  • You want to build the argument throughout the paragraph and have the punchiest, juiciest point and evidence last.
  • You will need 2, ideally 3 pieces of evidence in a paragraph to make it strong.
  • To reach a more analytical and in depth piece of writing, include counter points to your evidence and then show how those counter-points still don’t disprove your thesis.

III. Body Paragraph 2

The point for paragraph 2 will be the second point you listed in your introduction to support your thesis. It will be of middle importance. Use PEEAL structure.

IV. Body Paragraph 3

The point for paragraph 3 will be the most important. It is the third and final point you listed in your introduction. It will be the point that “seals the deal” for your argument. Use PEEAL structure.

V. Conclusion

Your conclusion is the paragraph where you draw everything together. You will restate the question, your will restate your thesis statement, you will summarise your conclusions from your body paragraphs, then give your overall conclusions and link back to your thesis.

You will not add any new information in your conclusion, if you do include new information in your conclusion your reader, especially an examiner, will think “why haven’t they talked about this already?” (This is why the planning stage is so important, because you can catch this when you review.) This will weaken your essay argument. Just throwing extra information in at the end doesn’t work, ever.

The conclusion should bring your essay to a logical close, it doesn’t say anything new, it merely summarises everything you’ve already said.

Essay Plan Template

Make obvious signposts…

Your essay plan is set out simply with hierarchical numbering as you can see from the infographic to the left. The purpose of this is to allow you to see what order to write the information (when you write the first draft) and what information, explanation or analysis relates to what piece of evidence.

As we have already noted, you will state the body paragraph topics in your introduction. In the plan you will list these plainly so that they are easy to identify when you write. These topics will then form the topic of the body paragraphs in the plan and you will state it as such.

Each linking sentence links that paragraphs topic back up to the thesis statement and question. When you get to the conclusion you will do this again.

In the conclusion you will summarise your conclusions from the body paragraphs and again link back up to your thesis statement and the question.

Want to learn more about essay writing? Why not check out my essay writing crash course>>

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