How To Plan English Essays

Writing an essay often seems to be a dreaded task among students. Whether the essay is for a scholarship, a class, or maybe even a contest, many students often find the task overwhelming. While an essay is a large project, there are many steps a student can take that will help break down the task into manageable parts. Following this process is the easiest way to draft a successful essay, whatever its purpose might be.

According to Kathy Livingston’s Guide to Writing a Basic Essay, there are seven steps to writing a successful essay:

1. Pick a topic.

You may have your topic assigned, or you may be given free reign to write on the subject of your choice. If you are given the topic, you should think about the type of paper that you want to produce. Should it be a general overview of the subject or a specific analysis? Narrow your focus if necessary.

If you have not been assigned a topic, you have a little more work to do. However, this opportunity also gives you the advantage to choose a subject that is interesting or relevant to you. First, define your purpose. Is your essay to inform or persuade?

Once you have determined the purpose, you will need to do some research on topics that you find intriguing. Think about your life. What is it that interests you? Jot these subjects down.

Finally, evaluate your options. If your goal is to educate, choose a subject that you have already studied. If your goal is to persuade, choose a subject that you are passionate about. Whatever the mission of the essay, make sure that you are interested in your topic.

2. Prepare an outline or diagram of your ideas.

In order to write a successful essay, you must organize your thoughts. By taking what’s already in your head and putting it to paper, you are able to see connections and links between ideas more clearly. This structure serves as a foundation for your paper. Use either an outline or a diagram to jot down your ideas and organize them.

To create a diagram, write your topic in the middle of your page. Draw three to five lines branching off from this topic and write down your main ideas at the ends of these lines. Draw more lines off these main ideas and include any thoughts you may have on these ideas.

If you prefer to create an outline, write your topic at the top of the page. From there, begin to list your main ideas, leaving space under each one. In this space, make sure to list other smaller ideas that relate to each main idea. Doing this will allow you to see connections and will help you to write a more organized essay.

3. Write your thesis statement.

Now that you have chosen a topic and sorted your ideas into relevant categories, you must create a thesis statement. Your thesis statement tells the reader the point of your essay. Look at your outline or diagram. What are the main ideas?

Your thesis statement will have two parts. The first part states the topic, and the second part states the point of the essay. For instance, if you were writing about Bill Clinton and his impact on the United States, an appropriate thesis statement would be, “Bill Clinton has impacted the future of our country through his two consecutive terms as United States President.”

Another example of a thesis statement is this one for the “Winning Characteristics” Scholarship essay: “During my high school career, I have exhibited several of the “Winning Characteristics,” including Communication Skills, Leadership Skills and Organization Skills, through my involvement in Student Government, National Honor Society, and a part-time job at Macy’s Department Store.”

4. Write the body.

The body of your essay argues, explains or describes your topic. Each main idea that you wrote in your diagram or outline will become a separate section within the body of your essay.

Each body paragraph will have the same basic structure. Begin by writing one of your main ideas as the introductory sentence. Next, write each of your supporting ideas in sentence format, but leave three or four lines in between each point to come back and give detailed examples to back up your position. Fill in these spaces with relative information that will help link smaller ideas together.

5. Write the introduction.

Now that you have developed your thesis and the overall body of your essay, you must write an introduction. The introduction should attract the reader’s attention and show the focus of your essay.

Begin with an attention grabber. You can use shocking information, dialogue, a story, a quote, or a simple summary of your topic. Whichever angle you choose, make sure that it ties in with your thesis statement, which will be included as the last sentence of your introduction.

6. Write the conclusion.

The conclusion brings closure of the topic and sums up your overall ideas while providing a final perspective on your topic. Your conclusion should consist of three to five strong sentences. Simply review your main points and provide reinforcement of your thesis.

7. Add the finishing touches.

After writing your conclusion, you might think that you have completed your essay. Wrong. Before you consider this a finished work, you must pay attention to all the small details.

Check the order of your paragraphs. Your strongest points should be the first and last paragraphs within the body, with the others falling in the middle. Also, make sure that your paragraph order makes sense. If your essay is describing a process, such as how to make a great chocolate cake, make sure that your paragraphs fall in the correct order.

Review the instructions for your essay, if applicable. Many teachers and scholarship forms follow different formats, and you must double check instructions to ensure that your essay is in the desired format.

Finally, review what you have written. Reread your paper and check to see if it makes sense. Make sure that sentence flow is smooth and add phrases to help connect thoughts or ideas. Check your essay for grammar and spelling mistakes.

Congratulations! You have just written a great essay.

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This page is the first of two that describe the processes involved in producing an essay for academic purposes, for school, college or university.

This page covers the planning stages of essay writing, which are important to the overall process.

The second page, Writing an Essay, provides more information on the steps involved in actually writing an essay. We recommend you read both pages to gain a full understanding.

Developing the skill of essay writing takes practice, time and patience, your essay writing skills will improve and develop the more you write.

With the help of your course tutor (teacher or lecturer) and peers (other students) and from constructive feedback from the marker of your work, writing an essay will become easier as you progress through your studies and your confidence increases.

This page details general good practice in essay planning, including what you should do and what you should try to avoid. It is important however, that you understand the specific requirements of your school, college or university.

Writing an essay helps you to consider the issues raised in your course and to relate them to your own experience, way of thinking, and also any wider additional reading and research you may have undertaken in order to tackle the essay topic. 

Writing an essay (or other assignment) is an important part of the learning process.  In the writing of an assignment, learning occurs as you think through and interpret the points raised (together with those of other writers on the subject).

Presenting your experience and showing understanding within your assignment will, from the marker's point of view, demonstrate your knowledge of the subject area.


The Purpose of an Essay

The original meaning of an essay is 'an attempt', or a try, at something. It is therefore appropriate to consider writing an essay as a learning exercise.

Essays, and other academic writing, focus the mind and encourage you to come to conclusions about what you are studying.

Writing is often the best possible way to assimilate and organise information. Writing helps to highlight any areas that you have not fully understood and enables you to make further clarifications. It develops your powers of criticism, analysis and expression, and gives you a chance to try out your and other writers' ideas on the subject.

The feedback you receive from the marker of your essay should help to advance your study skills, writing, research and critical thinking skills.

What is the Marker Looking For?

As an essay - in the context of this page - is an assessed piece of work, it can be very useful to consider what the person who will be assessing the work, the marker, will be looking for. 

Although different types of essays in different subject areas may vary considerably in their style and content there are some key concepts that will help you understand what is required of you and your essay. 

When marking an assignment, a marker will look for some of the following elements, which will demonstrate you are able to:

  • Find relevant information and use the knowledge to focus on the essay question or subject.
  • Structure knowledge and information logically, clearly and concisely.
  • Read purposefully and critically. (See our page: Critical Reading for more)
  • Relate theory to practical examples.
  • Analyse processes and problems.
  • Be persuasive and argue a case.
  • Find links and combine information from a number of different sources.

Answer the Question


One main factor, always worth bearing in mind, is that a marker will usually only award marks for how well you have answered the essay question.

It is likely that the marker will have a set of criteria or marking guidelines that will dictate how many marks can be awarded for each element of your essay.

Remember it is perfectly possible to write an outstanding essay, but not to have answered the original question.  This will, in all likelihood, mean a low mark.


Planning Your Essay

Planning is the process of sorting out what you want to include in your essay.

A well-planned and organised essay indicates that you have your ideas in order; it makes points clearly and logically.  In this way, a well-planned and structured essay enables the reader, or marker, to follow the points being made easily.

Essay assignments are usually formulated in one of the following ways:

  • As a question
  • A statement is given and you are asked to comment on it
  • An invitation to ‘outline’, ‘discuss’ or ‘critically assess’ a particular argument or point of view

Remember always write your essay based on the question that is set and not on another aspect of the subject.  Although this may sound obvious, many students do not fully answer the essay question and include irrelevant information.  The primary aim of an academic essay is to answer the task set, in some detail. 

To help you do this, you might find the following list of stages helpful.

Producing an Essay Plan

The essay plan below contains ten steps.

It is often useful to complete the first six steps soon after receiving your essay question. That way information will be fresh and you are more likely to be thinking about your essay plan as you do other things.

  1. Study the essay question intently.
  2. Write the essay question out in full.
  3. Spend some time, at least half an hour, brainstorming the subject area.
  4. Write down your thoughts on the question subject, its scope and various aspects.
  5. List words or phrases that you think need to be included.
  6. Note the main points you should include to answer the question.

If, at this point, you feel unsure of what to include, talk to your tutor or a peer to clarify that you are on the right track.

Once you have finished the first six steps and you feel sure you know how to proceed, continue to expand on your initial thoughts and build a more in-depth essay outline.

  1. Skim through any course material or lecture handouts and start to build up a more detailed outline. Scan through your own lecture notes, and if anything strikes you as relevant to the assignment task, write where to find it on your detailed outline
  2. Write down where you will find the necessary information on each of the points in your detailed outline (lecture notes, course handouts etc.).  Indicate on the outline where you feel that some further research is necessary.
  3. Note down sources of further information, books, journals, webpages and media sources as appropriate.
    • Be careful not to allow your outline to become too complicated; stick to main points and keep it relevant to the question.
    • If you have been given a reading list or a core text book then check the relevant sections of that.
    • See our page: Sources of Information for more ideas of where you can find relevant information for your essay.
  4. Once your plan is complete, stop and think about the proportions – how many words in total you need to write and how many words to allocate to each section of your essay.
    • Academic essays usually have a word limit and writing within the word limit is an important consideration. Many institutions will penalise students for not writing the correct amount of words – for example, the essay question may call for a 2,000 word essay, there may be a 10% grace, so anything between 1,800 and 2,200 is acceptable.
    • Think about the main elements that need to be covered in the essay. Make sure you allocate the greatest number of words to the 'main body of the essay' and not to a subsidiary point.
    • Decide how much space you can devote to each section of your outline.  For example, a third of a page for the introduction, half a page for point 1 which has two sub-points, one and a half pages for point 2 which has five sub-points etc.  Although you will not follow such a space scheme rigidly, it does enable you to keep things under control and to know how much detail to put in, keeping the balance of the essay as you originally planned.

Of course, you will make minor adjustments to your essay plan as you actually write. However, do not make major adjustments unless you are absolutely certain about the alternative and how it fits into your original scheme.

Having a strong essay plan makes the actual task of writing an essay much more efficient.

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