How to plan an essay


Timing is crucial in order to succeed. It is always a good idea to keep in mind how long you have to write the essay. If you are writing a piece of coursework, think about how long your planning and writing up will take and structure your time accordingly.

If you are preparing to sit an exam, find out how long the exam is and how the questions are weighted. Think about which questions need the most time. If all the questions are of equal value, give each the same amount of time. Make sure that you have time to answer all the questions that are being asked, not just a selection.

Focus on the question

If you are presented with a choice of questions, read through them all and think about which question you are most prepared to answer. Don't spend too long wondering which to pick or think too hard about which the examiner would prefer you to answer.

Once you have chosen your question, underline the key words. Perhaps you are being asked to look at some aspect in particular to analyse certain themes. Make sure that you know what is being asked before you launch straight into your answer. Think about the various ways in which you might respond to the question and decide whether or not you agree with what is being suggested.

Create a strong opening and closing

Think about the effect that you would like your essay to have on the examiner. It is likely that by the time he or she reads your essay, they will have already come across a lot of similar material. Think about how your essay can stand out. If you intend to send the reader of your essay to sleep:

  • Just repeat the words of the question (‘This essay asks about.. And I am going to …')
  • Or give the hackneyed dictionary definition.

Instead, try to start in a way which wakes him or her up. Try:

  • A short, controversial statement
  • A relevant quotation
  • A relevant piece of evidence.

The main thing is that you show you have thought about it and have realised that a strong opening is very helpful.

A strong ending is important since it is what the reader comes to last in your answer and so helps to create the final impression:

  • Save a thought provoking idea for your final paragraph
  • Or have a useful quotation to end with.

Structuring the main body of your essay

Aim to have around four or five main paragraphs, apart from the introduction and conclusion. As you plan, think about the main ideas you would like to cover in each. Try not to repeat yourself. Think about how you can develop certain themes rather than give a list-line commentary.

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