How to plan an essay

Why plan?

  • To produce a successful essay, you need to know in advance where your line of argument is going
  • Starting to write without a clear plan is likely to result in an unfocused piece of work, and you may well grind to a halt partway through.

How to plan

Invest time

  • For a term-time essay, it is worth spending several hours reading, thinking and making notes – this will actually help you to write the essay quite quickly
  • Once you are used to the idea of planning and thinking through your ideas in this manner, you should be able to use the same techniques in an examination.

Read the question

  • Be sure that you understand what is being asked 
  • Underline the key words in the question
  • Avoid trying to rework an earlier essay.

Jot down relevant ideas

  • Use a large sheet of paper (A4 or larger) to give yourself plenty of room
  • Bear the key words in mind
  • Allow yourself to range widely to produce the maximum number of ideas
  • Keep referring to the question to ensure that what you are doing is relevant.

Organise your jottings

  • Begin to group ideas that belong together
  • Don’t rewrite but use letters, number, colours or symbols and draw lines from one point to another to create links
  • Create a short title for each group
  • You should now have the main headings for your essay, each of which will form a paragraph (or perhaps two) in your essay.

Decide on the order

  • This depends on the line of argument you wish to follow
  • Think of your essay as a case, almost as if you were in a court of law: you will set out your points, supported by appropriate evidence
  • You can now number your main headings appropriately.

Decide how to start your essay

  • You are now in a position to write an introductory paragraph, which will give the reader some indication of the line you intend to take
  • Try to make a smooth transition into your first main heading.

Think carefully about your conclusion

  • When you have completed all your main headings, re-read your essay and think how best to end it
  • Remind the reader (in different words and very briefly) of your main points
  • Offer a conclusion that makes clear where your argument and the evidence have led you.

Presenting your work

  • Word-processed work should have 1.5 or double spacing
  • Hand-written work should be on every other line: 
    • It will be easier to read on the screen/ page
    • Easier to check for errors
    • Easier for the marker/examiner to read.

You should always check your essays carefully before handing them in.


  • Proof-reading word-processed work is best done by printing a hard copy. Mistakes often disappear on the screen
  • Spell check programmes are not infallible!
  • Spell check programmes will not help with proper names, which will not appear in the dictionary.

Reading aloud

  • When you have finished your essay, either read it aloud to yourself or ask a friend to read it for you: this is an excellent way of spotting mistakes.

Beware of plagiarism

Plagiarism means using someone else’s words and ideas without acknowledgment, as if they were your own. It is a form of cheating. Remember that:

  • It is very easy for a teacher or examiner to spot when you have done this
  • The pattern of your language and your characteristic vocabulary suddenly change, and you might just as well write such passages in red
  • Universities often demand that essays are submitted on line, so that they can be checked against programmes that spot when unacknowledged quotation has taken place
  • It is perfectly acceptable to use someone else’s ideas in order to support your argument, BUT you must either: 
    • Quote what they say in quotation marks with a full reference to the author and source
    • Paraphrase or allude to what they say, again with full acknowledgment of the source.
Scan and go

Scan on your mobile for direct link.