How to plan an essay

Why plan?

  • To create a successful essay, you need to know in advance where your line of argument is going, and that it is relevant.
  • Just starting to write immediately will never produce a really focused piece of work, and you may end up grinding to a halt halfway through, wondering what to write next.

Invest time

  • For a term-time essay it is worth spending several hours reading, thinking and planning, after which the essay should ‘write itself' fairly rapidly.
  • Once you are used to the idea of careful planning, and thinking your ideas through logically in this way, you should be able to use the same techniques very quickly in an examination.

Read the question

  • Be sure that you know exactly what is being demanded
  • Underline the key words in the question
  • Avoid trying to re-work an essay you have previously written
  • Choose which poems you think best illustrate the question.

Jot down relevant ideas

  • Bear the key words in mind
  • Use single words or brief phrases – these are only reminders to you of points which you could make
  • Do not worry at this stage about getting these ideas into any order (that comes later)
  • Jot down what's in your mind, producing as many relevant ideas as possible.

Group jottings together

  • Organise your ideas together (do not write them again but use letters / colours / symbols etc.) into about 5 / 6 different areas of discussion
  • These groups are going to form your main paragraphs
  • Do not yet worry about the order.

Create a title / phrase for each group

  • The aim is to sum up its main point
  • This is now the topic of each paragraph.

Decide on the order

  • This will depend on the line of argument you want to follow.
  • Every essay should present a case, almost as if you were in a court of law: ‘This is my case, and here is my evidence.' (Your evidence will be references to the text, and quotations from it.)
  • Now number your list of paragraphs appropriately.
    Let us suppose you wish to write an essay on the question:
    ‘How does Hopkins reveal his belief that God works through nature?'
    This is a thematic question, so you need to select poems that focus on the theme of God and nature. A useful theme to remind yourself of (see Themes and significant ideas) is ‘Nature as God's book', which includes The Wreck of the Deutschland; God's Grandeur; The Starlight Night; and Hurrahing in Harvest. If the question is an essay question, for which you have plenty of time, you might consider looking at all four. In an exam, you just wouldn't have time, so you would need to decide whether to restrict yourself to the Wreck, or the other three. Usually three poems is the minimum acceptable number to use in an exam question, unless the question states otherwise. Suppose you decide to go with the latter three poems. Jot down some ideas, words, phrases and images that come to mind. E.g.:
    • statements: ‘world charged with the grandeur of God' (GG); ‘all a purchase, all is a prize'(SN); ‘I lift up heart, eyes/ Down all that glory' (HH)
    • images: ‘flame out like shook foil' (GG); ‘where gold where quickgold lies' (SN); ‘These are indeed the barn' (SN) Images of precious metal and containment or enclosure in SN; ‘barbarous in beauty' (HH); ‘hills are his world-wielding shoulder' (HH)
    • ideas: work= God revealing himself: but can he/does he? (GG); can Nature contain such a revelation? (SN); can Nature give a religious experience? (HH)
    • questions H. asks: ‘Why do men not ...reck his rod?' (GG); ‘Buy then...what?' (SN); ‘What lips gave you a's greeting of realer...replies?' (HH)
    • answers H. gives: everything ‘bleared, smeared with toil' (GG); ‘These are indeed the barn' (SN); HH question is rhetorical - needs no answer
    • conclusion for H.: Holy Ghost still at work; mother image/Genesis image (GG); beauty of Nature makes Christ more real (SN); once spectator and natural scene meet together, an ecstatic religious encounter possible (HH)
    So a fairly simple arrangement of ideas would be to have four sections:
    • Questions Hopkins asks about the topic. i.e. It's not cut and dried for Hopkins. The poems are there to answer real questions.
    • Answers Hopkins suggests
    • Conclusions Hopkins reaches
    • How much of the above is conveyed by statements and how much through images?
    NB. These ‘how' questions can be somewhat problematic. They are not the same as ‘What does Hopkins say?' though they include that. But they also mean you to refer to the language of the poetry, its images, use of language (is the language broken up because the poet is wrestling with knotty problems; or does it seem fairly smooth because he's got the answers ready?). That's why the last section is needed here to make sure this aspect is covered.

Decide how to start your essay

  • only once you know where your line of argument is going, can you write an introductory paragraph
  • too many students write their introduction to the essay, and only then stop to think what they are actually going to say
  • Your introduction should lead into your first main paragraph.
    2). If you go with this question / answer structure, then you need to introduce the essay by saying why Hopkins needed to ask questions. What was the problem? Review the jottings made under ‘ideas'. If you wanted to add a little about Hopkins' personal details, make sure you keep them relevant: e.g. Hopkins had always loved Nature. When he had a conversion experience and entered the Jesuit order, the pleasure of the senses were somewhat frowned on as a bar to spirituality. So how could he still manage to reconcile Nature and God?

How to finish

  • After the main topics / arguments follow in the next four or five paragraphs, you need a conclusion ie. where your arguments / evidence has led you
    3). The conclusion might well be that Hopkins had found how Nature reveals God. You could finish then by referring back to Hopkins' initial dilemma, or, if you feel confident, place this in a larger context of his later works (as the three poems used above were written earlier in his career). If you think Hopkins' later poems do not reflect the confidence of these early answers, you could mention that, and just mention later poems that find little revelation of God in anything, such as Spelt from Sibyl's Leaves, or which seem to suggest maybe Nature goes on rather more independently of God that he had first acknowledged, like Thou Art Indeed Just, Lord. The point is, you need to show you know more poems than you discuss, and show you know where these poems come in the overall corpus of Hopkins' poetry.

Remember that a planned essay is much more likely to be a clear, logical essay.

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