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.

How to plan

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
  • You need to make sure your answer is relevant to the given 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)
  • ‘Brainstorm' 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.

More on an example discussing Hamlet's madness i):
For example, suppose that you have been asked to discuss whether or not Hamlet is really mad.

As a result of the jottings you have made, you realise that you have the following main points, which will form the central paragraphs of your essay (possible jottings you might have for topics * and ~ have been suggested below):

* Evidence of madness, real or pretended, from Hamlet's own behaviour and words
a) Disarray before Ophelia in closet
b) Strange words to Polonius
c) Words to Rosencrantz and Guildenstern: ‘bad dreams', ‘mad north-north-west'
d) Apology to Laertes: ‘madness.. Hamlet's enemy'

^What others e.g. Polonius, Claudius, Gertrude say about Hamlet's behaviour

# Hamlet's role as a possible ‘wise Fool', commenting on behaviour at Elsinore

+ Evidence of Hamlet's sanity: awareness of importance of reason

= Parallels and contrasts with madness of Ophelia

~ If really mad, what might have caused this?
a) Hamlet's grief, melancholy — sees world as ‘unweeded garden'
b) His perceived confinement, (cannot leave, must ‘hold tongue')
c) Behaviour of Gertrude
d) Ghost's revelations, horror
e) Rejection by Ophelia

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.

More on an example discussing Hamlet's madness ii): If, for example, you want to argue that you think Hamlet is NOT really mad, you might decide to begin with the ideas shown above as ~, then logically * would come next, after which you might put ^.

Having dealt with his apparent madness, which you are now going to refute, you could introduce group =, showing that, although there are parallels, there are also contrasts, leading you on to show how sane Hamlet is and how much he values reason (group +) before showing that he may be commenting through apparent insanity on corruption at Elsinore (group #).

Decide how to start your essay

  • Only once you know where your line of argument is going, that you can 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.

More on an example discussing Hamlet's madness iii): In the example we are using, the introduction should lead in to whether there is evidence that Hamlet really is mad. It could begin with the quotation of Polonius' lines about the subject:

‘To define true madness, What is't but to be nothing else but mad?'

Then might follow a sentence or two about the significance of the idea in Hamlet, and how far he can be held fully responsible for his own actions, if he is mad.

How to finish

  • After the main topics / arguments follow in the next six paragraphs, you need a conclusion i.e. where your arguments / evidence has led you.

More on an example discussing Hamlet's madness iv): A possible one in the example would be to decide that, in spite of the arguments you have made for Hamlet's sanity, we must accept that Shakespeare leaves this, as so many other problems about the play, a matter for debate and conjecture.

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

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