How to plan an essay

Essay objectives

When writing an examination or coursework essay it is very important to keep the exam board’s criteria firmly in mind. The emphasis of the essay needs to reflect the purpose of the unit for which it is being written. For instance, is the focus on romanticism, narrative, love poetry etc.?
It is also vital to address current assessment objectives and to check both their relevance and their applicability to the essay you have been asked to write. You may be asked to address all five of these objectives:
AO1 - Articulate informed, personal and creative responses to literary texts, using associated concepts and terminology, and coherent, accurate written expression
  • You need to write a well-expressed, clearly structured essay that has a strong sense of a coherent argument which is convincingly developed and brought to a thoughtfully perceptive conclusion.
AO2 - Analyse ways in which meanings are shaped in literary texts
  • Show how aspects of form, structure and language enable the writer to achieve his/her effects.
AO3 - Demonstrate understanding of the significance and influence of the contexts in which literary texts were written and received
  • Use contextual material to illuminate the text, showing how beliefs, social attitudes etc. would have affected its original reception.
AO4 - Explore connections across literary texts
  • The focus for the essay may have important literary implications; e.g. The Eve of St Agnes seen in the context of the Gothic genre.
AO5 - Explore literary texts informed by different interpretations
  • Be aware of diverse approaches to the text, engaging in a debate, showing alternative views. Try to incorporate references to critical writing about the text as a springboard for your own ideas.


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.

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. 

A specimen essay structure

First paragraph 

This should be the essay in miniature. It must be focused on the question and should show an awareness of the Assessment Objectives as well as addressing the focus of the exam unit; e.g. poems such as Lamia, La Belle Dame Sans Merci, The Eve of St Agnes and Isabella: or The Pot of Basil as narrative poems.
Show from the outset that you are addressing the question and engaging with the text. Your opening sentence should make an impact and indicate to an examiner that you are answering the question set. A good way of showing textual engagement is to incorporate a quotation at an early stage. It could even open the essay, if appropriate.
A typical question will ask you to consider a view and invite you to evaluate different responses. For example:
To what extent did Keats believe that development of the imagination was an essential part of human happiness?

First paragraph

So in your first paragraph set up the debate e.g.: 
On the one hand Keats believed that imagination enabled individuals to transcend the fleeting sensations of mundane reality (summarise supporting points 1 and 2); on the other hand he recognised that imagination tantalises us by making us desire the eternity of beauty whilst we are imprisoned in bodies subject to change and death (summarise supporting points 3 and 4).     
  • Clearly state the ‘destination’ of your essay – i.e. the idea which you will be proving by examining the evidence.
  • Thereafter, 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-like commentary. 

2nd and 3rd paragraphs

Deal with one side of the argument in detail. Develop/analyse with textual evidence.
Write a transitional sentence which links the two halves of the argument together and then proceed to

4th and 5th paragraphs

Deal with the other side of the argument in detail. Again develop and analyse with textual examples.


This should be as strong as the first. There must be a sense of destination – i.e. that you have proved the point which you set out in the first paragraph.
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