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 five or six different areas of discussion
  • These groups are going to form your main paragraphs
  • Do not worry about the order yet.

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.

A specimen structured essay

‘Gloucester is no less a tragic figure than his king.’ To what extent can you agree with this view?

First paragraph 

This should be the essay in miniature, clearly focused on the question and showing an awareness of the Assessment Objectives. You must also demonstrate that you are addressing the focus of the exam unit; e.g. the play as drama and tragedy.
Both Lear and Gloucester are tragic figures. At the beginning of the play both display in their conduct and attitudes aspects of Aristotle’s ‘hamartia’, the tragic flaw which leads to disastrous consequences. Indeed the parallels between their two stories are close. Both are ‘blind’ to the truth when it comes to judging their offspring. Just as Lear rewards his treacherous daughters and banishes the loyal Cordelia, so the credulous Gloucester favours Edmund over Edgar. Through severe suffering both men gain clear insight into the truth: Lear’s eyes are opened in madness whereas Gloucester ‘sees’ the truth only after his physical eyes are gouged out. 
A typical question will ask you to consider a view and invite you to evaluate different responses. So in your first paragraph set up the debate. E.g.:
‘On the one hand Gloucester is a tragic figure because (state Point 1 and Point 2) … but on the other hand he lacks Lear’s tragic grandeur and significance because (state Point 3 and Point 4) …’. Clearly state the ‘destination’ of your essay – i.e. the idea which you will be proving by examining the evidence.
On the one hand this journey from error through suffering to enlightenment and death gives Gloucester his own tragic status. On the other the parallels serve not only to highlight similarities but also significant differences which ultimately confirm Lear as a tragic figure of vastly greater stature.
Show from the outset that you are addressing the terms of the question and engaging with the text. A good way of showing textual engagement is to incorporate a quotation at an early stage. 
Gloucester says, after his blinding: ‘I have no way, and therefore want no eyes; / I stumbled when I saw.’ Stumbling suggests uncertainty and hesitation. One could never imagine Lear admitting to stumbling, as his grandeur (even when he is most flawed) and the universal, elemental nature of his tragedy dwarfs that of his subject Gloucester.
Second and third paragraphs
Deal with one side of the argument in detail. Develop and analyse your points with textual evidence. 
Gloucester's claims to a tragic status comparable to Lear's are strong and they stem from the similarity between the experiences of the two men. Like Lear, Gloucester brings his tragedy upon himself. Before his physical blinding he displays a blindness to his own failings. He is consumed by thoughts of his own status and, like Lear, treats his children, as if their prime function is to please him. His pride and self-confidence lead him to behave in an insensitive manner towards Edmund in the play's opening scene. Gloucester jokes about highly personal matters with the Duke of Kent, a man whom Edmund has never met before. Edmund has to hear that his conception was a matter of 'sport' for his father and that he is to be sent abroad again - his father's decision, not his own. This same pride makes Gloucester gullible enough to believe Edmund's implausible stories about Edgar; such is his self-concern that he fails to scrutinise what Edmund tells him or show any awareness of the many causes that may be motivating his illegitimate son to make these false accusations. Gloucester's lack of 'natural' feelings towards Edgar is like Lear's impetuous disowning of Cordelia. Gloucester's only thoughts are for himself and he instantly condemns Edgar for supposedly betraying the ‘father, who so tenderly and entirely loves him'. Like Lear Gloucester's tragedy is in part about his initial failure to understand what love is. And when, through intense suffering, he eventually sees his error, death intervenes.
Gloucester's tragic flaws, his pride and lack of human empathy, lead, as in the case of Lear, to suffering out of all proportion to his initial failures. His credulous trust in Edmund allows his son to use Gloucester’s support of Lear against him and to be pinioned by Cornwall ‘like a thief’, bound to a chair, plucked by the beard and to having his eyes torn out. When he calls upon Edmund to ‘quit this horrid act’ his enlightenment begins and, having lost his physical eyes, he now ‘sees’ the truth: ‘Then Edgar was abused’, he realises too late and he asks the ‘kind gods’ to forgive him. His enlightenment is as sudden as was his willingness to believe Edmund and turn against the loyal, loving Edgar. 
Gloucester’s physical torment parallels Lear’s madness, but if tragic status is in any way related to depth of suffering, then Gloucester’s keen consciousness of his anguish could be seen as greater than Lear’s. When Gloucester makes the simple statement: ‘the king is mad’, he reflects: ‘How stiff is my vile sense, / That I stand up, and have ingenious feeling / Of my huge sorrows! Better I were distract.’ If madness offers an escape to the distressed mind from unbearable suffering, then Gloucester has no such escape-route. Like Lear Gloucester is able to escape from this world of pain only through death and in this too his tragic end mirrors the king’s. His recognition of his son Edgar leads not to the reward of lasting happiness but rather to his ‘flawed heart… / ’Twixt two extremes of passion, joy and grief, / Burst[ing] smilingly.’ Flawed’ here not only means ‘cracked’ but carries inevitable overtones of moral and emotional imperfection. Gloucester’s sorrow at his affliction and joy at his reconciliation with Edgar are too much for his heart, which breaks under the strain.
Finally, write a transitional sentence which links the two halves of the argument together 
There can be no doubt that in terms of his tragic flaw, suffering, recognition of the truth (Aristotle’s anagnorisis) and eventual death, Gloucester’s tragic status is comparable with Lear himself. However, it is surely wrong to say that he is ‘no less’ a tragic figure than the king. 
Fourth and fifth paragraphs
Proceed to deal with the other side of the argument in detail. Again develop and analyse your views and those of others with textual examples.
As already suggested, Gloucester ‘stumbles’ whereas Lear strides. By comparison with the Lear story, although the Gloucester subplot helps to universalise the play’s tragic vision it also demonstrates how the two narrative arcs are on very different planes. Although Gloucester’s suffering is great, he is a lesser character than Lear. He is an earl, not a king, and so his fall impacts far less on the fabric of society than does Lear’s. Gloucester’s fatal error in believing Edmund is the result of an almost comic piece of deception. Shakespeare’s prose gives neither dignity nor tragic grandeur to the mistake which will eventually cost Gloucester his eyes. Gloucester spits out his outrage in short repetitive bursts: ‘O villain, villain! ... Abhorred villain! Unnatural, detested, brutish villain! Worse than brutish.’ No wonder Edmund dismisses his father’s gullibility and superstition as ‘excellent foppery’. The scene is private and shows human nature as lacking in rational dignity. By comparison Lear’s public treatment of Cordelia has cosmic dimensions. Here Shakespeare uses ritualistic verse as Lear swears ‘by the sacred radiance of the sun’ and resorts to wildly exotic means to convey the depth of his anger. To say that cannibalistic Scythians will in future be more welcome than Cordelia has a weight and grandeur out of all proportion to Cordelia’s supposed fault. It suggests that madness is not far away – as does the irrational comment that Cordelia is now his ‘sometime daughter’, as if Lear could undo a blood relationship.
Gloucester’s blindness gives him insight into his own faults and allows him to see truths about his sons which should have been obvious all along. Lear’s madness, however, opens his eyes not just to his own condition but also to that of humanity as a whole. Outside the hovel in the storm scene, Lear reflects on the ‘poor naked wretches’ of whom he, as king, has taken ‘too little care’. He is able to reflect on personal failings and extend the lesson he has learned to the whole world. He addresses all those in control by the one fat word ‘pomp’ with its suggestively plosive cluster of consonants. By this one word he means all those who live in a world of luxury and ceremony. He knows that he has ‘taken too little care of this’ but he is also aware that his fault is one of hierarchical human societies in which the rich and powerful too easily lose contact with their subjects.
In his suffering and death Gloucester again operates on a lower plane. His blindness is inflicted by others. He is helplessly bound to a chair, whereas Lear’s madness grows from within, something we see from as early as the end of Act 1 (‘O, let me not be mad, not mad, sweet heaven!’) And in their deaths Lear’s tragic status has vastly more grandeur. Gloucester’s death is reported by Edgar; his final words are unheard. Edgar reports how he ‘asked his blessing’ after having ‘told him my pilgrimage’, but we are not given the actual words Gloucester speaks. The death scene is movingly described but the poetry is Edgar’s not Gloucester’s. Lear’s death could hardly be more different in effect. When Lear enters bearing Cordelia in his arms the image inevitably recalls the Pietà, the representation of the Virgin Mary holding the dead Christ in her arms. Lear dies wanting to believe the impossible, that Cordelia is still alive: he still cannot tolerate too much reality. And yet despite the cosmic nature of the tragedy Shakespeare does not shy away from the touchingly mundane. Lear refers to the need to undo a button to ease his breathing. 
Your final paragraph should be as strong as the first one. There must be a sense of arriving at your destination – i.e. that you have proved the point which you set out to establish in the first paragraph.
These deaths focus the essential difference between Lear and Gloucester. Shakespeare creates many parallels between Lear’s story and the Gloucester subplot and they form an essential part of the play’s structure. Gloucester’s tragedy does not only provide a wider moral context for Lear’s, but also puts Lear’s story into relief, displaying its cosmic dimensions, involving not only the whole of humanity but also the relationship between humanity and its gods. Gloucester is a less tragic figure than Lear because the king’s is a tragedy not only of one man but of humanity as a whole.
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