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 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.
For example, suppose you have been asked to discuss whether the Duke is ‘like power divine' or a devious and incompetent ruler.

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) :

*Duke conceals himself and his motives, and acts deviously

  • He pretends to think Angelo virtuous at start, when he knows about Mariana
  • Returns secretly
  • Disguises himself as friar
  • Acts as confessor when not a priest

^Has himself allowed Vienna to become corrupt state

#Lucio sees as ‘duke of dark corners' – irony, as duke is in disguise, trying to act in secret

+Escalus sees Duke as contending to ‘know himself' – both Escalus and Provost, good men themselves, see Duke as good

=Duke gives help and comfort to Mariana, Claudio, Juliet, Isabella

@Duke's actions at end – are they largely selfish?

  • Asks Isabella to marry him
  • Would her situation have arisen if Duke had not left Angelo in charge?
  • Dealings with Lucio - ‘slandering a Prince deserves it'
  • No indication of real change in the state and its laws

~At end, Duke enables others to achieve degree of self-knowledge

  • Isabella asks for mercy, not just justice
  • Angelo acknowledges he has human weaknesses
  • Claudio has had to face his own mortality

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.

If, for example, you wanted to suggest that the Duke is more like ‘power divine' you might want to dispose first of the counter arguments first, beginning with ^ and *, moving on to @ and # before saying that, however, there is also a great deal of evidence which suggests a very different view of the Duke. You would then introduce the other points.

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.
In the example we are using, the introduction should lead into the fact that different characters in the play see the Duke differently. You could point out that this is partly because he himself plays two roles – the Duke and the friar, in which he has a different status and role.

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.
You might want to end your essay by pointing out that both views of the Duke can be supported, and that the Duke may well remain an enigma to the audience at the end of the play. You could end by quoting the Duke's own words to Escalus (in Act III sc ii): ‘I pray you, sir, of what disposition was the Duke?'

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

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