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.
  • 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).
  • ‘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.

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.

(1) Suppose you wish to write on an essay entitled:

‘Experience was to the Metaphysicals grist to an intellectual mill.' Illustrate how far you think this is true. You may confine your answer to TWO or THREE poets.

a) The first thing is to decide what the title means:

i) It belongs to the type of question that echoes early twentieth century appreciation of the Metaphysicals. They had broken away from Elizabethan conventions that said you should only write poetry about a limited number of subjects. As twentieth century poets were trying to also break away from narrow Victorian conventions, that is why this aspect was remarked on. Having some literary history behind you helps, so study Critical analysis.

ii) We need to understand ‘Experience' to mean not just ‘an experience', but a wide range of experience. But the quotation also suggests that what they did write about, they wrote about intelligently: their mind was in top gear. Key words are therefore ‘experience' and ‘intellectual'.

b) What about the instructions?

i) You don't have to agree with the quotation. If you come to think that the Metaphysicals avoided certain experiences, or that they sometimes wrote more from the emotions than the mind, or that they wrote conventionally, coasting along in second gear, then you are entitled to say so, as long as you can give examples. Key words, therefore are ‘illustrate' and ‘how far?'

c) Which poets and poems?

i) It has been suggested you need to be a bit different in your choices. Rather than Donne-Herbert-Marvell, you could try Donne-Crashaw-Lovelace. That would get an examiner or teacher sitting up, especially if you reversed the order and put Donne last.

ii) And which poems? Probably, there isn't much choice with Lovelace: at most you will have studied To Althea, from Prison and The Grasse-hopper. With Crashaw, a good poem that might challenge the quotation is Hymn to St Teresa, since it is about quite strange experiences, but you might be able to question how ‘intellectually' they were handled. For Donne, we need a secular and a religious poem to show both strands of his experience. So perhaps Twicknam Garden and At the Round Earth's Imagin'd Corners.

(2) Now jot down ideas about each of the five poems as they come to you that centre round ‘experience' and ‘intellectual handling'. If you don't feel quite ready to do that, just think generally what sort of experiences you can think that Metaphysical poets had: like happy, passionate or unhappy love; death of a loved one; parting from a loved one. Or on the religious side: strong feelings of guilt, fear of death, conversion, prayer, worship, mystical experiences, and so on. Then think how you could show an intellectual handling: like using any sort of learning, in imagery or argument; using clever or logical arguments; using paradoxes, irony etc.

a) You have a choice as to how you arrange these jottings. You will probably feel it is easiest if you just go through the three poets and devote a section to each one, and then come to your conclusion. But you might feel bold and be finding good connections in your jottings: for example:

i) Point A: they all seem to use paradoxes a lot

ii) Point B: their images are largely conceits and need to be worked out mentally

iii) Point C: for all their logical arrangement, all the poems are really very emotional, and that is what comes over

b) You could then structure an essay on the lines: Yes: the quotation is right so far as A and B is concerned, BUT C suggests the bottom line is still the heart and not the head.

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.

(3) If you have decided to go with the Poet 1-Poet 2- Poet 3 structure, your introduction can set out why you have chosen these poets; then move on to say you will show the variety of their experience, their intellectual moves in handling it. Lastly, you will decide in the conclusion whether (a) their experiences were really wide-ranging (b) handled intellectually rather than emotionally.

(4) If, however, you've decided to go the more difficult path of topics A-B - but C, then again you will need to set this structure out in the introduction, trying to say in as interesting way as possible just why you are approaching the topic from this angle. Be sure to establish at once the range of experience the poems cover.

(5) Whichever way you go, if examples from other poems or poets come to you, just slip them in passing. If you need to explain that, for example, certain paradoxes are to be found in the Bible and are therefore traditionally Christian, rather than some bright new idea of the poet, then again, refer to the Bible in passing. And if these three poets seem to miss out some particularly large chunk of human experience, but you can think of another poet who does fill in the gap, then you need to say so, though briefly.

How to Finish

  • After the main topics/arguments which will follow in the next four, five or six paragraphs (or however many you need), you need a conclusion, to relate back to the topic asked and to state where your line of argument or your evidence has led you.

(6) You may feel that there are sufficient varieties of experience written about to warrant the generic term ‘Experience' used in the title quotation. Or you may feel whole chunks of human experience has been avoided, like political experience, poverty, being a woman, in which case you would have to say ‘Only certain areas of experience'.

(7) Likewise, you may feel that each topic has been given a thorough intellectual handling, and we feel the poets' minds have been fully engaged. Or you may feel that either they were still rolling along conventional thought patterns or that it was their hearts that were really engaged, and their minds trailed along behind, to give some sort of coherence to gut feelings. Then you would need to say ‘Only some of the material went through the intellectual mill; other material went straight to the heart/emotions, gut, or whatever.

(8) Even if you want to limit the scope of the quotation, try to finish positively. The poems you have been writing about are wonderful poems, and if one critic does not quite place where or how they work, that does not make them any the less wonderful poems!

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

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