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

As a director, how would you wish to present Iago in a production of the play? In your answer:

  • Explain clearly those aspects of Iago’s character that you would want to emphasise
  • Comment on what the play suggests about Shakespeare’s presentation of evil.

Paragraph 1. As an introduction, analyse Iago’s character at the start of the play. Why is he angry? What does he want? Why does he use such obscene language? What do you see as his key motivation?

Paragraph 2. Examine how Iago talks to different people, for example: Roderigo, Othello, Desdemona and Cassio, especially in Acts 1 and 2. What does his use of different personae according to whom he’s addressing tell us about him? What direction (physical demeanour, proximity to other actors, tone of voice etc.) would you suggest for each of these exchanges?

Paragraph 3. Analyse Iago’s methods in Act 3 Scene 3, the way in which he drops ideas into Othello’s mind, and suggests without actually accusing, until Othello is convinced of Desdemona’s adultery – at which point Iago invents more obvious fabrications. What is Shakespeare saying about the nature of evil?

Paragraph 4. How do you want the audience to perceive Iago? Examine key points from Iago’s soliloquies, assessing whether there are areas where the audience can appreciate and sympathise with Iago’s psychology; is he really all evil? 

Paragraph 5. Compare Iago’s position in his first long speech in Act 5 Scene 1 with his previous scheming. How would you guide the actor playing the role as to how Iago has developed through the drama? What comment is Shakespeare making about the effect of evil on him?

Paragraph 6. Conclusion. Acknowledge that Iago can be presented differently, but justify your decision about how Iago should be portrayed (DON’T just repeat the points you have already made). Finish with a summary of what you feel the play conveys about the nature and effect of evil.

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