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.

For example, suppose you have been asked to discuss the idea that:

‘In The Winter’s Tale Shakespeare shows that there is no compensation for the loss of youth and innocence.’

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) :

<‘Innocence’ in the form of Perdita can be restored, by the providence of Apollo 

*Leontes can never bring back his dead son

  • His wild jealousy has resulted in the death of the son he greatly loved 
  • Mamillius was an exceptional child (all agreed so) 
  • Although Perdita is returned to him, and Florizel becomes a second ‘son’, Mamillius himself is gone for ever
  • Hermione is too old to bear more children

^ Both Hermione and Leontes have aged sixteen years, and Perdita has not seen her parents before 

#Leontes may be penitent, but he cannot undo the suffering he has caused to others

+ Leontes has gained a greater insight into himself and his need for grace

$The play stresses how children lose innocence as they get older; Leontes and Polixenes in Act I, sc ii discuss their own past innocence

@ At the end, there is a chance for new beginnings

  • Leontes is able to act with greater humility and care to his court
  • Sicilia and Bohemia are united through their children and a new ‘spring’ comes to Bohemia
  • Paulina has lost Antigonus but is to be united with Camillo 

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, even though there has been a loss of youth and innocence, largely through the actions of Leontes, there are nevertheless other spiritual gains, then you may want to begin by disposing first of the ‘counter arguments’. That is, you begin by agreeing that there is a loss of youth and innocence. You might therefore start with $, showing how this loss is impressed on us from the beginning of the play, then moving on to #, ^ and *, before saying that, nevertheless, the play suggests there may be ‘compensations’ of a kind. 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 there is unrestored loss. You might perhaps mention that the play shows the passing of time, and that growing older and losing the innocence of childhood is stressed at several points. 

How to finish

  • After the main topics / arguments follow in the next six or seven paragraphs, you then need a conclusion i.e. where your arguments / evidence has led you.

If you decide to have as your final point the paragraph marked + (discussing how Leontes has gained a greater insight into himself and his need for grace)

you might want to end your essay with a conclusion pointing out that the very structure of the play reinforces the idea of loss of youth, with Time passing before our eyes, but that there is also a sense of growth through the passage of the years, and of re-creation; the winter of the first half gives way to spring and summer.

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

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