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Essay Writing: Planning

Check the assignment instructions

Read the assignment brief and marking criteria carefully.  Re-read the module handbook and learning outcomes. Develop a clear picture of the skills and knowledge that the module was designed to impart and use your essay to demonstrate that you have understood the issues and developed the relevant skills.

As a general guide, an essay is usually assessed on the following criteria:

  • Clear and coherent development of ideas
  • Critical and insightful engagement with sources
  • Originality of argument
  • Appropriate referencing, including bibliography and in-text citations

Check your work against the marking criteria before you submit it (...for a fresh pair of eyes, see if a friend will help). Revise your work if there are aspects that have been neglected.

Analyse the essay question

It is not unusual for an essay to be marked down because it does not address the specific question posed essay is not an indiscriminate assemblage (or blob) of information you have found on the essay topic. It is a focused piece of writing that responds to the question posed.

To help you focus your writing, examine the title carefully and break it down...

  • What are the key terms? What underlying issues does the question want you to grapple with? Why was it posed? 
  • What items on your reading list does the question relate to?
  • What sub-questions does the essay question pose? 
  • Of these sub-questions, which are primary and which are secondary? Which need to be dealt with first in your discussion? 
  • What sort of answer do you need to provide? 
    • A comparison? A critical analysis? An evaluation? A glossary of these expressions is provided in the handout, 'Interpreting Assignment Questions', below. 

Analysing an essay question

This question has been broken down into two clauses, or claims (green and purple), to unpack issues hidden within it: control and the body; and generalised uncertainty. 

For each of these claims, we can ask, 'what', 'how' and 'why'. 

Significant terms in the green claim have also been identified for another round of 'what', 'how' and 'why'. 

By running this analysis a few times, we can generate a number of sub-questions to structure our discussion.

Finally, we will want to step back and ask  'what', 'how' and 'why' about the larger claim (green plus purple). 

Understanding Questions

Understanding the question is vital to ensuring you get the highest marks for your essays. In this video we look at some of the key words in essay titles, and how they can help you plan your work.

Already ready to generate ideas?

Are you already familiar with the topic? Are you ready to try generating ideas and planning your work? If not, do some research first. If you are, follow the steps outlined below.

Mind mapping

After doing some preliminary reading you should be able to generate ideas relating to the essay question. Why not draw a mind map?

Mind-mapping is a simple, practical tool for improving creative thinking, planning and problem-solving abilities. You can use your mind-map to zoom in on the sub-topics inside the topic, and you can also use to to zoom out and look at the topic from a broader perspective. Think about the context of the topic, theories relating to the topic and which bits of reading seem relevant to the topic.   

How to draw a mind map

Place a blank sheet in landscape position and write the essay question in the middle. Draw branches from the question, which are possible ideas and sub-topics to include in the essay. Add sub-topics (“leaves”) and connect ideas and evidence from your reading. You can use colours and images to stimulate your thinking.

mind map showing climate change in the middle and linking ideas around it


You may find that your analysis of the question (in the box above) has already given you a head-start in generating ideas. Mind-mapping can help you to fill out your analysis and make new connections between ideas.

Planning your essay

Based on the key areas identified on your mind map, draft a plan for your essay.

Example of an essay plan:

Essay question: Critically evaluate the causes, consequences and possible solutions to climate change.

1. Introduction

2. Overview of global warming

3. Causes of climate change

3.1 Man-made causes

3.2 Natural processes

4. Consequences of climate change

4.1 Environmental

4.2 Social 

5. Solutions

5.1. Political

      5.1.1. National

      5.1.2. International

5.2. Technological

6. Conclusion

7. Bibliography


From this basic outline, you can then develop a paragraph plan in which you plan the points you will make in each section.

You should make one point per paragraph

It is a good idea to write down your topic sentences for each paragraph (the sentence that informs the reader what each paragraph will be about).

When you have finished, check that the ideas in your paragraphs flow logically to the conclusion.

Headings: yes or no?

Check whether the assessment guidance and marking criteria discuss headings and subheadings. Sometimes headings provide the reader with useful cues but sometimes they indicate an inability to develop a cohesive discussion, with logical links between sub-topics. With or without headings, your essay should have an “implicit” structure: an introduction, a body that is divided into separate aspects of the topic, a conclusion and a bibliography.

The Shape of Essays

In this video we introduce six different types of essay question and show you how to answer them paragraph by paragraph.

Essay Planner