Planning A University Essay


What constitutes an academic essay?

An academic essay should make a convincing argument, and present interesting, thorough and accurate research. An essay is not a set of unrelated opinions, but an argument sustained with evidence drawn from research and observation. These goals should be contained within an elegant presentation. Write for the reader’s information and pleasure.

Many students, particularly at first year level, believe they are required to agree with their tutors’ or lecturers’ opinions, but this is not so; the School of Humanities expects you to articulate your opinions in a way that is well informed, clearly expressed and supported by evidence and argument.


The process of planning your essay begins with your choice of topic; your choice must involve a careful analysis of its requirements. As part of the process of making this choice, you might ask yourself questions such as “What do I think of the work addressed by this question?”; “What do I think of the essay assignment/question? Have I fully understood it?”; “What is my opinion of the wider issues involved?”.

Writing is a reflection of thinking, so you must think about the material at issue before you write anything. The reading and research you do should be used as evidence and support for your argument. It is not necessary to recount what other scholars have said about an issue before you have introduced the issue and your position on it. While some background may be necessary, or some positioning required, your reader should be able to discover your own position relatively quickly. The introductory paragraph of an essay should make your approach to the topic clear; never begin an essay with an all-purpose paragraph of background information such as biographical details about a writer or generalisations about an historical period. This will normally be irrelevant, and will detract from the argument you wish to make.

When planning your essay, write down a list of points relevant to your ideas. Organising your thoughts into an outline or a skeletal plan is a useful step. As well as the central points you wish to argue, this plan should include the steps that link your argument and the evidence and examples you intend to use to support your case. Such a plan should be limited to one sheet of paper. Scholars in the Humanities are constantly engaged in essay-writing, so you should develop efficient habits of composition. A carefully-thought-out plan, a first draft (corrected), and a final draft should be regarded as indispensable stages of writing.

Within the body of your essay, you should organise your material in such an order that each paragraph flows naturally and logically from its predecessor, with the topic always in mind. Avoid the use of subheadings: while subheadings might be appropriate in some research reports, in essays it is more impressive to forge connections between the various parts of your argument using the expressive power of your writing.

The final paragraph of your essay should not be a paraphrase of your introduction, but, like the introduction, it should be explicitly relevant to the topic. It should be clear and convincing.


Your essay should generally be roughly organised into three parts: introduction, body, and conclusion. While you are planning your essay, keep this structure in mind, and consider the following issues:

Introduction: What is the question asking of you?
How many aspects of the question do you need to consider?
Here you need to establish the groundwork for the body of your argument.

Argument: How many points do you want to make?
How do they relate to each other and, taken together, do they constitute a well-structured discussion?
Do you have evidence from the text(s) you are considering that supports your argument?
Do you have some well-selected critical sources to back up your argument where necessary?

Conclusion: What conclusions do you want the reader to draw from your discussion?
Here you need to bring the discussion back to the broad issues raised by the question, but you should avoid a simple repetition of your introductory statements.

While you are writing

Assess your own work as you go along:
• Does the sentence or paragraph that you have just written make the point that you intend it to make? What is its purpose?
• Does the sentence flow logically from the text that precedes it, and into that which follows? If its import is not consistent with your outline, you may wish to move it, rework it, or eliminate it entirely.
• Have you backed up all your statements, claims, and arguments with evidence?
• Does your completed essay match the plan with which you began?

You might also want to visit the next page in this site, What is an Argument?

A good essay plan makes the most of your essay material by helping you to organise the content of the essay before you begin writing. This guide shows you the key steps in preparing and planning an essay effectively.

Other useful guides: Writing essays; Thought mapping; Referencing and bibliographies.

Using essay plans

Being organised before you begin writing your essay will make the writing process quicker and easier. Good preparation and planning gives you a clear overview of your material so you can see the best way to organise your points. This guide presents four main steps to planning your essay:

  • planning ahead;
  • analysing the question;
  • selecting material;
  • organising your material.

Why an essay?

Essay writing gives you a chance to:

  • explore a specific subject area in depth;
  • select relevant material;
  • explain theories and concepts;
  • evaluate arguments;
  • express and support your own views and opinions.

Before you begin

Check the assignment submiession and writing guidelines. There is information about:

  • how long the essay should be;
  • what the deadline is;
  • relevant assessment criteria;
  • requirements for presentation and referencing.

Planning ahead

Choose your title as soon a possible. The availability of journals, books and other resources may affect your choice of title. Plan ahead to ensure you can use the resources you need in time. Make an action plan or 'to do list' for:

  • finding relevant resources;
  • contact the library for access to library books etc;
  • obtaining items through inter-library loan;
  • using computer facilities to search online databases.

Look at how much time you have before the deadline so you can see what can be realistically done.

Refer to the Guide Organising your time for more information on action planning.

Analysing the question

Before you can begin to select material for your essay, you need to make sure that you understand the exact requirements of the question. The following method of title analysis encourages you to break the question down into clearly identifiable elements so that you can accurately see what the question requires.

Analysing an essay title

Selecting the material

Use your analysis of the question as a focus for the selection of materials. Begin with the basic reading:

  • module material;
  • readings;
  • relevant chapters in texts.

When you understand the basics you can then select more detailed and specific texts. This may be in the form of journal articles or texts referred to in module materials.

  • Be selective, use the techniques described in Improving your reading skills to identify relevant material for your essay.
  • Use the essay question as a focus for note taking.
  • Be sure to record only information that is directly relevant to your essay question. This will save you time and make your notes easier to organise in an essay plan.

Organising your material

All essays need a structure that is logical and coherent. An essay plan gives you a quick way of trying out different structures. One way of making an essay plan is to list your main points in keywords and phrases and organise them under main headings. This gives you an overview of your points so you can decide which should be included and what is the most logical sequence for them.

An example of a linear essay plan using key words and phrases

Index cards can be useful in essay planning.  Write the keyword or phrase for each point on a separate index card. Use the cards to group and order the points. Number the cards sequentially when you are happy with the order of your points.

You may wish to use diagrams for essay planning. This method is described in the guide: Thought Mapping.

An example of a non-linear essay plan using key words and phrases

Find your preferred style

Experiment with different styles of planning essays and use the method that you find most useful. Make as many essay plans as you need to find the best sequence for your material. By separating the planning stage from the writing stage you will be better able to write an essay that is well organised and clearly expressed. The guide Writing essays explores the key elements of an essay and shows you how to use these elements effectively.


  • Make an action plan or 'to do list' as early as possible.

  • Analyse the essay question before you begin making notes.

  • Be selective in your reading.

  • Record only information that is directly relevant to your essay question.

  • Use essay plans to create a clear and logical sequence for your material before you begin to write.

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