Essay Structure Planner

A very common complaint from lecturers and examiners is that students write a lot of information but they just don't answer the question. Don't rush straight into researching – give yourself time to think carefully about the question and understand what it is asking.

Top tip:

Set the question in context – how does it fit with the key issues, debates and controversies in your module and your subject as a whole? An essay question often asks about a specific angle or aspect of one of these key debates. If you understand the context it makes your understanding of the question clearer.

Is the question open-ended or closed? If it is open-ended you will need to narrow it down. Explain how and why you have decided to limit it in the introduction to your essay, so the reader knows you appreciate the wider issues, but that you can also be selective. If it is a closed question, your answer must refer to and stay within the limits of the question (i.e. specific dates, texts, or countries).

Underlining key words – This is a good start point for making sure you understand all the terms (some might need defining); identifying the crucial information in the question; and clarifying what the question is asking you to do (compare & contrast, analyse, discuss). But make sure you then consider the question as a whole again, not just as a series of unconnected words.

Re-read the question – Read the question through a few times. Explain it to yourself, so you are sure you know what it is asking you to do.

Try breaking the question down into sub-questions – What is the question asking? Why is this important? How am I going to answer it? What do I need to find out first, second, third in order to answer the question? This is a good way of working out what important points or issues make up the overall question – it can help focus your reading and start giving your essay a structure. However, try not to have too many sub-questions as this can lead to following up minor issues, as opposed to the most important points.

Step 3: Construct an initial essay plan

After you have generated some ideas, it’s important to write an initial plan before you head for the library. This can feel strange—after all, how can you answer a question when you haven’t done any research?—but starting with an initial plan helps you order your ideas and focus your reading. Without a sense of which direction to head in, it’s easy to get lost in the research process.

This initial plan will be provisional and might consist of:

  • a provisional answer to the question (or thesis statement)
  • a brief outline of possible main points

As you research and develop your understanding of the topic, your ideas will likely change, and your answers may change with them. Try to see your essay plan as something that evolves as you engage further with your topic.

While it’s a good idea to write an initial plan before you start researching, if you really know nothing at all about the topic, some initial skimming and browsing through recommended or assigned readings can provide a few ideas. However, the initial planning stage is not the time for a lot of intensive or detailed reading.

What elements should an essay plan consist of?

 

A plan should indicate the answer to the question. A clear and well-written thesis statement will help you to determine the direction and structure of your argument.

What is a thesis statement?

  • a clear and direct answer to the essay question
  • a claim that can be discussed and expanded further in the body of the essay
  • one or two complete sentences
  • part of the introduction

In the initial plan, the thesis statement is usually provisional. However, after you’ve done some research, you will need to work on your thesis statement until it is clear, concise and effective.

Tips

  • Try introducing your thesis statement with the phrase ‘this essay will argue’ or ‘this essay argues’.
  • Paraphrasing the assignment question can help ensure that you are answering it.

Once you have a thesis statement, follow it with a paragraph or a set of points that indicate the ‘reasons why’ for your answer. The ‘reasons why’ can be developed into the main points of your essay.

What are main points?

  • Main points make up the body of an essay.
  • Each point should be developed in a paragraph. These paragraphs are the building blocks used to construct the argument.
  • In a 1000-1500 word essay, aim for three to four main points

In the initial plan, try to express the main idea of each point in a single, clear sentence. These can become topic sentences (the first sentence of each paragraph which establishes its central idea) when, in your second plan, you develop these points further. 

Arrange your main points in a logical order and number them (is there one that would seem to go first or one that would seem to go last? Are there any two that are closely linked? How are the ideas connected to each other? Do the main points, when considered as a whole, present a unified discussion?).

A plan should follow the STRUCTURE of an essay (eg. Introduction, body and conclusion).

While you may not be ready to construct an introduction or conclusion, this three-part structure should be at least suggested in your plan.

  For more about essay structure, see The Learning Centre's essay writing guide

A plan should include some indication of the sources you might use to RESEARCH the topic.

Make a few notes about how each main point might be developed. Consider and if possible, specify the evidence you might draw on and which texts you might refer to. Jot down titles, authors, page numbers etc.

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