Planning An Essay
The original meaning of an essay is ‘an attempt’, or a try, at something. It is therefore appropriate to consider writing an essay as a learning exercise. A good essay plan helps you arrange your ideas logically and stay on track during the writing process. The following steps are intended to help to break down the task into manageable ‘chunks’ This may help with:
- Breaking the task down into manageable ‘chunks’
- Time management (dividing the tasks may make them easier to plan for)
Step 1: Analyzing the title
- Circle process words;
- Highlight or underline content words;
- Pick title to bits;
- Try to establish exactly what you are being asked to do;
- Look at list of action words
Step 2: Summarize the title
Put the title in your own words to sum up or break down the title into a list of aspects to cover.
Step 3: Organising and planning
- Look at the essay title and your plan;
- List what content you need to cover or do a mindmap [for an example mindmap and an essay mindmap template, see links to other docs]
- Look at what you already have (for example lecture notes, reading notes)
- Add these into your plan;
- Note where gaps are to find more information;
- Take each issue in turn and try to find more information. This should enable you to be more focused in both finding the information and in your reading of it. (see steps 4 and 5 for more on this)
- Write a rough essay plan (this may be done in mindmap format);
- Allocate a word limit for each section – you won’t need to write much for each aspect!
Step 4: Sources of information
Useful, initial sources that may give you a more general picture and for those who wish to delay the more in-depth reading!
- TV, radio, films
- discussions with friends
- discussions with tutors
Sources to provide an overview of a topic:
- general encyclopedia or dictionary, for example, psychology dictionary, art history textbook
- Lecture notes and course notes;
- Then, obviously, books, journals, and so on. You could ask for focus from your tutor. They may be prepared to suggest one or two key texts to get you started. You could also make an appointment to see a Subject librarian for guidance.
- Look at the reading list;
- Keep checking relevance of information to the title.
- Guide your reading- set yourself specific questions to focus your reading (e.g. in relation to essay title and your plan).
- Ask tutor for help and advice;
- Seek out current information;
- Select information that relates most specifically to the task;
- Check back cover of books;
- Scan introductions and conclusions;
- Browse through headings;
- Look for summaries (particularly at end of chapters).
Look out for reliability and bias
- Is the source well known in the field?
- Might it be biased? Does it matter?
- Does it have a good bibliography?
- Is it from a respected publisher?
- Ask your tutor if you’re unsure.
- Make notes on what you read
- highlight bits that are relevant or use post it notes
- you could record bibliographic details as you go along (for example in a word processed table which can easily be sorted alphabetically [link to bibliographic information] or photocopy the back of the title page), make notes of bibliographic details
- title (full);
- publication place;
- publication date;
Step 5: Reading for meaning
Select by amount
- Some information may be too indepth – e.g. journal article. You could just use the abstract;
- Monitor your comprehension. Read a few sentences, then stop. Without looking back at the test, sum up what you have read (aloud or written);
- Re-read difficult bits. Academic texts often contain difficult passages.
- Don’t panic! If a book really is too hard, put it aside and find something easier to absorb
Step 6: Making notes
There are many different means of recording information from texts. The following are just some suggestions that you may wish to try:
- Photocopy information
- Highlight keywords and phrases;
- Colour code information.
- Try creating mindmapped notes
- Use post it notes for relevant pages
Ask indepth questions e.g.
- what point is the writer making?
- Why is this detail relevant?
- Is the writer trying to answer a particular question?
You could create a template of questions to ask of a text, based on specific sections of your essay plan. Organizing your ideas and thoughts into a plan in advance can help you to develop a coherent argument and allow you to focus attention more fully on the writing process itself when you put your plan into action.