University Essay Planning

Planning an essay

Planning starts with understanding your task, how much time you have, the number of words you have to write and what direction you're going to take.

Before you embark on research, give yourself realistic goals for the amount of material you need by sketching out a plan for length. Download an essay plan template

Check the title, idea or plan with your tutor. He or she might have expectations you haven't realised and may spot a problem with the basic idea. (Luke Martell, Professor of Political Sociology at the University of Sussex).

As soon as you have done some reading and thinking, you can begin planning the content of your essay.

Allow yourself to change your plan but remember it gives you a structure for your argument, so if you change the plan you will have to check your line of reasoning and the evidence you use.

Your tutor may give you specific guidance about the structure of your written assignment.

Tabular Plan

Making a tabular plan can help visualise your argument and is useful for a comparative essay - see the example below (click on the image to enlarge).

Example plan

Is globalisation a new phenomenon? [pdf 22kb]

Linear Plan

A linear plan helps you think about structure. Your tutors may ask to see an essay plan but even if you do not need to hand it in, it is essential to your essay.

Here is a linear plan: (click on the image to enlarge).

Second year student: Molecular Cell Biology essay outline:

What are peroxisomes? What do they do? And, how are proteins targeted to them? [pdf 65KB]

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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.

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