Planning and writing an essay

Examining the title

Read the question carefully and check that you understand what you are being asked to do. Identify key instructions such as account for, assess, compare, contrast, describe, discuss, evaluate, explain, outline, and questions such as why, when, what, how, and use them to determine the material you need to cover and how you need to organise it. Make sure that you understand the meaning of unusual or specialised words or phrases.

Producing a plan and collecting material

Once you have done some preliminary reading it is useful to produce a plan for your essay. This will help you to organise your ideas and enable you to plan your research and gather relevant material from your blog, forum postings, books, articles, electronic media or other sources purposively. Your plan should be a list of the main points which will form the basis of your argument or discussion. As your work progresses, you may discover that you need to modify your plan as your ideas change, or you find that some material is not available. Select your research material carefully, seeking advice from your tutor if needed.

Reading and note-taking

It is helpful to make brief notes when reading. This will enable you to list the key points and evidence you need to write your essay and help you to understand and digest what you have read. Record the source of your notes and the relevant page numbers. Develop a system for storing your research notes and references (perhaps in a loose leaf file or card index) so that they can be retrieved easily. Whilst written for Post-graduate students the advice is still applicable for students studying at other levels.

Structuring your essay

An essay consists of a beginning, a middle and an end. These are the:

  • Introduction, which explores the question, provides context and indicates the direction or structure of the argument to follow.
  • Discussion, which develops a logical argument from a series of points and supports it with relevant evidence such as facts, examples, illustrations, data tables etc.
  • Conclusion, which draws together your ideas, summarises your argument and demonstrates that you have answered the question.

Writing your essay

Many students find it difficult to start the writing process. You may find it convenient to write your introduction first but it is not essential to work through an essay from beginning to end. Some students prefer to write their essay in stages and then combine the separate parts to produce the final polished version. Try to write clearly and precisely and to explore one major point per paragraph.

Reviewing and editing your essay

It is always useful to produce a draft version of your essay. This will enable you to:

  • check that you have answered the question
  • re-order points to strengthen your argument
  • check grammar, punctuation and spelling
  • add or remove supporting evidence
  • check the length of your essay. (Essays which do not conform to the prescribed limits may be penalised.)