Essay Plans: A teacher's guide

Paul Main

How can we support students in creating a solid essay plan? The art and science of getting your class organised.

What is an essay plan?

While writing on any topic, did you ever feel that you have run out of ideas or have lost your train of thought? This feeling can be intimidating and make your own students anxious about the academic demands being made of them. The best way for your students to avoid this disaster is to plan: and create an Essay Plan. Thinking through the task with the help of some expert guidance is a skill that anyone can develop. With the right tools students can develop their academic writing skills and use this to build a deeper understanding of the subject matter.

An Essay Plan is a process to organise what one intends to include in the essay. Essay planning is an essential step in academic essay writing, which demands practicepatience, and time. Once a clear understanding of the argument has been conceptualised, your students will be in a much stronger position to express their ideas through the written word.

The more you write, the more you can develop your Essay Planning skills.

In this article, we'll discuss what is an Essay Plan, what are its purposes, who can help in creating an essay plan and what are the essential steps of creating an Essay Plan. We will also reference a new methodology that helps students organise blocks of content into logical arguments. This process that we have been researching helps students organise paragraphs into logical formations. You will also find further details of how to use this process for developing complex sentences.

Developing an essay plan

An essay plan is a written document that outlines the structure and content of your paper. Typically, it would include:

• An abstract summarizing what you will cover in your paper;

• The outline for each major body paragraph or “section” of your paper (maybe 5-6 body paragraphs);

• A list of sources to be used in support of your arguments;

• A bibliography listing all of the books, articles, websites, etc., that you have read on this topic.

The purpose of writing an essay plan is twofold: first, it helps you organize your thoughts about the subject matter before beginning to write; second, it provides a framework within which you can develop your ideas as you research and draft your paper. It also serves as a guide when editing your final product. In this article we will provide you (and your students) with several ideas of how to promote better essay planning. Deconstructing a core textbook is a difficult task. We are putting a tremendous amount of stress on our working memory, developing new ideas and attempting to articulate our understanding through the written word. The skill of writing essays doesn't just involve sitting down with a pen or pushing out some ideas into Microsoft Word. The purpose of any long-form written work should help the student develop a clearer understanding of the subject matter, it's value as an assessment should be seen as secondary.

A psychology essay plan using Writer's Block
A psychology essay plan using Writer's Block

The Purpose of an Essay Plan

The ability to write a good essay starts from efficient and careful planning. It is mostly believed that the research, formatting and other aspects of an essay are as important as the actual essay itself. Following are the main purposes of creating an Essay Plan:

·      Ensures that the writer has all the logical and clear ideas in order. In this way, an essay plan helps the marker or the reader, to follow the details provided in the essay.

·      Makes the process of essay writing more organised, which eventually reduces the time one takes to write an essay.

·      Provides the desired precision and direction to an essay. While preparing an essay plan, you can edit or add any details into your essay, so that your plan and the essay are created side by side.

·      Allows one to write strategically, and to come up with some of the key points before finalizing the order. Fixing issues with the overall structure will resolve more than 80% of the issues in an essay.

using the universal thinking framework for essay planning
using the universal thinking framework for essay planning

Who can help with essay planning?

Organizing your thoughts and ideas into a plan provides help with creating a coherent argument and keeps the writer's main focus on the process of essay writing. However, it is always a good idea to share your ideas or seek others' help to increase the effectiveness of your essay planning process. To create an effective essay plan, it is better to seek help from your course tutor (lecturer or teacher), peers (your fellow students) and the marker of your work. Their constructive responses will make your work much easier and you will be able to develop your essay plan more effectively and more quickly.

Different types of essays

It is commonly believed that writing an essay becomes easier as we progress through our education and as our confidence increases. A students academic writing style will develop over time. Different subject areas require different approaches. These basic styles of essays include:

1. Comparative: An essay with a comparison of at least two ( or more)items.

2. Narrative: An essay that's written like a story.

3. Persuasive: An essay that contains reasons and logic to indicate that one idea is more acceptable than another

4. Expository: An essay that includes investigation, evaluation presentation, and an argument in favour of or against an idea in a concise manner.

5. Argumentative: An essay in which the writer investigates a topic, collects ideas, creates and evaluates evidence, and then establishes a position in a concise manner.

Writing an Essay Plan will make it a lot easier to write any of the above-mentioned essays. The topic for the essay to write mostly depends upon the details that teachers give to their students. At times, students may have the choice to select an essay topic for themselves.

different types of essays have different ways of organising information
different types of essays have different ways of organising information

How do you create an essay plan?

There are many ways to approach creating an effective essay plan. You may want to start by brainstorming topics related to your coursework. Then, think about how these topics might relate to one another. For example, if you were studying American history, you could consider whether there was any connection between the Civil War and World War II. Or perhaps you could look at the relationship between slavery and racism today. Once you've identified potential connections among your topics, begin thinking about possible subtopics.

These should not only help you identify key points but also provide some direction for organizing your material into sections. Essay questions usually start with a command word such as 'analyse' or 'examine'. Whether you are writing a 1000-word essay or a 2000-word essay, this command word will help you identify how you should organise your ideas. If your essay question starts with 'What happened...' then the student is being asked to sequence the points into a chronological order. If academic essays start with the question 'why did...' The student is being asked to develop a causal explanation of why something happened in the way that it did.

organising the main points in the planning stages
organising the main points in the planning stages

Steps of Writing an essay plan

An effective essay plan provides a logical arrangement and an endpoint before you even start to write your essay. It prevents the writers from engaging in complex thinking while trying to choose the right words to present their ideas. In other words, it helps you to stay to the point! Following are the ten steps to write an essay plan.

1. Read the essay question carefully.

2. Write the complete essay question on a separate page.

3. Spend at least half an hour thinking about the subject area.

4. Note down your ideas on the topic, its scope and other aspects.

5. List phrases or words that you think must be included.

6. Write down the main points you must include in your essay.

It is mostly useful to perform the above-mentioned steps soon after you receive your essay topic. If, at this stage, you are not sure what to include, ask your tutor or seek help from a peer to make sure that you are doing the right thing.

Students planning essays with the building blocks
students engaged in the planning and creation stage of building an essay

After finishing the first six steps, when you feel confident that you can proceed, create a more rigorous essay outline.

7. Skim through handouts or course material and start to create a more in-depth outline. Review your lecture notes, and write down if you find something relevant to the task.

8. Note down from where you can get the necessary information about each point of your in-depth outline (peer-reviewed journals, course handouts, lecture notes etc.). Highlight, where you feel that you need to carry out more research.

9. Write down sources for more research, journals, books, media sources and webpages as appropriate.

·      Be vigilant; your outline must not become too complex, keep it relevant to the essay topic.

·      If your teacher has provided you with a core textbook or reading list then check the relevant parts of it.

10. Once your plan is ready, check other details such as how many words you need to write in each section and in total how many words you need in your essay.

·      In most cases, academic essays have a word limit and it is important to write within the word limit.

·      Think about the essential components of your essay. Remember to allocate the highest number of words to the 'main body' of your essay.

·      Plan how much space you must devote to each part of your essay. Of course, you may not strictly follow any specific space scheme. But, it may help in keeping things under control and in deciding how much information to include. It will also allow you to hold the balance of your essay as you plan.

Adding shape to an essay plan
adding shape to an essay plan

Regardless of the essay topic, essay writing has some universal ways of approaching the task. Giving students an opportunity to practice and think about how they would approach an essay question gives them a key advantage. Within our graphic organiser repository you will find templates that enables students to organise their ideas in these key ways. Becoming familiar with these organisational structures enables students to stand back and take a look at academic essay writing from a slightly different perspective. Having all of the points ordered and reinforced with evidence are the building blocks for a coherent and well structured essay.

 a balanced essay plan
a balanced essay plan

The key takeaways from this section are:

1) Unpick the essay title by identifying the command word first.

2) Writing essays is a complicated task and we shouldn't dive in before we have plotted out our main points.

3) The essay writing process should be led by organising information into the appropriate structure. Grammar and spelling come later. The student needs a framework to hang their ideas on.

4) Essay structure is very important. There are plenty of templates available online but there's no point in trying to put a square peg into a round hole. Encourage your students to use the universal thinking framework for developing strategic approaches for writing essays. There's no one size fits all.

4) Students often don't read the essay question properly. If this is the case, they may miss the crucial command word.

5) Essay plan preparation is like building a house, start with the foundations first, then build on it.

6) Writing 2000 words is a hard task, but there is no getting away from it if a student is to do well in academia. Show them how to organise their ideas using our planning tool, Writer's Block.

7) Don't worry about the details initially; structure the main points first. A focused response to question is what the examiner is looking for.

Start your essay plan with a list

Lists are important but they are not knowledge. To develop conceptual understanding our mind needs an opportunity to organise information into schemas. Our partner schools have been using Writer's Block to quickly write a list of ideas. The miniature whiteboards that come with the blocks are perfect for holding small amounts of information. The blocks can then be used to organise the list of stages, for example, the introduction, body of essay and then conclusion. Because the notes are written on a manipulative tool, the words can quickly be formed into a structure.

The blocks can also hold a list of statistics or evidence that can be used to reinforce the main points in the essay. Starting with a preliminary list of ideas is a key way of stopping you're working memory from being overloaded.The blocks can then be used to create draft paragraphs. Each block can be used to hold a paragraph topic or subtopic. The colours can be used as a code to help students identify the themes.Using a visual tool like the blocks enables students to see the flow of an argument. A coherent argument has to have structure and needs to be balanced. The block colours can be used to identify relevant argument points and the structure of the blocks will help students build (literally) the flow of argument into a compelling narrative.

essay ideas into a plan
essay ideas into a plan


The purpose of an essay plan

Instead of saying essay writing as a mandatory (and laborious) part of school, we see it as a key tool for developing a depth of knowledge. Vygotsky argued that complex writing is a result of complex thinking. As we explain what we think through the spoken and written word our depth of knowledge is developed. The essay then becomes a mechanism for memorialising and facilitating critical thinking. The challenge is then putting our ideas down onto a piece of paper into a coherent format. The point is, and this was argued in the wonderful book 'Writing Revolution', writing should be used to promote thinking (and vice-versa).


Advice for your students on creating an essay plan

1) Start early - don't wait until the last minute. You need time to prepare so make sure you've got enough time before hand.

2) Write out all your thoughts - even if you only get halfway through your outline. It helps to know where you want to go when you begin writing.

3) Use a notebook/journal - keep track of everything you read, watch, hear etc. This will give you lots of material to work with.

4) Don't worry too much about grammar - just use spell checker and proofread later. If you do find yourself struggling with spelling or grammar try looking up some online resources such as grammarly.

5) Writing isn't always easy but once you start enjoying it more you'll soon realise how rewarding it really is.

6) Remember: "A good writer writes."

An effective essay starts with a clear thesis statement. An effective essay uses specific examples to support its claims. An effective essay makes logical connections between its supporting arguments. An effective essay includes appropriate transitions within each section. Finally, an effective essay ends with a strong closing sentence.

I'm hopeful that after reading this article your students will find it a lot easier to compose an essay plan. Having an effective essay plan will make your task of preparing an essay much easier.

Nothing will help you as much as an effective essay plan in organizing your thoughts and in modifying your task while you read, understand and discuss your ideas. It will serve as a basic outline for your essay and would be useful if you wish to discuss your essay with your instructor, lecturer or with an Academic Support person.

Of course, when you'll write your final essay you might have to make minor changes to your essay plan. But, keep your changes within limits unless you are 100% sure about the effectiveness of any alternative and how well it fits into the original scheme.