How to plan a winning essay

However you look at it, getting started on an essay can be a challenge. There are likely to be a whole bunch of ideas swirling around in your head. Knowing how to assemble these into some sort of sense, then write them down in the form of a good academic essay, doesn’t always come easy!

One way to make essay writing much easier is by planning ahead. Planning is crucial in order for success: failing to plan is planning to fail! Do not leave your work until the last minute, instead, use this post as an essay planning guide that can lead you on the path to success.

There are two stages to essay planning. First, you need to map out what your essay will include. By outlining the contents of your essay before you write it, you’ll ensure you don’t miss any crucial detail, and that you give fair weight to each of the points of your argument.

After mapping out your essay, you can then make a schedule for yourself, deciding when you will work on each section to ensure you get in done in good time. Breaking your work down into manageable chunks like this will mean you can make a little bit of progress each day, instead of cramming at the last minute.

So, if you’re here because you’re thinking, “how do I plan an essay?” or, “what does an essay plan look like?” – you’re in the right place! We’ll answer these exact questions for you in this article.

Essay planning step 1: Creating a structure

It may be very tempting to just sit down and write, especially if you are on a tight deadline to finish an essay. But it’s crucial that before writing, you create – as a bear minimum! – a structure that details what your essay will cover.

Hopefully, you already have an idea or argument that you might like to pursue. Next, you need to decide how many body paragraphs you need to make that argument (and to meet the word limit criteria).

When planning your essay’s structure, you want to make sure that every paragraph has a focus (we call this the topic sentence). A paragraph is usually somewhere between 6-10 sentences in length, meaning that it is likely to be around 200-250 words (or at least this is a good place to start).

So how do you decide how many body paragraphs your essay will contain? Your first step is to divide up your paper. Let’s say you have to write 1500 words. You would have 150 words for your introduction and 150 words for your conclusion. This leaves you with 1200 words, which would mean you would need between 5-6 body paragraphs in the middle.

Your next job is to come up with 5-6 ideas, one for each paragraph (we explain this in more detail in the next part of this post).

“Writing 6 paragraphs of 200 words seems far more achievable than a solid block of 1500 words – and you can have a mini celebration after you finish each one.”

Not only does segmenting the essay like this help you achieve your word count – it also makes it much easier to handle. The thought of writing 1500 words might seem a bit daunting at first. But, break it down into sections, and suddenly you only have to write 200-250 words for each. That seems much less intimidating! As you move from section to section, you will quickly see your essay start to emerge.

Essay planning step 2: Brainstorming or freewriting

Once you know how many ideas you need, the next step is writing down what you know (and what you still have to find out).

There are many ways that this can be achieved. You can either create a mind map, or just write out all your ideas on a piece of paper. As you do this, also keep in mind any questions you have, and the things you need to look up.

If you cannot come up with 5-6 ideas, start reviewing your lecture notes, lecture slides, and do some reading to see if you can identify the main ideas. At this point, your paper might look really messy (and that is OK!). This messiness will help you as you begin to construct your outline.

Essay planning step 3: Constructing a detailed outline

Once you have done your brainstorming, it is time to take the messiness and put it into a neater format. While you might have done the brainstorm on a piece of scrap paper, you should start to write your outline on the computer, because what starts as an outline will gradually evolve into your actual essay.

“With every change you make, just make sure that you are keeping the question prompt in mind. If you write an excellent essay, but it has nothing to do with the assigned topic provided by the instructor, you are unlikely to do well.”

The outline is a living document, which means that as you start to work on it, you may need to make changes (and that is OK!). With every change you make, just make sure that you are keeping the question prompt in mind. If you write an excellent essay, but it has nothing to do with the assigned topic provided by the instructor, you are unlikely to do well.

Here’s how we suggest you write the detailed outline for your essay:

1. Write your introduction (or thesis statement)

When you begin to think about your essay, you are probably going to need some type of overarching argument or position. This is commonly known as a thesis statement. While you do not have to have an exact thesis in your essay plan, having an idea about where you want to start is always useful.

A good thesis statement contains an argument or position and is followed by a strategy (like a road map) that explains how this will be achieved. Remember, even though it is called a thesis statement, it might be more than one sentence (and can be 2 or 3).

2. Write topic sentences for every paragraph

Every paragraph that you write has to relate to your thesis statement (and your thesis statement is answering the question provided by the instructor). A topic sentence is the first sentence in your body paragraph. It provides an overview of what is going to happen in the paragraph. You might want to think of your topic sentence as a mini-thesis, presenting the argument for one particular paragraph.

3. Include evidence

Once you have established a clear topic sentence, you have to figure out what evidence you are going to provide in the middle of each paragraph to make sure that you are getting your point across clearly. This is where you might start to use your readings (your textbook, library resources, and Google) to help you figure out what to include. At the outlining stage, you might just want to list the possible sources that you are going to use, or you can write a few notes about what each paragraph might contain.

4. Conclusion

At this stage, you don’t have to plan what the conclusion will say or include, since you haven’t yet written your essay and come to your concluding argument. But just make a note that this section will present your key takeaway for the reader and highlight how you have answered the essay question.

An essay plan example

An essay plan is usually linear. Let’s look at the example below to see how an essay plan might come together. In this case, we are writing a 1500-word essay, and we are attempting to answer the question: What role can citizen diplomacy play in mitigating difficult interstate relations?

Introduction (150 words)
Thesis statement
This essay argues that while citizen diplomacy through dialogue should be pursued, the Peace Research Institute in the Middle East (PRIME) has faced numerous challenges that have limited its overall impact in mitigating difficult interstate relations.

Section 1: Theory (400)
Body paragraph 1
While many steps have been taken by governments to resolve the Israeli – Palestinian conflict, there has been a lack of sustainability between these two countries over time.

Body paragraph 2
While the Israel – Palestine conflict has extended for decades, the role that citizen diplomacy can play in large scale negotiations is minimal (Kaye, 2001).

Section 2: Example and Application (800)
Body paragraph 3
The Peace Research Institute in the Middle East (PRIME) is a non-governmental organisation (NGO) that was created in Frankfurt in 1998 by Palestinian and Israeli academics seeking to build peace through joint research projects and outreach initiatives (Yaniv, 2013).
Body paragraph 4
Because the academics in PRIME are focused on strengthening the civil societies in both Israel and Palestine, they have published extensive literature since inception.
Body paragraph 5
When applying concepts of citizen diplomacy to PRIME, it is important to assess the impact of the intervention being employed.
Body paragraph 6
The creation of the Shared History Project was completed and introduced in schools in the early 2000s.

Conclusion (150 words)
Present my key takeaway message for the reader and highlight how I have answered the instructor’s question.

Sources I might use
Course reading:
Kaye, D.D., 2001. Track two diplomacy and regional security in the Middle East. International Negotiation, 6(1), pp.49-77.
Additional reading:
Yaniv, L., 2013. People-to-People Peace Making: The Role of Citizen Diplomacy in the Israeli-Palestinian Conflict. CPD Best Student Paper Prize in Public Diplomacy, University of Southern California Center on Public Diplomacy.
NB: a 1500-word research essay might have between 6-12 total sources in the reference list when it is completed.

Final thoughts

Once you have written an essay plan, you can begin to actually write out each of your body paragraphs into the corresponding sections. As you write, it might be simplest to start with the paragraphs that you think are going to be the easiest and move to the more difficult ones later.

Leave the introduction and the conclusion until the very end. By leaving these parts until last, you can make sure that the thesis that you wrote for your essay plan is still applicable for your essay. You can also make sure that your introduction and conclusion are providing the same messaging creating coherency and flow throughout.

Remember, there are lots of people who are willing to help you with your essay, so take advantage of the help of your university writing center or the academics at Oxbridge Essays. While writing an essay can be a challenging task, creating an essay plan is certainly one way to make the process easier!