Planning and Structuring an Essay

Academic essays usually follow an established organisational structure that helps the writer to express their ideas in a clear way and the reader to follow the thread of their argument. Essay structure is guided by its content and argument so every essay will pose unique structural challenges. Having a clearer understanding of the most effective ways to structure your writing can help you to plan and organise the content of your essays and make sure you get your ideas across.

Organising 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. Try following these steps to develop an effective essay structure:

Essay Planning and Structure

Try the 301 Essay Planning and Structure Prezi to find out more.

Planning Stages

1. Understand the Question
Lecturers often complain that students don’t answer the question... make sure you take time to understand the question! Ask the tutor for clarification if necessary. Take time to understand the question.

  • 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).
  • What can you infer from the title about the structure of the essay?

2. Brainstorm for Ideas

  • What you know about the topic – from lectures, reading etc.
  • What you don't know about the topic, but need to find out to answer the question
  • Possible responses or answers to the question – any ideas about your conclusion.
  • Consider using a mind map to organise your thoughts...

3. Make a Plan
Why plan?

  • Planning your essay makes it more likely that you have a coherent argument
  • It enables you to work out a logical structure and an end point for your argument before you start writing
  • It means you don't have to do this type of complex thinking at the same time as trying to find the right words to express your ideas
  • It helps you to commit yourself to sticking to the point!

Planning Strategies

  • Use the title to structure the essay (description, comparison, analysis?)
  • What structure is most appropriate for the topic?
  • Use a template plan?

Draft an Outline

P1 - Introduction: Address the question, show why it's interesting and how the essay will answer it. Develop an overall mission statement (see the Structure and Planning session for more info).
P2 - Main Body: Build your argument. Put your groups of ideas in a sequence to make a persuasive argument. One main point in each paragraph. Spend time to make sure progression of ideas is logical.
P3, P4, P5 etc.

  • Format WEED – What, Evidence, Example, Do

P6 - Conclusion: Summarise your arguments and evidence, and show how they answer the original question.

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Top Tips
  • Start planning early, leave your plan for a couple of days, then come back to it. This may give you a fresh perspective.
  • It is often easiest to write the introduction last, BUT when you are planning your essay structure make sure you have your MISSION STATEMENT.
  • A good plan will make it much easier to write a good essay. Invest the time in making a plan that works.
  • Check what your tutor wants, but it is often best to focus on one element in great detail, rather than discuss several aspects superficially.
  • Make sure you allow time to PROOFREAD your work before submission!
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