How to plan an essay: Essay Planning
- What's in this guide
- Essay Planning
- Additional resources
How to plan an essay
Essay planning is an important step in academic essay writing.
Proper planning helps you write your essay faster, and focus more on the exact question. As you draft and write your essay, record any changes on the plan as well as in the essay itself, so they develop side by side.
One way to start planning an essay is with a ‘box plan’.
First, decide how many stages you want in your argument – how many important points do you want to make? Then, divide a box into an introduction + one paragraph for each stage + a conclusion.
Next, figure out how many words per paragraph you'll need.
Usually, the introduction and conclusion are each about 10% of the word count. This leaves about 80% of the word count for the body - for your real argument. Find how many words that is, and divide it by the number of body paragraphs you want. That tells you about how many words each paragraph can have.
Remember, each body paragraph discusses one main point, so make sure each paragraph's long enough to discuss the point properly (flexible, but usually at least 150 words).
For example, say the assignment is
Fill in the table as follows:
Next, record each paragraph's main argument, as either a heading or topic sentence (a sentence to start that paragraph, to immediately make its point clear).
Finally, use dot points to list useful information or ideas from your research notes for each paragraph. Remember to include references so you can connect each point to your reading.
The other useful document for essay planning is the marking rubric .
This indicates what the lecturer is looking for, and helps you make sure all the necessary elements are there.
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Essay structure and planning
Information on how to structure and plan your essay.
What is an essay?
An essay is a focused, academic discussion of a particular question, problem or issue.
Many of you have been writing essays for years, and are probably good at it. That's great, and everything you look at here will build on and develop those skills.
But it's worth asking: are there different things expected of a university essay from those for school, college, or other contexts?
The obvious answer is yes, and it takes time and effort to learn the range of writing skills needed to produce university essays effectively.
There are all sorts of reasons why essays are common forms of assessment. They allow you to explore a problem in-depth, express yourself concisely and precisely, and debate other people's published opinions on a topic.
They're also a good warm-up for traditional forms of academic publication, such as a journal article.
Academic essays usually follow an established organisational structure that helps the writer to express their ideas clearly and the reader to follow the thread of their argument.
An essay's structure is guided by its content and argument so every essay question will pose unique structural challenges.
301 Recommends: Glossary of Instruction Words
Our Essay Structure and Planning workshop will outline how to analyse your essay question, discuss approaches logically structure all your ideas, help you make your introductions and conclusions more effective, and teach how to link your ideas and ensure all essay content flows logically from the introduction. The Putting it into Practise workshop
Have a look at our Glossary of Essay Instruction Words (PDF, 100KB) , or watch this short Study Skills Hacks video on identifying the tasks in a question to help you identify what is required.
Essay writing is a process with many stages, from topic selection, planning and reading around, through to drafting, revising and proofreading.
Breaking the task down and creating a clear plan with milestones and intermediate deadlines will allow you to focus attention more fully on the writing process itself when you put your plan into action either as part of an assignment or an exam.
1. 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 (ie 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
- Planning your essay makes it more likely that you have a coherent argument
- It enables you to work out a logical structure and an endpoint 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!
The Hourglass essay
If you're stuck on an overall structure for your essay, try this simple model for organising a typical academic essay. An hourglass essay introduces a broad area, before narrowing the focus towards the specific question that you are answering. It finishes by placing that narrow area back into a wider context.
Introduction: the funnel of the hourglass
Set the scene and lead your reader into your essay by introducing the broad area of interest and then narrowing towards your specific focus:
- Start broad with a hook to catch the reader's attention
- Provide some context for the hook. What does your project add to it?
- Focus on the narrow area of your essay: can you summarise it in a single sentence mission statement?
Body: the stem of the hourglass
The body of your essay should be as narrow and focused as possible. Body paragraphs will take one sub-topic at a time and provide a logical flow of ideas for your reader:
- Start each paragraph with a topic sentence to tell your reader what it will cover
- Fill your paragraph with a range of supporting evidence and examples
- Finish your paragraph with a final wrapping-up sentence to summarise and/or link ahead
Conclusion: the base of the hourglass
Your chance to reinforce your key messages and go out with a bang:
- Revisit your mission statement: how have you addressed it?
- Summarise the main points of your argument or findings
- Finish with a broader scope, explaining how your topic might inform future research or practice, or where gaps remain
301 Recommends: Essay Planning Template
Use this template (google doc) to plan a structure for your essay, paying particular attention to the ways in which you have broken down the topic into sub-themes for your body paragraphs.
Top tips and resources
- Start planning early, leave your plan for a couple of days, and 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!
- Library Research and Critical Thinking - Referencing
- English Language Teaching Centre (ELTC)– Language Resources
- Royal Literary Fund– Writing Essays
- University of Reading– Planning and structuring your essay
- Cottrell, S (2008) The Study Skills Handbook. Hampshire: Palgrave Macmillan
- Bailey, S (2003) Academic Writing: A Practical Guide for Students. Routledge
- Reading University– Study Resources
- University of Manchester– Academic Phrasebank
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An essay plan is a way to identify, select, and order the points you want to make in your essay. It helps you to work out your argument and your structure before writing, which should make the writing process more efficient and focussed. Sometimes essay plans are set as formative assignments so tutors can provide feedback before you write your full essay.
Scroll down for our recommended strategies and resources.
Enough detail for feedback
If you have an essay plan as an assignment, the main purpose is to give your lecturer enough information about your structure and main points so they can give you useful feedback. Follow any guidance you have been given, but usually an essay plan doesn’t have to be in full sentences; an outline structure of main points in a bullet point list, maybe with some further details of the evidence you will use or explanation under each point, is often enough. See these guides on how to do simple outline plans for an essay:
How to plan an essay (University of Newcastle)
Structuring the essay (Monash University)
Different ways of planning
Group similar ideas.
The aim of planning is to put down all your ideas and then to sort through them and order them. Look at where the ideas group together to see if any common themes start emerging, as these might form the paragraphs in your essay. See the video below for an example of how to group and order ideas in a plan.
Planning: General structure [video] (University of York)
Changes are normal - reverse outline
We rarely follow our essay plans exactly because our ideas develop as we write. If you don’t keep to your plan, it isn’t a sign of failure or a sign that planning doesn’t work. However, you may need to reflect on your planning process - are you over-planning and it takes too much time, or are your plans too vague and more detail would help? If you have strayed from your plan, a good strategy is to check the structure of your essay afterwards to make sure it all matches up. See the guide below on how to do a reverse outline as a useful part of your redrafting process.
Reverse outlines (University of Wisconsin-Madison)
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- How to write an essay outline | Guidelines & examples
How to Write an Essay Outline | Guidelines & Examples
Published on August 14, 2020 by Jack Caulfield . Revised on July 23, 2023.
An essay outline is a way of planning the structure of your essay before you start writing. It involves writing quick summary sentences or phrases for every point you will cover in each paragraph , giving you a picture of how your argument will unfold.
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Table of contents
Organizing your material, presentation of the outline, examples of essay outlines, other interesting articles, frequently asked questions about essay outlines.
At the stage where you’re writing an essay outline, your ideas are probably still not fully formed. You should know your topic and have already done some preliminary research to find relevant sources , but now you need to shape your ideas into a structured argument.
Look over any information, quotes and ideas you’ve noted down from your research and consider the central point you want to make in the essay—this will be the basis of your thesis statement . Once you have an idea of your overall argument, you can begin to organize your material in a way that serves that argument.
Try to arrange your material into categories related to different aspects of your argument. If you’re writing about a literary text, you might group your ideas into themes; in a history essay, it might be several key trends or turning points from the period you’re discussing.
Three main themes or subjects is a common structure for essays. Depending on the length of the essay, you could split the themes into three body paragraphs, or three longer sections with several paragraphs covering each theme.
As you create the outline, look critically at your categories and points: Are any of them irrelevant or redundant? Make sure every topic you cover is clearly related to your thesis statement.
Order of information
When you have your material organized into several categories, consider what order they should appear in.
Your essay will always begin and end with an introduction and conclusion , but the organization of the body is up to you.
Consider these questions to order your material:
- Is there an obvious starting point for your argument?
- Is there one subject that provides an easy transition into another?
- Do some points need to be set up by discussing other points first?
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Within each paragraph, you’ll discuss a single idea related to your overall topic or argument, using several points of evidence or analysis to do so.
In your outline, you present these points as a few short numbered sentences or phrases.They can be split into sub-points when more detail is needed.
The template below shows how you might structure an outline for a five-paragraph essay.
- Thesis statement
- First piece of evidence
- Second piece of evidence
- Importance of topic
- Strong closing statement
You can choose whether to write your outline in full sentences or short phrases. Be consistent in your choice; don’t randomly write some points as full sentences and others as short phrases.
Examples of outlines for different types of essays are presented below: an argumentative, expository, and literary analysis essay.
Argumentative essay outline
This outline is for a short argumentative essay evaluating the internet’s impact on education. It uses short phrases to summarize each point.
Its body is split into three paragraphs, each presenting arguments about a different aspect of the internet’s effects on education.
- Importance of the internet
- Concerns about internet use
- Thesis statement: Internet use a net positive
- Data exploring this effect
- Analysis indicating it is overstated
- Students’ reading levels over time
- Why this data is questionable
- Video media
- Interactive media
- Speed and simplicity of online research
- Questions about reliability (transitioning into next topic)
- Evidence indicating its ubiquity
- Claims that it discourages engagement with academic writing
- Evidence that Wikipedia warns students not to cite it
- Argument that it introduces students to citation
- Summary of key points
- Value of digital education for students
- Need for optimism to embrace advantages of the internet
Expository essay outline
This is the outline for an expository essay describing how the invention of the printing press affected life and politics in Europe.
The paragraphs are still summarized in short phrases here, but individual points are described with full sentences.
- Claim that the printing press marks the end of the Middle Ages.
- Provide background on the low levels of literacy before the printing press.
- Present the thesis statement: The invention of the printing press increased circulation of information in Europe, paving the way for the Reformation.
- Discuss the very high levels of illiteracy in medieval Europe.
- Describe how literacy and thus knowledge and education were mainly the domain of religious and political elites.
- Indicate how this discouraged political and religious change.
- Describe the invention of the printing press in 1440 by Johannes Gutenberg.
- Show the implications of the new technology for book production.
- Describe the rapid spread of the technology and the printing of the Gutenberg Bible.
- Link to the Reformation.
- Discuss the trend for translating the Bible into vernacular languages during the years following the printing press’s invention.
- Describe Luther’s own translation of the Bible during the Reformation.
- Sketch out the large-scale effects the Reformation would have on religion and politics.
- Summarize the history described.
- Stress the significance of the printing press to the events of this period.
Literary analysis essay outline
The literary analysis essay outlined below discusses the role of theater in Jane Austen’s novel Mansfield Park .
The body of the essay is divided into three different themes, each of which is explored through examples from the book.
- Describe the theatricality of Austen’s works
- Outline the role theater plays in Mansfield Park
- Introduce the research question : How does Austen use theater to express the characters’ morality in Mansfield Park ?
- Discuss Austen’s depiction of the performance at the end of the first volume
- Discuss how Sir Bertram reacts to the acting scheme
- Introduce Austen’s use of stage direction–like details during dialogue
- Explore how these are deployed to show the characters’ self-absorption
- Discuss Austen’s description of Maria and Julia’s relationship as polite but affectionless
- Compare Mrs. Norris’s self-conceit as charitable despite her idleness
- Summarize the three themes: The acting scheme, stage directions, and the performance of morals
- Answer the research question
- Indicate areas for further study
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You will sometimes be asked to hand in an essay outline before you start writing your essay . Your supervisor wants to see that you have a clear idea of your structure so that writing will go smoothly.
Even when you do not have to hand it in, writing an essay outline is an important part of the writing process . It’s a good idea to write one (as informally as you like) to clarify your structure for yourself whenever you are working on an essay.
If you have to hand in your essay outline , you may be given specific guidelines stating whether you have to use full sentences. If you’re not sure, ask your supervisor.
When writing an essay outline for yourself, the choice is yours. Some students find it helpful to write out their ideas in full sentences, while others prefer to summarize them in short phrases.
You should try to follow your outline as you write your essay . However, if your ideas change or it becomes clear that your structure could be better, it’s okay to depart from your essay outline . Just make sure you know why you’re doing so.
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Caulfield, J. (2023, July 23). How to Write an Essay Outline | Guidelines & Examples. Scribbr. Retrieved February 22, 2024, from https://www.scribbr.com/academic-essay/essay-outline/
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Academic Development Centre
Essay plans, what can an essay plan assess.
Much of what an essay could without the detail and extended timeframe. The plan could be in written form, or diagrammatic as in a simple concept map / spider diagram.
The value of essay plans over essays is that we could require more plans than essays during a module and so cover a wider range of the curriculum. We noted above that one disadvantage of essays is that the strategic students only selecting the classes that cover ‘their chosen topic’. Not so easy to do if they have to plan for several topics ….
The Study Gurus (2018) provide an ‘different’ approach to structuring an essay plan:
Every essay needs an introduction (3-5 sentences), so at the top of your essay plan just jot down introduction or intro, so you remember to write one.
Every essay must be written in paragraphs. Each paragraph should explain one main idea, and needs to have the SEXI structure:
S: A Topic S entence. This tells the reader what the paragraph is going to be about. You only need to write down the jist of the topic sentence for each paragraph in your essay plan.
E: A full E xplanation of the point you’re making in this paragraph. This should make up the bulk of your paragraph. In your essay plan jot down what you’re going to explain.
X: e X amples or justifications that back up what you’ve said in that paragraph. Jot down what examples you’re going to include in your essay plan so you don’t forget to include them in your essay!
I: Why is this point I mportant? A really amazing essay would also explain why this point is important to the essay as a whole. What’s the significance of this point to the essay topic?
Every essay needs a conclusion that briefly summarises what’s been said in the essay. You can just write down conclusion in your plan to make sure you write one.
This is simply used as an example here; you will be advising your students about essays in your discipline and how they should be structured and planned. Once you have established the planning process with them then it can become the assessment task.
Perhaps the strategy could be several plans are submitted and receive feedback and then students select one or more to complete for further grading.
Diversity & inclusion
Little different to full essays.
Plans, like full essays, can be run through plagiarism checkers like Turnitin. It is important not to assume that by asking to see the plan you can guarantee that the essay is the students' own work or that the plan will be the students' own work. Essay mills or cheat sites are perfectly able to provide a plan, and then write an essay to that plan (or vice versa ).
Generative AI is incredibly adept at writing essay plans to prompts, which can include specific instructions (such as SEXI) and feedback on previous work that you or other lecturers may have given. AI can help students to generate and refine ideas, provide examples, summarise the literature and is increasingly sophisticated. AI can provide individuated support to scaffold student thinking and writing, and as part of an iterative and dialogic process can be integrated into student work so seamlessly that students might struggle to identify precisely what is them and what is AI.
Seeing essay plans as a thinking/learning tool - and emphasising the formative function - should minimise anxiety around AI/academic integrity. Framing essay plans as a powerful mechanism to generate productive feedback that will help students do their best work in an essay will promote academic integrity.
(Click here for further guidance on designing for academic integrity .)
Richardson, J.T.E. (2015) Coursework versus examinations in end-of-module assessment: a literature review, Assessment & Evaluation in Higher Education . 40 (3), 439-455.
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Healey, M. and Jenkins, A. (2009) Developing undergraduate research and inquiry.
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Essay variants: essays only with more focus
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Essay and dissertation writing skills
Planning your essay
Writing your introduction
Structuring your essay
- Writing essays in science subjects
- Brief video guides to support essay planning and writing
- Writing extended essays and dissertations
- Planning your dissertation writing time
Structuring your dissertation
- Top tips for writing longer pieces of work
Advice on planning and writing essays and dissertations
University essays differ from school essays in that they are less concerned with what you know and more concerned with how you construct an argument to answer the question. This means that the starting point for writing a strong essay is to first unpick the question and to then use this to plan your essay before you start putting pen to paper (or finger to keyboard).
A really good starting point for you are these short, downloadable Tips for Successful Essay Writing and Answering the Question resources. Both resources will help you to plan your essay, as well as giving you guidance on how to distinguish between different sorts of essay questions.
You may find it helpful to watch this seven-minute video on six tips for essay writing which outlines how to interpret essay questions, as well as giving advice on planning and structuring your writing:
Different disciplines will have different expectations for essay structure and you should always refer to your Faculty or Department student handbook or course Canvas site for more specific guidance.
However, broadly speaking, all essays share the following features:
Essays need an introduction to establish and focus the parameters of the discussion that will follow. You may find it helpful to divide the introduction into areas to demonstrate your breadth and engagement with the essay question. You might define specific terms in the introduction to show your engagement with the essay question; for example, ‘This is a large topic which has been variously discussed by many scientists and commentators. The principle tension is between the views of X and Y who define the main issues as…’ Breadth might be demonstrated by showing the range of viewpoints from which the essay question could be considered; for example, ‘A variety of factors including economic, social and political, influence A and B. This essay will focus on the social and economic aspects, with particular emphasis on…..’
Watch this two-minute video to learn more about how to plan and structure an introduction:
The main body of the essay should elaborate on the issues raised in the introduction and develop an argument(s) that answers the question. It should consist of a number of self-contained paragraphs each of which makes a specific point and provides some form of evidence to support the argument being made. Remember that a clear argument requires that each paragraph explicitly relates back to the essay question or the developing argument.
- Conclusion: An essay should end with a conclusion that reiterates the argument in light of the evidence you have provided; you shouldn’t use the conclusion to introduce new information.
- References: You need to include references to the materials you’ve used to write your essay. These might be in the form of footnotes, in-text citations, or a bibliography at the end. Different systems exist for citing references and different disciplines will use various approaches to citation. Ask your tutor which method(s) you should be using for your essay and also consult your Department or Faculty webpages for specific guidance in your discipline.
Essay writing in science subjects
If you are writing an essay for a science subject you may need to consider additional areas, such as how to present data or diagrams. This five-minute video gives you some advice on how to approach your reading list, planning which information to include in your answer and how to write for your scientific audience – the video is available here:
A PDF providing further guidance on writing science essays for tutorials is available to download.
Short videos to support your essay writing skills
There are many other resources at Oxford that can help support your essay writing skills and if you are short on time, the Oxford Study Skills Centre has produced a number of short (2-minute) videos covering different aspects of essay writing, including:
- Approaching different types of essay questions
- Structuring your essay
- Writing an introduction
- Making use of evidence in your essay writing
- Writing your conclusion
Extended essays and dissertations
Longer pieces of writing like extended essays and dissertations may seem like quite a challenge from your regular essay writing. The important point is to start with a plan and to focus on what the question is asking. A PDF providing further guidance on planning Humanities and Social Science dissertations is available to download.
Planning your time effectively
Try not to leave the writing until close to your deadline, instead start as soon as you have some ideas to put down onto paper. Your early drafts may never end up in the final work, but the work of committing your ideas to paper helps to formulate not only your ideas, but the method of structuring your writing to read well and conclude firmly.
Although many students and tutors will say that the introduction is often written last, it is a good idea to begin to think about what will go into it early on. For example, the first draft of your introduction should set out your argument, the information you have, and your methods, and it should give a structure to the chapters and sections you will write. Your introduction will probably change as time goes on but it will stand as a guide to your entire extended essay or dissertation and it will help you to keep focused.
The structure of extended essays or dissertations will vary depending on the question and discipline, but may include some or all of the following:
- The background information to - and context for - your research. This often takes the form of a literature review.
- Explanation of the focus of your work.
- Explanation of the value of this work to scholarship on the topic.
- List of the aims and objectives of the work and also the issues which will not be covered because they are outside its scope.
The main body of your extended essay or dissertation will probably include your methodology, the results of research, and your argument(s) based on your findings.
The conclusion is to summarise the value your research has added to the topic, and any further lines of research you would undertake given more time or resources.
Tips on writing longer pieces of work
Approaching each chapter of a dissertation as a shorter essay can make the task of writing a dissertation seem less overwhelming. Each chapter will have an introduction, a main body where the argument is developed and substantiated with evidence, and a conclusion to tie things together. Unlike in a regular essay, chapter conclusions may also introduce the chapter that will follow, indicating how the chapters are connected to one another and how the argument will develop through your dissertation.
For further guidance, watch this two-minute video on writing longer pieces of work .
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Answering the question
Generating ideas, planning your essay, different planning methods.
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Useful links for writing essays
- Study Advice Helping students to achieve study success with guides, video tutorials, seminars and one-to-one advice sessions.
- Academic writing LibGuide Expert guidance on punctuation, grammar, writing style and proof-reading.
- Guide to citing references Includes guidance on why, when and how to use references correctly in your academic writing.
- Reading and notemaking LibGuide Expert guidance on managing your reading and making effective notes.
- Academic Phrasebank Use this site for examples of linking phrases and ways to refer to sources.
- Ten stages of assignment success (Prezi) Based upon Burns and Sinfield, Essential Study Skills.
- Critical Thinking A short video on Critical Thinking that the BBC have prepared in partnership with The Open University
The first thing to do when preparing to write an essay is to make a plan. You could just rush in and write everything that comes into your head, but that would make it difficult for your marker to read and would reduce the effectiveness of your ideas. These will make much stronger arguments if you group them together than they would do on their own.
The guidance on this page will show you how to plan and structure your essay to produce a strong and focused response to the question.
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.
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.
- Answering the question and planning (video) Watch this brief video tutorial for more on the topic.
- Answering the question and planning (transcript) Read along while watching the video tutorial.
The kinds of things to note briefly are:
- What you already know about the topic – from lectures, seminars, general knowledge.
- Things you don't know about the topic, but need to find out in order to answer the question.
- Initial responses or answers to the question – what you think your conclusion might possibly be.
This helps you start formulating your argument and direction for answering the question. It also helps you focus your reading, as you can pinpoint what you need to find out and go straight to the parts of books, chapters, articles that will be most relevant.
After reading - After your reading, it is often good to summarise all your findings on a page. Again, a spider diagram can help with this.
Bringing together the key points from your reading helps clarify what you have found out, and helps you find a pathway through all the ideas and issues you have encountered. If you include brief details of authors and page nos. for key information, it can act as a quick at-a-glance guide for finding the evidence you need to support your points later.
It also helps you see how your initial response to the question might have changed or become more sophisticated in light of the reading you've done. It leads into planning your essay structure.
- 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!
You need to work out what to include, and what can be left out. It is impossible to cover everything in an essay, and your markers will be looking for evidence of your ability to choose material and put it in order. Brainstorm all your ideas, then arrange them in three or four groups. Not everything will fit so be prepared to discard some points (you can mention them briefly in your introduction).
Outline what you are going to include in each section:
- Introduction : Address the question, show why it's interesting and how you will answer it.
- Main body : Build your argument. Put your groups of ideas in a sequence to make a persuasive argument. One main point in each paragraph.
- Conclusion : Summarise your arguments and evidence, and show how they answer the original question.
Writing a summary - Some people plan best once they have written something, as this helps clarify their thinking. If you prefer to write first, try summarising the central idea of your essay in a few sentences. This gives you a clear direction for working out how you are going to break it down into points supported by evidence. You can then use one of the methods below to write a more detailed plan.
- Structuring your essay (video) Watch this brief video tutorial for more on the topic.
- Structuring your essay (transcript) Read along while watching the video tutorial.
Bullet points / linear plans - This type of plan lists the main points using bullet points or numbers. It can be a brief outline of the main point per paragraph, or a more detailed plan with sub-points and a note of the evidence to support each point (e.g. source and page no.).
No plan is perfect, so be prepared for your ideas to change as you write your essay. However, once you have an initial plan it is much easier to adapt it and see where new things fit if your thinking does change.
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Plan your essay
Argument determines structure
Now you have written your thesis statement and have carried out preliminary research, the next step is to formulate an essay structure that is logical, coherent and maximally persuasive.
The argument you make determines your structure. The key reasons for your position form the main points that are developed in your essay. If you change your argument, you will likely need to change your essay structure in order to better support the new argument.
At this stage, write down the basic structure as a list. Think of each line as a new heading or section of your essay. Arrange these main points in a way that you think is most logical and where the ideas flow together well. Do not be afraid to experiment with alternative structures, as this process may lead you to refine your argument further.
Find your argument
Develop your argument
Write your essay
Polish your essay
- Essay plan template (DOCX, 2.18 MB)
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Essay writing: Planning & drafting
- Analysing questions
- Planning & drafting
- Revising & editing
- Essay writing videos
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“Why should you make a plan for your essays? Why 'waste time' ...? Because it will pay off in the long run in terms of the relevance, organisation and clarity of your essay.” Don Shiach, How to Write Essays
An academic essay is a very specific form of writing. Its purpose is to answer the question in an organised and comprehensive manner. In order to do this, care should be taken at the planning stage so that you can be confident that you have included the most relevant material and that your reader can follow your line of argument as you make the points that lead to your conclusion.
1. Initial thoughts and reading
2. Rough planning
You should now be able to draft either a simple conclusion or a rough plan of your introduction. This is the point where you need to be deciding the key points for each of your paragraphs.
How many key points (paragraphs)?
The number of key points that you need to make to reach your conclusion will, to some extent, be dictated by the length of your essay. Academic paragraphs are usually between 200 and 300 words long (they vary more than this but it is a useful guide). With that in mind, you should be able to work out roughly how many points you need to make given the length of your essay. If we look at 3 examples:
2,000 word essay (200 for introduction, 200 for conclusion, leaves approx. 1,600 word main body) = 6-8 paragraphs (6-8 points) 3,000 word essay (300 for introduction, 300 for conclusion, leaves approx. 2,400 word main body) = 8-12 paragraphs (8-12 points) 4,500 word essay (450 for introduction, 450 for conclusion, leaves approx. 3,600 word main body) = 12-18 paragraphs (12-18 points)
The paragraphs in the longer essays will probably be grouped into themes to give your argument a bit more organisation.
Plan your key points
Now you know how many points you need, spend time deciding what they are. You can do this as a list of bullet points, a mind map, a diagram; whatever works for you.
3. Gather the information you need for your essay
We have workshops on finding quality information if you need any help and advice with this.
4. Read and take notes from the information you have gathered
5. Create a detailed plan of the middle section of your essay
Using the reading you have done, revisit your draft introduction/conclusion to see if you want to amend it due to your reading. Once this is done, create a plan of the middle section of your essay which is much more detailed than your original rough plan and which takes into account any changes you made to the conclusion.
Include in your plan, your main sections and arguments, in the order in which you will present them. It may be a good idea to write out in full the topic sentence of each paragraph - the sentence that makes the point that the paragraph is about. You can see from this if your essay has a natural flow , with the general narrative (logical story leading to your conclusion) making sense.
6. Write a full draft of your essay
Many students write the middle section of the essay first. If this is your preferred method, use the detailed plan you have just created to help you do so. When you are satisfied with your middle section, tidy up the draft introduction or fill out your conclusion to add more detail.
This forms the basis of your essay. From now on you are revising and editing it, not writing it.
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Construct an Essay Plan
Construct an initial essay plan.
After you have generated some ideas, it’s important to write an initial plan before you head for the library. This can feel strange—after all, how can you answer a question when you haven’t done any research?—but starting with an initial plan helps you order your ideas and focus your reading. Without a sense of which direction to head in, it’s easy to get lost in the research process.
This initial plan will be provisional and might consist of:
- a provisional answer to the question (or thesis statement)
- a brief outline of possible main point.
As you research and develop your understanding of the topic, your ideas will likely change, and your answers may change with them. Try to see your essay plan as something that evolves as you engage further with your topic.
While it’s a good idea to write an initial plan before you start researching, if you really know nothing at all about the topic, some initial skimming and browsing through recommended or assigned readings can provide a few ideas. However, the initial planning stage is not the time for a lot of intensive or detailed reading.
What elements should an essay plan consist of?
A 1-2 sentence thesis statement.
A plan should indicate the answer to the question. A clear and well-written thesis statement will help you to determine the direction and structure of your argument.
What is a thesis statement?
- A clear and direct answer to the essay questio.
- A claim that can be discussed and expanded further in the body of the essay.
- One or two complete sentences.
- A part of the introduction.
In the initial plan, the thesis statement is usually provisional. However, after you’ve done some research, you will need to work on your thesis statement until it is clear, concise and effective.
- Try introducing your thesis statement with the phrase ‘this essay will argue’ or ‘this essay argues’.
- Paraphrasing the assignment question can help ensure that you are answering it.
Possible main points
Once you have a thesis statement, follow it with a paragraph or a set of points that indicate the ‘reasons why’ for your answer. The ‘reasons why’ can be developed into the main points of your essay.
What are main points?
- Main points make up the body of an essay.
- Each point should be developed in a paragraph. These paragraphs are the building blocks used to construct the argument.
- In a 1000-1500 word essay, aim for three to four main points
In the initial plan, try to express the main idea of each point in a single, clear sentence. These can become topic sentences—usually the first sentence of each paragraph which summarise the information in the paragraph. In your second plan, you develop these points further.
Arrange your main points in a logical order and number them. Is there one that would seem to go first or one that would seem to go last? Are there any two that are closely linked? How are the ideas connected to each other? Do the main points, when considered as a whole, present a unified discussion?).
The structure of the essay
A plan should follow the structureof an essay, e.g. Introduction, body and conclusion.
While you may not be ready to construct an introduction or conclusion, this three-part structure should be at least suggested in your plan.
Some indication of the research
A plan should include some indication of the sources you might use to RESEARCH the topic.
Make a few notes about how each main point might be developed. If possible, specify the evidence you might draw on and which texts you might refer to. Jot down titles, authors, page numbers etc.
Next: Step 4 - Research and gather information
Essay and assignment writing guide.
- Essay writing basics
- Analyse the task
- Work out your ideas
- Construct an essay plan
- Research and gather information
- Write a second essay plan
- Answering assignment questions
- Editing checklist
- Writing a critical review
- Annotated bibliography
- Reflective writing
- ^ More support
Study Hacks Workshops | All the hacks you need! 7 Feb – 10 Apr 2024
Planning and Structuring Assignments
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Steps to planning your writing
Understanding the assignment, planning your content, structuring your answer, writing your answer, signposting language.
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Planning is an essential part of writing a successful assignment and ensuring you reach your full potential. Key benefits to a clear plan are that it:
- Helps you to manage and make efficient use of your time
- Ensures that you understand and appropriately fulfil the assignment criteria
- Makes the writing process easier and helps you to produce a coherent and well-structured assignment.
At the start of writing your assignments, it is helpful to create a schedule to help organise your time and break the assignment process up into manageable chunks. Your schedule should include:
- Analysing the question
- Research, reading and note taking
- Planning your answer
- Writing the first draft
- Time to meet with your tutor or module lead (if needed)
- 1 st edit, further research, amendments
- Proofing and formatting
What type of assignment is it?
It’s crucial to understand what type of assignment you are being asked to produce – is it an essay, a literature review, a report, annotated bibliography, or a piece of reflective writing? Each type of assignment has different conventions and will have different requirements to be successful.
Understanding the title
Break down your question to make sure you understand what is being asked of you and what your focus should be.
Questions can usually be split into three sections:
- Instruction words – these will guide/instruct you in how you should approach addressing the question . A list of definitions for commonly used instruction verbs can be downloaded at the bottom of this box.
- Topic words – these will tell you the primary subject of the assignment and may draw your attention to an aspect of the subject that should be given consideration in your response.
- Limiting words – these function as restrictions that help narrow the scope of the question and focus your response.
Let’s look at an example:
The green topic words give us our focus – these can be used as key search terms in Library Search as a way of kickstarting your research on the topic. The red term acts as a restriction – if we started to write about how Batman’s actions had impacted crimes in neighbouring cities, or on a national scale, this would fall outside of the boundaries of the question, and therefore would not gain any marks in this particular assignment.
Question the question
Once you understand the assignment type and have analysed the question, there are a few more questions you should ask:
- Are there key concepts/theories that you will need to define?
- Are there particular aspects of the topic that you want to emphasise?
- If you are required to make a judgement, or give a verdict on something, how will you make this decision?
- Are you going to impose any of your own limiting factors? (This can be a helpful way of focusing a very broad question topic. You can impose your own limiting factors by including them in the introduction of your essay)
Finally, there are a few practical considerations before you start your essay plan:
- What’s the word count?
- What’s the referencing style? For help with APA referencing look here [insert hyperlink]
- How am I being asked to present my work? Can I include subheadings? What are the requirements for font and size?
It’s useful to know these from the start to save time making changes later in the process.
- Essay terms explained Download our list of instruction words and their definitions to help identify the tasks from your assignment briefs and assessment criteria.
- Essay planning template An A3 guide to essay structure and what each section should include.
Prior knowledge and resources
As you start to plan your answer, the first step should be to consider what you already know about the topic. Think about what has been covered in your lectures/seminar/labs/reading – you may already have quite a lot of relevant information to help you. Likewise, check to see if there are any online reading lists available as these are a very useful starting point.
From here you should have a good idea of what aspects of the question you will need to research in greater detail and where to focus your reading.
When you are reading, your note taking should be an active process. This means engaging with the text rather than just being a passive reader mindlessly highlighting large chunks of text. Here are some key tips to make sure you are an active reader/note-taker:
- Keep your notes selective and concise
- Write notes in your own words as this will help your understanding of the topic
- If you do want to use any direct quotations, keep them short and purposeful. Also, remember to note down the page number straight away so you don’t struggle to find it later!
- Look out for links between what you are reading and what you’ve previously read - do authors agree/disagree? Are theories/models well supported/poorly supported? Are there key challenges?
- Use sub-headings to organise your notes as this well help when you come to write your essay plan.
- Don’t be afraid of making your notes memorable – use colours, underlining and highlighting to draw attention to important information.
For more information, visit our online study guides to critical writing and effective reading .
Throughout this process you should try to reflect on your position in relation to the question and start thinking about what your conclusion might be. This is especially important for questions that are looking for you to give your verdict or opinion on a topic/debate. To help support this it can be useful to try and sum up your argument in one or two short sentences; this helps to ensure that your argument is clear and will help keep your response well-structured and coherent once you start writing.
Now that you’ve completed your reading, it’s time to structure your writing:
- Establish links between different parts of your reading through mind-mapping or identifying common themes.
- Create headings to organise your links – these will become the basis for your paragraphs.
- Start to structure these headings into a logical order and consider how you will order and use these examples to construct and support your response to the assignment.
- There are several different ways you can structure your response, and this might be dependant on what your assignment is asking you to do. For example, if your assignment is organised around themes it might be structured something like this:
Alternatively, if you were contrasting two theories it might look like this:
Of course, these aren’t the only ways to structure your writing and it’s likely that you will need to adapt your plan for each assignment depending on what is required. However, remember that a plan should always help to organise your content so that your response is clear, coherent and well-structured.
In the same way that essays have a clear structure (introduction, main body, conclusion), the paragraphs within your essay should also follow a pattern. Considering how you structure your paragraphs is important as it helps to improve the clarity of your writing by presenting your chosen evidence and subsequent critical response in a clear and effective way.
Paragraphs should be TIED together:
- Topic sentence – The first sentence of your paragraph should introduce the main topic, theme or next step of your argument. It should summarise what the reader can expect from your paragraph. If the paragraph links directly to the question or assessment criteria you’ve been set, think about what key words make this clear to the reader.
- Introduce evidence - Before discussing your evidence, it is helpful to signpost to the reader what aspect of the literature you will talk about in more detail. This can be achieved by drawing their attention to something interesting or contextually important that will be relevant in the following section of the paragraph.
- Evidence – This is where you introduce references and highlight how these support your argument. You could also include counterpoints to your position within this section (and why these challenges are not upheld) or you could have this as a separate paragraph – the choice is up to you!
- Discussion – Your paragraph should end with your interpretation of the evidence and how this links back to the assignment topic. Within these sentences you may explore ideas such as relevance, significance, impact and future directions – for more help with this, check out our guide to critical writing [insert hyperlink]
Let’s look at this in an example:
"As noted by Alexander (2017), talk has always been an essential component of teaching, and, consequently, learning. Evidence has demonstrated that talking about prose can enhance written responses to texts through increasing student confidence about qualities such as character, theme, and motifs ( Coultas , 2006). Despite this however, the most recent version of the National Curriculum has hugely decreased the role of speaking and listening; this includes even going so far as to remove speaking and listening from formal assessment in GCSE specifications. Furthermore, as noted by Yandell (2013), this has included moving the focus of talk as a collaborative experience to only being on the speaker, thus relegating listening as a key skill. Parallel to this, the types of talk discussed within the classroom has considerably narrowed, to the extent that what students now understand as spoken English, is little more than public speaking. Consequently, teachers are now faced with the responsibility of instilling the foundational skills of speaking and listening in students at an earlier age, to ensure that they have the necessary skills to navigate the complex social world.
Linking your ideas
Signposting language is also a key part of academic writing. Signposts are words or phrases that show a link between two ideas and can also be used to signal transition in your writing. This helps to make your writing more coherent and avoids any jarring changes of topic that leave your reader struggling to understand the connection between two paragraphs. Likewise, you can use signposting to develop your argument by identifying ideas that support or contrast one another, or ideas/findings that have built upon the outcomes of prior work. Ultimately, signposting helps to show the reader the structure of your argument and the direction of your response.
In terms of your planning and structuring, you should think carefully about to use signposting language to link the ideas between your paragraphs, signal key transitions develop your argument. Some examples are included below:
To reference other parts of your essay
- As noted above
- As previously stated,
- Given the evidence outlined earlier in the essay
To introduce a supporting point
- In the same way,
To introduce a contrasting point
- Against this,
- A clear challenge for
- By contrast
To introduce reason/outcomes
- Taken together the evidence seems to suggest
To introduce a conclusion
- As this essay has demonstrated
- From the evidence detailed here, it seems that
- In summary,
- In conclusion,
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Essay Mapping Tool
Effective writing at university is a process:
Analyse the task → Gather content → Plan → Draft → Edit
This tool may help you to bridge from planning to drafting by helping you arrange your sentences in a logical order. It also provides tips for each component of an essay – the introduction, body, and conclusion. It can be used to improve your understanding of essay writing in general or as a planning tool for one of your university assignments.
Because this tool is for your personal use only, you may decide to write in bullet points, but we recommend full sentences. Once you have filled in each section, a complete essay overview will be generated which can be printed.
Three paragraphs planning spaces have been provided for you. You can add or delete as necessary.
The purpose of the body is to logically develop the points made in your thesis and outline statements. There are no rules about the number of paragraphs required in assignment, but in general, you are advised to develop one idea per paragraph. This is done with a clear and coherent structure which introduces the topic in a topic sentence, defines or clarifies which aspect of the topic you are going to discuss, develops and supports your discussion and (optionally) concludes your discussion.
A topic sentence generally has two parts. You may refer to the overall essay topic and also introduce the specific aspect you plan to discuss in this paragraph. This is referred to as topic + controlling idea . You can also use a topic sentence to link to or contrast with the previous paragraph. This is an effective strategy to use with the second body paragraph onwards. You may choose to conclude the paragraph with a summary sentence; however, you are advised not to overuse this type of sentence as it may seem repetitious.
Cohesion and coherence refer to how effectively sentences are connected and how smoothly the writing flows. This is not simply achieved by following a logical paragraph structure, but also by using linking words (e.g. however/furthermore/consequently ) and referring words (e.g. this/that/these/those )
When you develop your argument, remember to use a range of support. You can use examples, logical reasoning, speculation, statistics and citations
Write the topic and controlling idea (one sentence).
Support your controlling idea using evidence, examples, elaboration or explanations. Do not go off topic. Do use in-text references.
Sum up the paragraph and link to your thesis OR link to the next paragraph (one sentence).
Paragraph 3, 3. conclusion.
The purpose of the conclusion is to summarize the key points you have discussed; however, it often contains a paraphrase of the thesis statement. This helps link the whole essay together. A conclusion may also contain a statement which links the essay to the broader topic or suggests a future action.
You can begin with the phrase ' In conclusion, ' but there are other phrases you could consider: In summary/This assignment has…/In this essay, I have… . Avoid Finally/Briefly/
Remember to reference any sources you have used. Refer to CDU Library for more information on referencing.
To save as a PDF, click the Print button and then change your printer destination to "Save As PDF".
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How to plan an essay
Fig.1 A mindmap using the App 'SimpleMinds'
You try all kinds of different approaches, software and apps. You can any of this on paper (I often do), even working on a mindmap on a whiteboard. Practice, and pain, taught me the way that works for me. Ahead of the deadline with the bulk of the reading done I assemble and sort 'the facts' and 'issues'; I'd liken this to taking a large bundle autumn leaves and sorted them out by colour and leaf type. Then I create a mindmap.
SimpleMinds is free - the basic version does more than enough.
My habit is to keep it under 12 'themes' so the 'clock face' is a starting point for the mindmap, not best practice according to mindmap aficienados but what works for me. Six to eight 'tendrils' is probably about right. If I can be bothered to so so that I'll re-order all of this to that in chronological order I have the topics to write about. Any set of these links can be 'closed', which in effect means that you are looking at the introduction. It is no more than a doodle so few of my mindmaps are finished: the above is enough to work from, it's not going to illustrate the essay.
Of course, talking about 'how to write an essay' is one thing: sitting down and getting on with it is quite another.
The first draft is always the hardest. Get them out of the way and hopefully it's then just a case of editing. It takes far longer than you could imagine. I repeatedly used to run out of time and wished I'd got down to it earlier. If you're really brave you might write a version under 'examination conditions' - you, three hours and a blank sheet of paper. You can be surprised at how much 'the Muse' will deliver to your fingertips and there'll be little else that you write that will be so fluid.
Various tips, hints and guides on this kind of stuff are hereabouts on the brilliant OU Student platform
The final thing (click the link for a larger version)
This can also be exported as a wordfile with the sub-menus creating a set of logical sub-headings. Depending on the density of the mindmap you may end up with too much, or too little information on which to build an essay. It also rather depends on the length of the assignment.
The other thing I do is to TAG content here from a module that could be used in a pending TMA. When you select that tag you may then export the assembled notes and entries you've gathered over a few weeks - with comments too. Again, you can end up with 8000 loose notes for a 4000 word assignment, but its a start.
Any kind of engagement with the content is better than none?
This certainly looks impressive, but as you wrote, time pressure can deliver something equally fluid. My question is, does mind mapping free up that part of you that as an essayist would otherwise by preoccupied by wondering if you had forgotten some angle/theme? And if so, do you think the result is as good as if you had sought the muse? Is the trick juggling the mind mechanic and the muse? If you were to not mind map, but rather write and edit and re-edit, would you spend less or more time and be less or more happy with the end result? I lie, that was more than a question. I remember being taught at A level many moons ago to spend 5 minutes gathering one's thoughts possibly looking through the essay questions and taking a couple and sketching out what one could say in reply and using these primitive maps to judge which is the better essay to tackle.
Do you enjoy the mind mapping more than the essay writing? I wonder if you like the logic and order of the mapping and the sense of relief it brings to be getting on with the task while also consulting the interesting source material, as well as the obvious stimulation it creates for the artistic part of the brain.
It is an interim stage as I got my head into gear and as I plan to focus on writing for real. Unusually, with this exercise, I still have six days to go. I'll write my first draft this afternoon or tomorrow morning. The more careful I plan and edit and prioritise, and the closer I tie my response exactly to the question, the more likely that the first draft will be close to the final one.
Four years of this I found that in the first two years, and some three modules, and therefore some nine or more TMAs and a couple of EMAs, that my grades could be very low indeed: a couple of 40s, a couple of 50s. Year three I started to get 60s and 70s as I learnt to bring the research and reading phase to an earlier close and gave myself ample time to construct my answer before rambling on as if I were ... well, writing a blog post or comment in a blog post!
Topic matters very much though. I achieved 80s and even 90s in a module on research but this settled back to high 60s and mid 70s with a more standard module that exposed my weaknesses on theories of learning, or rather my inclination to stubbornly argue that there could be some 13 theories, not the accepted four or five! I digress.
I do better on the narrative essay or the well-argued stance, which makes a history degree, or possibly a law degree, ones that I should have done. Never mind.
Meanwhile I'll take a break. Export this mindmap to a wordfile and compare this to the ... 23 pages of detailed, tabulated notes from which I constructed the mindmap in the first place.
Though I've never done it, the ideal thing would be to project this mindmap onto the kitchen wall, then stand there with a pen and pad of paper and use it as an aid memoir to write the first draft. The alternative could be to have the mindmap on a large desktop screen while I stand back and write it up on an iPad or laptop.
Pen and paper remains extraordinarily versatile and fluid. Cut and paste in a digital format can and often ends in something unreadable - blocky, bitty, and potentially cutting and pasting direct quotes.
This is very interesting (and I don't mean to sound judgemental but rather excitable and in awe of your posts), but it seems that you have an internal struggle between bringing order to your thoughts through constant self-improvement/mastering e-learning that works for you and want to cut free and simply express yourself particularly on topics like WWI that remain very dear to your heart and which you have a deep-seated and personal interest in. I would love to be disciplined enough to do the MMing and it appeals to my inner neat-/control-freak and perfectionist, but I would be perhaps completely overwhelmed by the magnitude of the task. That said, I'm currently only doing languages and toying with the idea of creative writing so I have not had to write structured essays in years. Keep up the very thought-provoking posts!
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Planning and structuring an essay
Critically evaluate how gender equality can be addressed in Science Technology, Engineering and Mathematics professions (2500 words)
Planning an essay
The questions you generate to guide your reading can often be the basis of the plan/structure of your essay, as shown below:
200 words - for more information click on the link to Writing introductions and conclusions
Main body of essay
2000 - 2100 words approximately
- What does gender inequality look like in the STEM professions currently? (300 words)
- Why are there less women employed in STEM professions? (500 words)
- Why is it important for more women to be employed in STEM professions? (300 words)
- How have organisations aimed to effectively attract more women into STEM professions? (900 words).
History students may find this resource useful: How to plan and write good coursework