Planning your essay helps you in three important ways:
The plan gives your essay a clear structure for examiners to follow as they navigate their way through ideas and arguments that are unfamiliar to them. Without this you’re likely to lose them, and if they cant see why your arguments are relevant, or they cant see what you’re doing and why, they cannot give you marks, no matter how good your work might be.
- Your arguments
It helps you ensure that all of your arguments are clearly and consistently argued, and that you have sufficient evidence to support them. It also reduces the risk of omitting some really important section or argument that is central to the issues raised by the essay.
- Your writing
By rehearsing your arguments in detail you will avoid the problem of trying to do the two most difficult things in writing at the same time: pinning down your ideas clearly, and then summoning up the words and phrases that will convey them accurately.
Planning in an exam
Spend the first five to ten minutes writing down your plan before you begin to write the essay. Don’t get panicked into writing too soon before you have exhausted all of your ideas and got them organised into a coherent, well structured plan, that answers the question with strict relevance.
Creating an essay plan
Writing a plan before starting an essay is a good idea. It can help you to formulate ideas and to ensure that the structure of your final essay is logical and appropriate to the essay title.
Essay plans can also be useful, even if they are kept very brief, to remind you of important points that should be covered in your essay, as well as highlighting the final structure of your essay. This is particularly relevant to exam situations where it is all too easy to forget details if you dive straight into an essay without planning it first.
Try not to put too much detail into the plans: use keywords and phrases, make notes of important references and species names that should be included in the final essay. The plan is to serve as your reminder of what will go into the final essay and in what order.
The amount of time you should spend on an essay plan will depend on how much time you are given to construct the final essay. In exam situations, timing is crucial but you should still aim to spend at least 5-10 minutes working on your plan (assuming you are given a minimum of 45 minutes per essay).
Here are 5 simple rules to help make your essay plan easier to construct:
- Read the essay title carefully. Read it again. Are you being asked to discuss, synthesise, explain, evaluate, review your subject?
- Once you have established what exactly is required of you (see 1. above) it can help formulate your approach to the essay plan and subsequent final essay.
- Your essay plan should have a logical order, i.e. a beginning, middle and an end. It should reflect what you would end up writing in the final essay. In other words, by looking at your plan, a lecturer should be able to clearly see the approach you are taking to address the essay title.
- One way to start an essay plan is to think about possible definitions that may need to be given. For example, in an essay entitled Discuss animal locomotion, it would be logical to start your essay plan (and your final essay) with a definition of what locomotion is. This can then help you to construct the rest of your essay plan.
- Depending upon the subject matter, it can be useful to establish how many different approaches you can take to tackle the essay question. An essay plan (and subsequent essay) that shows a broad understanding of the subject matter and how it may be investigated from a number of different angles where relevant (e.g. ecological, behavioural, physiological, morphological etc.) will often score highly, assuming the final essay is well written.
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