7+ Steps on How to write an Essay Plan (Updated 2019)

How to write an Essay Plan

Have you ever started writing an essay then realized you have run out of ideas to talk about?

This can make you feel deflated and you start to hate your essay!

The best way to avoid this mid-essay disaster is to plan ahead: you need to write an Essay Plan!

Essay planning is one of the most important skills I teach my students. When I have one-to-one tutorials with my students, I always send them off with an essay plan and clear goals about what to write.

Essay Planning isn’t as dull as you think. In fact, it really does only take a short amount of time and can make you feel oh so relieved that you know what you’re doing!

Here’s my 7-Step method that I encourage you to use for your next essay:

The Amazing 7-Step Guide on How to write an Essay Plan

  1. Figure out your Essay Topic (5 minutes)
  2. Gather your Sources and take Quick Notes (20 minutes)
  3. Brainstorm using a Mind-Map (10 minutes)
  4. Arrange your Topics (2 minutes)
  5. Write your topic Sentences (5 minutes)
  6. Write a No-Pressure Draft in 3 Hours (3 hours)
  7. Edit your Draft Once every Few Days until Submission (30 minutes)

I’ve been using this 7-Step essay planning strategy since I was in my undergraduate degree. Now, I’ve completed a PhD and written over 20 academic journal articles and dozens of blog posts using this method – and it still works!

Let’s go through my 7 steps for how to write an essay plan.

Prefer to Watch than Read? Here’s our video on writing an Essay Plan.

1. Figure out your Essay Topic. Here’s how.

how to write an essay plan

Where did your teacher provide you with your assessment details?

Find it. This is where you begin.

Now, far, far, far too many students end up writing essays that aren’t relevant to the essay question given to you by your teacher. So print out your essay question and any other advice or guidelines provided by your teacher.

Here’s some things that your assessment details page might include:

  • The essay question;
  • The marking criteria;
  • Suggested sources to read;
  • Some background information on the topic

The essay question is really important. Once you’ve printed it I want you to do one thing:

Highlight the key phrases in the essay question.

Here’s some essay questions and the key phrases you’d want to highlight:

Essay Question

Key Phrases

Will artificial intelligence threaten the future of work?

Artificial Intelligence, Work

How does the film ‘Frozen’ challenge and/or reaffirm gender roles for children who watch it?

Frozen, gender roles, children

What are the reasons behind the rise of right-wing nationalism in the past 10 years?

Nationalism, Past 10 years

What are the most effective strategies for raising developing nations out of poverty?

Developing Nations, Poverty, Strategies

This strategy helps you to hone-in on exactly what you want to talk about. These are the key phrases you’re going to use frequently in your writing and use when you look for sources to cite in your essay!

The other top thing to look at is the marking criteria. Some teachers don’t provide this, but if they do then make sure you pay attention to the marking criteria!

Here’s an example of a marking criteria:

Is Climate Change the Greatest Moral Challenge of our Generation?

Criterion

Weighting

Takes an informed position on the issue of Climate Change

30%

Critically examines competing perspectives on the topic

30%

Applies theoretical ideas to practical situations

30%

Academic writing and Referencing

10%

Now, if you have a marking criteria you really need to pay attention to this. You have to make sure you’ve ticked off all the key criteria that you will be marked on. For the example above, your essay is going to have to make sure it:

  • Takes a position about whether climate change is a serious challenge for human kind;
  • Discusses multiple different people’s views on the topic;
  • Explores examples and case studies (‘practical situations’);
  • Uses referencing to back up your points.

The reason you need to be really careful to pay attention to this marking criteria is because it is your cheat sheet: it tells you want to talk about!

Step 1 only takes you five minutes and helps you to clearly clarify what you’re going to be talking about! Now your mind is tuned-in and you can start doing some preliminary research.

2. Gather your Sources and take Quick Notes. Here’s how.

how to write an essay plan

Now that you know what your focus is, you can start finding some information to discuss. You don’t want to just write things from the top of your head. If you want top marks, you want some deep, detailed and specific pieces of information.

Fortunately, your teacher has probably made this easy for you.

The top source for finding information will be the resources your teacher provided. These resources were hand picked by your teacher because they believed these were the best sources available our there on the topic. Here are the most common resources teachers provide:

  • Lecture Slides;
  • Assigned Readings.

The lecture slides are one of the best resources for you to access. Lecture slides are usually provided online for you. Download them, save them on your computer, and dig them up when it’s time to write the essay plan.

Find the lecture slides most relevant to your topic. To take the example of our climate change essay, maybe climate change is only discussed in three of the weeks in your course. Those are the three weeks’ lecture slides you want to hone-in on.

Flick through those lecture slides and take quick notes on a piece of paper – what are the most important topics and statistics that are relevant to your essay question?

Now, move on to the assigned readings. Your teacher will have selected some readings for you to do for homework through the semester. They may be eBooks, Textbooks or Journal Articles.

These assigned readings were assigned for a reason: because they have very important information to read! Scan through them and see if there’s any more points you can add to your list of statistics and key ideas to discuss.

Next, try to find a few more sources using Google Scholar. This is a great resource for finding more academic articles that you can read to find even more details and ideas to add to your essay.

Here’s my notes that I researched for the essay question “Is Climate Change the Greatest Moral Challenge of our Generation?” As you can see, it doesn’t have to be beautiful #Studygram notes! It’s just rough notes to get all the important information down:

how to write an essay plan

Once you’ve read the assigned lecture slides and readings, you should have a good preliminary list of ideas, topics, statistics and even quotes that you can use in step 3.

3. Brainstorm using a Mind-Map. Here’s how.

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Do your initial notes look a little disorganized?

That’s okay. The point of Step 2 was to gather information. Now it’s time to start sorting these ideas in your mind.

The best way to organize thoughts is to create a Mind-Map. Here’s how Mind-Maps often look:

how to write an essay plan

For your essay plan Mind-Map, write the essay question in the middle of the page and draw a circle around it.

how to write an essay plan

Then, select the biggest and most important key ideas that you think are worth discussing in the essay. To decide on these, you might want to look back at the notes you took in Step 2.

Each key idea will take up around about 200 – 350 words (1 to 2 sentences).

Here’s a rough guide for how many key ideas you’ll want depending on your essay length:

  • 1000-word essay: 3 to 4 key ideas
  • 1500-word essay: 5 to 7 key ideas
  • 2000-word essay: 6 to 8 key ideas
  • 3000-word essay: 9 to 12 key ideas

Once you’ve selected your key ideas you can list them in a circle around the essay question, just like this:

how to write an essay plan

Last, we need to add detail and depth to each key idea. So, draw more lines out from each key ideas and list:

  • Two sources that you will cite for each key idea;
  • A statistic or example that you will provide for each key idea;
  • Any additional interesting facts for each key idea

Here’s how it might look once you’re done:

how to write an essay plan

4. Arrange your Topics. Here’s how.

how to write an essay plan

You’re well and truly on your way to getting your essay down on paper now.

There’s one last thing to do before you start getting words down on the manuscript that you will submit. You need to arrange your topics to decide which to write first, second, third, fourth, and last!

Here’s some things to keep in mind:

  • Start and end with your strongest points;
  • Ensure the points logically flow.

To ensure your points logically flow, think about how you’re going to transition from one idea to the next. Does one key point need to be made first so that the other ones make sense? Do two key points seem to fit next to one another? If so, make sure you list them side-by-side.

Have a play around with the order you want to discuss the ideas until you’re comfortable. Then, list them in order. Here’s my order for my Climate Change essay:

Is Climate Change the Greatest Moral Challenge of our Generation?

Word Count (1500)

[Introduction]

125

What is climate change?

250

Is climate change caused by humans?

250

What are the current impacts of climate change?

250

What are the future impacts of climate change?

250

Is climate change reversible?

250

[Conclusion]

125

Each of these key ideas are going to turn into a paragraph or two (probably two) in the essay.

5. Write your topic Sentences in just 5 minutes. Here’s how.

how to write an essay plan

All good essays have clear paragraphs that start with a topic sentence. To turn these brainstormed key points into an essay, you need to get that list you wrote in Step 5 and turn each point into a topic sentence for a paragraph.

It’s important that the first sentence of each paragraph clearly states the paragraph’s topic. Your marker is going to want to know exactly what your paragraph is about immediately. You don’t want your marker to wait until the 3rd, 4th or 5th line of a paragraph before they figure out what you’re talking about in the paragraph.

So, you need to state what your key idea is in the first sentence of the paragraph.

Let’s have a go at turning each of our key ideas into a topic sentence:

Key Idea

Topic Sentence

What is climate change?

Climate change is the term used to explain rising atmospheric temperatures caused by carbon build-up in the atmosphere.

Is climate change caused by humans?

Most scientists believe climate change is caused by humans.

What are the current impacts of climate change?

Climate change is having an impact on people and environments right now.

What are the future impacts of climate change?

The effects of climate change are expected to increase in coming decades.

Is climate change reversible?

The window for reversing climate change is rapidly closing.

6. Write a No-Pressure Essay Draft in just 3 Hours. Here’s how.

how to write an essay plan

Okay, now the rubber hits the road. Let’s get writing!

When you write your first draft, don’t put pressure on yourself. Remind yourself that this is the first of several attempts at creating a great essay, so it doesn’t need to be perfect right away. The important thing is that you get words down on paper.

Write the introduction and conclusion last

To write the draft, have a go at adding to each of your topic sentences to turn them into full paragraphs. Follow the information you wrote down in your notes and Mind-Map to get some great details down on paper.

Forget about the introduction and conclusion for now. You can write them last.

Let’s have a go at one together. I’m going to choose the paragraph on my key idea “Is climate change caused by humans?”

I’ve already got my first sentence and my brainstormed ideas. Let’s build on them to write a draft paragraph:

how to write an essay plan

  • “Most scientists believe climate change is caused by humans. In fact, according to the IPCC, over 98% of climate change scientists accept the scientific data that climate change is caused by humans (IPCC, 2018). This figure is very high, signalling overwhelming expert consensus. This consensus holds that the emission of carbon from burning of fossil fuels in the 20th Century is trapping heat into the atmosphere. However, a minority of dissenting scientists continue to claim that this carbon build-up is mostly the fault of natural forces such as volcanoes which emit enormous amounts of carbon into the atmosphere (Bier, 2013).”

Your turn – have a go at your own draft paragraphs based on your Mind-Map for your essay topic! If you hit a rut or have some trouble, don’t forget to check out our article on how to write perfect paragraphs.

Once you’ve written all your paragraphs, make sure you write an introduction and conclusion.

Gone over the word count? Check out our article on how to reduce your word count.

7. Edit your Draft Once every Few Days until Submission. Check out this simple approach:

how to write an essay plan

Okay, hopefully after your three hour essay drafting session you’ve got all your words down on paper. Congratulations!

However, we’re not done yet.

The best students finish their drafts early on so they have a good three or four weeks to come back and re-read their draft and edit it every few days.

When coming back to edit your draft, here’s a few things to look out for:

  • Make sure all the paragraph and sentence structure makes sense. Feel free to change words around until things sound right. You might find that the first time you edit something it sounds great, but next time you realize it’s not as good as you thought. That’s why we do multiple rounds of edits over the course of a few weeks;
  • Check for spelling, grammar and punctuation errors;
  • Print out your draft and read it on paper. You notice more mistakes when you read a printed-out version;
  • Work on adding any more details and academic sources from online sources like Google Scholar to increase your chance of getting a top grade. Here’s our ultimate guide on finding scholarly sources online – it might be helpful for this step!

Before you go – Here’s the Actionable Essay Plan Tips Summed up for you

how to write an essay plan

Phew! That essay was tough. But with this essay plan, you can get through any essay and do a stellar job! Essay planning is a great way to ensure your essays make sense, have a clear and compelling argument, and don’t go off topic.

I never write an essay without one.

To sum up, here’s the 7 steps to essay planning one more time:

The Amazing 7-Step Guide for How to Write an Essay Plan

  1. Figure out your Essay Topic (5 minutes)
  2. Gather your Sources and take Quick Notes (20 minutes)
  3. Brainstorm using a Mind-Map (10 minutes)
  4. Arrange your Topics (2 minutes)
  5. Write your topic Sentences (5 minutes)
  6. Write a No-Pressure Draft in 3 Hours (3 hours)
  7. Edit your Draft Once every Few Days until Submission (30 minutes)

 

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