Essay writing part 1: How to plan an essay

Essay writing is an important skill that teachers will need to master in order to move beyond kindergarten-aged classes. You’ll need to help your young learners form coherent paragraphs, with older classes you’ll need to help them sculpt their ideas into full essays, and with more advanced students you might need to help them form complex essays to be used with their school work, applications to study overseas, or even with business proposals if you’re teaching adults.

However, it might have been many years since you were at school, and unless you have a passion for writing, you probably won’t have practiced much recently.

 But fear not! Writing essays doesn’t need to be that difficult. In this two-part guide, we’ll look through what you need to know about essay writing, and how to start off on the right foot.

Why is it important to first plan your essay?

Before you start writing an essay, it can feel like an overwhelming task. Often, you’ll have lots of ideas that will need thinking about and organising. This is where planning can be of real benefit. Planning ensures that you write about everything you need to and that it is ordered in a logical and sequenced way. Without a plan, you may fall into the trap of writing aimlessly, perhaps never really getting to your main point or argument.

What is the purpose of your essay?

This is a hugely important question. Essays can be written for different reasons. Sometimes, an essay might be to inform the reader about a topic or to explain a complex idea. Other times, an essay might be written to persuade or argue for or against an idea. Alternatively, you may have been asked to analyse a text.

Deciding on the purpose of your essay is crucial because it has a direct impact on the formality and type of language you will want to use. A piece that informs or explains will likely include facts or statistics; whereas, an essay that is designed to persuade will utilise persuasive techniques, such as rhetorical questions or repetition.

Who is your audience and why does it matter?

Once you have decided why you are writing your essay, you must then consider who you are writing it for. This will also influence your choice of language. If you are writing a persuasive essay for readers of a magazine, your style is likely to be slightly more informal and friendly. If your essay is informative and written as part of an official document, your language will be much more formal and probably include information that only experts might understand. 

When writing an essay as part of your studies, keep your language reasonably formal. Try to avoid any slang or colloquialisms.

How long should my essay be?

If you’ve got a word count, then the answer to this question is easy. Often, you will be given a buffer either side of the official word count (usually something like 5-10%). The word count is there for a reason, so stick within it. If you write too little, then you are likely to miss out key information or ideas. If you write too much, you will find that you have overwritten, maybe including too much information or accidentally going off topic. Either way, you want to write clearly and succinctly, and the word count is there to help you do that.

If the essay you are writing doesn’t have a word count, then the length of the essay is up to you. Realistically though, you need to strike a balance between something that isn’t too long and isn’t too short. I often advise my students to ensure their essays have an introduction and conclusion, as well as three key points or ideas. This is probably a sensible place to begin. You can always add or take away ideas during the planning stage.

How do I plan my essay?

You should only begin planning your essay once you have identified the purpose and audience for your essay. Once you have this information, you can start to think about how to organise your ideas.

Most essays will require an introduction and conclusion. When I plan an essay, I usually leave these until last, as they are linked to what I decide to write about in the rest of my essay. It is far more important to determine what your key points are going to be. You might do this by listing them or using a mind map or spider diagram. At this stage, you just need to write your ideas down.

Once you have all the ideas you want to include, you will need to consider a logical order in which to introduce them. This could be in the order of importance, or perhaps chronological order. You may decide to have some points arguing one opinion and then a final point looking at a different viewpoint (this is why it’s important to know your purpose and audience before you begin). What you’re doing, is compiling chunks of digestible information in the main body of your essay, that you can then use to make a complex final point in your conclusion.

So, remember:

  • Identify your purpose (why are you writing your essay?) and your audience (who are you writing it for?), before you start your planning.
  • Stick to given word counts. If you don’t have one, strike a balance between an essay that is neither too long nor too short.
  • Logically sequence your ideas into a comprehensive plan before you start writing.

Part 2: How to write an essay.

Now that you’ve planned out what you’ll be writing, its purpose, and its form, you’ll need to actually put pen to paper (or fingers to keys).

> 📖 Read part 2