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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 as a way of getting feedback before writing a full essay.
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:
Don’t wait until you’ve done all your research to start planning your essay. Start by doing an initial plan capturing what you know already about your topic, then use this to identify where you need to do more research to fill in any gaps in your understanding. Test the ideas in your initial plan against your reading and then adapt and add to your plan as your ideas develop.
A linear bullet point plan is usually the best format for a plan that is set as an assignment, because it is the simplest for someone else to understand. However, if you are planning for yourself, you can do it in any way that suits you: a list, a mind map, an introductory paragraph, a collection of post-it notes, a flow-diagram. It doesn’t matter if your initial plans are messy or incomplete, because the planning process is valuable for capturing these half-formed ideas and bringing them into focus. For example, an early version of a plan might have questions or thoughts in some places rather than fully formed arguments.
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.
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.