Skip to content

Essay writing: Planning & drafting

“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

bookshelfAfter you have analysed your essay question(see the Analysing questions page in this guide), it is worth making a note of your initial thoughts. You will probably have had some lectures that were relevant to the essay so you may already have an idea what your overall position will be. If you have not reached a considered opinion yet, then it is time to do some initial reading—probably just around your recommended texts to begin with—so that you can decide where you stand on the issue at hand.

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:

The paragraphs in the longer essays will probably be grouped into themes to give your argument a bit more organisation.

Diagram of a branch splitting into two themes, each of which splits into several paragraphs

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

Laptop and books iconsUsing your rough plan to maintain your focus, gather the information you need for your essay - find the journal articles and books etc that will form the evidence for your arguments.

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

Notes being takenCarefully read the books and other sources of information you have gathered, making notes on them as you go along. You may find you need to adjust your points a little at this stage as your reading may (should) influence your argument. Our Managing your Reading page has information about how to make effective notes. Make sure you keep all the information you need for referencing the source. A quick way to do this is to take a photograph on your phone of the copyright page of any books and the top of the first page of any article. You could also check out our pages on Referencing software.

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.


Arrows each labelled Point 1, then Point 2, through to Point 6, which leads to the conclusion

6. Write a full draft of your essay

Essay on a laptopThis is not your final essay - just the first draft and should be considered part of the planning stage. Don't worry about it being written in perfect English or even if the order seems a little wrong once you start writing—nobody else is going to see it so just get it written. 

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.