by Maria McCann
Writing tips of the week, from Maria McCann, Royal Literary Fund Fellow in the Department of Arts and Cultural Industries
First steps in planning an essay
First of all, double-check you’ve understood the purpose of the assignment (what the tutor is seeking to assess/reward), the learning outcomes, the word limit and what percentage of your overall mark the work carries (so that you allot an appropriate amount of effort).
Make a list of areas where you are confident, and also those where you need to find out more. Set mini-deadlines for this additional research. If you’ve set aside tomorrow for a task, you needn’t worry about it today and can get on with something else.
At this stage many students feel most comfortable with mind-maps because their loose structure allows for free association and creativity. Essays, however, are tightly structured: they progress in a linear fashion from an introduction through a developing argument to a conclusion. Here’s one way of closing the gap: having made your mind-map, select the most important points and summarise each point, as fully and clearly as you can, in one sentence (this will eventually become the topic sentence that opens your paragraph dealing with that point).
You now have to choose the order of the topic sentences in the body of the essay. Post-It notes or scraps of paper are useful. Write one topic sentence on each, spread them out on a table and swap them around until you find the most suitable order.
Some yardsticks you can use at this stage:
If the essay title were removed, could a reader reconstruct it from your topic sentences? You can test this on someone who isn’t doing the same assignment. If they can’t work it out (or get reasonably close) what needs to change?
Taken together, do the topic sentences read like a random list or like a developing argument in which each stage builds logically on the previous ones? You can stress the connections later in the drafting process (with markers such as ‘however’, ‘in addition’ and so on) but these markers work best when paragraphs are already in a logical order.
Your next step is to write the paragraphs that develop and expand your topic sentences, and so build the first rough draft of your essay.
Recommended reading: Janet Godwin’s Planning Your Essay (Palgrave Macmillan, 2014).
The UWE library website has free materials on study skills, including essay planning.
If you’d like to book a confidential one-to-one session with me to work on your writing skills email me at Maria.McCann@uwe.ac.uk. I’m in 3S201 on Frenchay on Wednesdays and Thursdays.