Why is it important to plan?
A failure to plan is a plan for failure! Okay, so that’s a bit naff, but it’s kind of true. While it may not mean total failure, not planning certainly does make essay writing far more difficult. Planning allows you to break a big task up into much smaller and more manageable chunks. It also allows you to gain a better understanding of all of the components of your essay and how they fit together. Thus, you’re able to create a much more effective logical line of reasoning – basically, your ideas will more clearly flow from one to the next.
Let’s face it, when you sit down to write a paper without spending time thinking properly about what you will discuss, how and in what order, your brain is managing a lot of information at once.
It can be really overwhelming! There’s the overall argument, each key point, what evidence you’ll use to back up each point, then there’s the different components of the question, not to mention the structure of each paragraph and then each individual sentence. No wonder when you stare at the page your mind goes blank! It’s overloaded, and when this happens, it shuts down! So planning allows us to get all of our ideas out onto a page, translate them into something coherent and tackle them one by one.
An activity such as pre-writing can be really useful for overcoming writer’s block and the dread of the blank page. Some of these techniques include brainstorming, free-writing, and outlining.
Planning also means you’ll be more aware of the amount of work required of you, and therefore the amount of time you’ll need to devote to the task.
Not all essays are equal, and just because you smashed out one essay in a day or two, doesn’t mean you’ll be able to do the same again. Planning means thinking about how much time you’ll need for each stage of the essay process (yes, there are stages), and being able to manage your time and energy accordingly. So first, start by analysing the task. Have a look at the key concept words and key task words, and the scope and limitations of the essay.
Then, try some form of pre-writing.
Pre-writing is what happens before we start the actual writing of the essay. This is actually where most of the hard work is done, and if you do it well, writing the actual essay will be a synch! It is also really important at this stage to consider what your argument is. If you don’t know how to write an argument, check out my post! Planning is all about figuring out what your argument is and how you’re doing to make it. This means considering your claim or position on the topic, the key supporting premises you’ll use to support that claim, and the evidence or examples that will support your premises. If you want to know what all of this means, check out my Writing an Argument post!
Brainstorming is when we throw ideas around and take stock of what we actually know. Think about the question and all of its elements, and throw ideas out onto a page. You may consider several different approaches to the question, find yourself drawn to a particular argument or angle, or gain a better sense of what you don’t want to do. Use dot points to list everything, and don’t worry too much about needing to fully flesh out or back up your ideas at this stage. It’s just about seeing what’s there.
Freewriting is quite similar to brainstorming, except that it looks a bit more like a formal paragraph with full sentences. I like to call this form of writing my vomit draft, because it’s where I literally just purge every idea from my head onto the page without worrying too much about formal language or structure. It’s really about allowing your brain to dig into what’s hidden under the surface and follow trains of thought. This can be a really productive process where your brain makes connections and finds solutions you weren’t expecting. I’m often really surprised by what I come up with when I’m freewriting, and this is how I have some of my best ideas.
Mind-maps come after you’ve spent some time either brainstorming or free-writing (or both!). This is where you take the best ideas that arose and find how they are connected not just to each other, but to the overall argument or central concept of the essay. Thinking visually like this can allow you to see which ideas will make up your main points, which are supporting points, and how they are connected to each other. This will then help you develop an outline, as you’ll have a sense of the hierarchy of ideas. If you want to use a digital mind-map as I have, here’s the link at Mindmup!
Here’s some useful links if you’d like some more info on brainstorming, free-writing or mind-mapping!
Developing an outline
From there, you can figure out which ideas are most relevant and important to support your argument. After all, in a short essay you probably can’t cover everything. It’s better to go deep and narrow than shallow and wide! Sort your ideas out into a preliminary structure that considers your argumen, each key point and the most logical order. I like to use headings for each key idea/paragraph, and then use a hierarchical method to cover each of the supporting points. You can always move ideas around, and switch up the order. If you’re struggling to figure this out, think about what your reader will need to know in order to understand your next idea?
Developing this preliminary plan will help you research. You’ll have an idea of what you already know and what areas you need to investigate further, which key words and terms to use, and what evidence will support which key points.
And that’s your job from here: research! Use the key words you’ve discovered from your brainstorming or freewriting or outline to guide your research. Add what you find to your outline, so that you keep track of what evidence will support each point. Remember that your outline can always change! You may find something in your reading that changes an element of your essay, or you may wish to change the structure. An outline and plan should be flexible, and allow for any changes that new information may necessitate.
I’ll have a proper research series coming up soon, and in the meantime, check out the Library World videos for some tips about how to get started if you feel unsure of how to tackle research.
Then your job is to draft a full version of the essay. Only now, you don’t have to face the terror of the blank page. You can tackle each key point at a time, and know exactly what you need to cover, what evidence will support it, and how it will connect to the next idea. Just turn those dot points into full and formal sentences, and you’re done!