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Essay Planning and Writing


The following extract has been adapted from the Student Learning Centre's study guide, "Planning and Writing University Assignments". For the full guide and other useful material, visit the Student Learning Centre's website: For help finding information, see the Library guide.

See also:

Essay Planning and Writing

Interpreting the question or topic

Essay questions rarely ask you to write down everything you've learnt about a topic, so it's crucial that your answer is focused and includes only relevant material. To help keep on track, it's useful to break down the question and perhaps re-write it in your own words.
Look for words that tell you:

  • What the essay should be about (the subject)
  • Which particular aspects of the subject you should focus on
  • The instructions for approaching the topic e.g. compare and contrast. (See the following table)

Table: A range of essay instructions and how they might be interpreted

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Gathering information

Table: Gathering information - tips

Library skills - search the web, find articles and books etc.

Planning an essay framework

Before you start writing, plan the shape of your essay. Initial planning has a number of advantages:

  • helps to decide the points for discussion,
  • shows how these can be most logically organised,
  • weeds out irrelevant information,
  • identifies overlaps and repetition.
  • further refines the research direction.
  • Prompts thinking when it's difficult to "get into" an assignment.
  • Makes it easier to put ideas on paper (points can readily be developed into sentences and paragraphs).

A plan can take the form of a linear list of key points, a table, or a concept map, whichever is your preference.

Developing a framework you're happy with will probably be a matter of trial and error. It is important to spend time at the planning stage and to keep as closely as possible to your framework once you have something you're reasonably happy with.

Developing an argument

Once you have worked out an essay plan and know the points you want to include, you should have some sense of the main thrust of your argument. An "argument" is a sound and evidence-based line of reasoning that addresses the question.

Thesis statement

Some departments like essay introductions to contain a clearly defined thesis, and some do not.

Example of a thesis statement:
A "thesis statement" is one or more sentences that sum up a central argument, and that forms part of the introduction. The following are examples of a thesis statement:
The usefulness of smoking cessation programmes is difficult to establish, as evidence of their success remains inconclusive.
In the foreseeable future, New Zealand's tourist industry will, like tourism worldwide, be subject to a number of political, social and economic influences.
A thesis statement will help you to maintain the focus and direction of your essay. As you introduce each point into the discussion, check that it relates to and supports your thesis statement.

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Structuring the essay

It is helpful for students if departments be explicit about their preferred essay structure, especially for students enrolled in more than one paper who may be required to structure essays differently across departments. For example, does your department require/accept sub-headings, bullet points, diagrams, or tables, or does it prefer the "traditional" essay structure of a continuous narrative?

An essay follows a three-part structure: introduction, body, and conclusion.

The introduction

The introduction should lead the reader into the discussion, setting the scene for what follows. It should be concise, without too much background detail (further context if necessary can be provided after the introduction), and state the precise focus of the essay. A good introduction:

  • provides a brief context for the essay question,
  • clearly states what the essay is about (without repeating the essay question),
  • tells the reader why the topic is important and/or interesting,
  • gives a clear central argument, or thesis (see Developing a thesis statement above),
  • Indicates the scope of the discussion,
  • outlines how the essay will develop.

As a rule of thumb, the introduction should be no more than one-tenth of the overall word count. Depending on the length of the essay, this would be 1-2 paragraphs.

The body

The body of the essay should develop the argument logically and cohesively. Introduce points in appropriate order (for example, according to chronology or importance), and ensure that each point builds on another, rather than be presented as isolated pieces of information. There should also be a sense of overall unity, and that you are leading to a conclusion.


Within the structure of an essay, paragraphs are generally referred to as the "building blocks" of an essay. Ideally, each paragraph will:

  • focus on one main point,
  • introduce that point in the first sentence,
  • develop the point in the remainder of the paragraph,
  • not be longer than about 200 words. If further expansion is required, the point can be reintroduced in the first sentence of a new paragraph (e.g. Furthermore, ...).

The conclusion

Just as the introduction tells the reader where the discussion is heading, so the conclusion tells them where it has arrived. The length of the conclusion of an average essay is best kept to one or two paragraphs, and, as with the introduction, be no more than one-tenth of the overall word count. A good conclusion:

  • gives a clear and unambiguous conclusion to the essay topic,
  • briefly summaries the major discussion points,
  • gives finality to the discussion, drawing the essay to a close.

The conclusion does not usually contain information not covered in the discussion section, but it might be appropriate to mention areas that could have been addressed but were outside the scope of the essay, or aspects of the topic where further investigation might be useful.

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Proofreading and Editing

The first draft of an assignment should be just that. Careful proofreading and editing is essential. Assignments passed in with spelling or grammatical errors, typing or other mistakes, or poor overall structure will create a negative impression on the reader.

Always check your work in hard copy. By all means use a computer spell check and grammar check, but do not accept a change without ensuring it is correct.

Academic Language and Tone

Academic writing calls for a degree of formality.

  • Demonstrate that you understand the language of your subject by using it appropriately.
  • Avoid using jargon and clichés.
  • Avoid addressing the reader as you, or using the first person singular.

Before handing work in, run it through this editing checklist:

Table: Editing checklist

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