Writing for students: planning the perfect essay

HTWB Students logo 3So you’ve found time between being hungover and being more hungover to get started on your essay. Perfect. Grab yourself a cup of coffee, sit down at that desk thingy (you know what I mean; the dirty clothes and empty beer-can stand) and crack open that laptop/press that button that makes things whirr.

Time to write, right?

Woah nelly! Hold your horses, cool your jets, chill your beans and don’t mix your metaphors like I do. Do you really think you can just bust out a first-rate essay on a whim? Does Usain Bolt just charge off without so much as a stretch? Did Pavarotti just walk on stage and belt out an operatic masterpiece without doing some vocal warm-ups first? Did *insert best in field* do *whatever they’re best at*without doing the *appropriate warm-up for aforementioned field*.

No. They didn’t. And if you want to be the best at writing essays (be warned, I’m not sure there’s an official award to recognise this yet), then neither should you.

Planning is the essay writer’s warm-up, but more than that, it’s the entire foundation of any good essay.

For that reason, I’m going to spend the next 1000 or so words telling you exactly why and how you should plan your essay.

They say failing to prepare is preparing to fail. ‘They’ are right. Bloomin’ wise bunch this ‘they’.

“Why should I plan?”

The question really is why shouldn’t you? Give me one good reason. If that reason involves the words ‘blocks’ and ‘creativity’ I’m going to stop you right there. Shhhh. That is all.

Planning is both sensible and helpful. Honestly, you will thank your earlier self for planning when you get halfway through. The halfway point of an essay is notorious as the graveyard of inspiration. It’s like some kind of black hole for ideas and motivation, where the only words that come to mind are ‘why me?’.

Planning avoids this issue. It’s the Red Bull of essay writing, giving you wings to soar past the halfway point all the way to the end. Or the hyper-drive on a space ship or something. I’m not sure now; I feel I may have introduced too many analogies.

Anyway, planning will actually foster your creativity because each time you hit a rut, you can look down at that plan and go ‘oh yeah, I haven’t mentioned that yet’. That may be putting it a bit simply but it’s certainly true.

Listen, you’re dealing with a reformed planning-cynic here. At school I never used to plan. If the teacher told us to plan an essay, I’d usually just write something along the lines of ‘Introduction – Middle – Conclusion’ and then draw funny faces for the rest of the lesson. All of that changed at uni and I saw the error of my ways. Planning doesn’t make things harder; it kind of does the opposite.

“How should I plan?”

Ah good; I’ve convinced you. Well, this is where it gets a bit interesting, because there’s no real right or wrong way to plan. Okay, there are some wrong ways (my school example above being one of them).

In the end though, it’s all about what works for you. Are you a visual person? Do you need colours and images to really understand something? Are you more analytical and logical? Do you just want to list the facts and figures in order in a neat and tidy list?

Get to know your learning style and use it to your advantage.

Whatever you find most helpful is the way to go, whether that be mind-maps, flow-charts, spreadsheets or abstract 3-D sculptures. What is important though is to decide how long you’re actually going to spend planning. It’s all too easy to spend hours and hours meticulously over-planning each detail when you could have started writing ages before. It’s also easy to just write three words on a page, get impatient and start writing the essay straight away.

DSC_6476Defining from the start how long you’ll spend planning will help to avoid these issues. A good rule of thumb that I always used was 20% of the time it would take to actually write the essay. So if I have a 2000 word essay to write, it would probably take me about 5 hours (that’s if I’m just focusing on writing and have all the information to hand; if there’s any kind of football on T.V, impromptu social gathering or I see a shiny penny, it’ll probably take a lot longer).

Using the 20% rule then, I should spend about an hour planning. Now you may say ‘oh but that’s an extra hour I could use to learn how to twerk or to write scathing tweets about Justin Bieber’ or whatever it is the kids do these days. Well I put this to you: that extra hour spent planning will almost certainly reduce wasteful pauses and time spent thinking while writing, which will make writing the essay a much faster process. You might even gain that hour back.

Not only that, but the standard of your essay will be a whole lot better. Surely a first is worth sacrificing an episode of Made in Chelsea? You can always catch up on 4OD anyway.

“Should I stick tightly to the plan?”

This really depends, again, on what sort of person you are. If you are like me, who gets distracted by your own reflection in the computer monitor and then forgets an entire trail of thought, sticking to a plan for the most part is probably a pretty good idea.

If on the other hand you thrive on flexibility and adaptation then go for it, go off script for a while. Just always remember to bring it back around and don’t go off on too many tangents and get all waffly because if you get all waffly your tutor will completely lose interest. Like that time that you were with your mates on the bus and you were talking about X-factor and that guy was like ‘nah not interested’ and you were like ‘what?’ and he was like…

Yeah. Don’t do that.

“What’s next?”

Hopefully you’ve got to grips with planning. Next time I’m going to show you how to not plagiarise or in other words, not be a dirty, stinking cheat (whether you realised it or not). Join me then and I promise you won’t be disappointed (well I don’t know that for sure; I hope you won’t be).

(Note from Suze: plagiarism is something we have already looked at here on HTWB –  here, here and here, but Jackson’s advice next time will be a very useful progression onwards.)

Over and out.

Jackson Rawlings on HowToWriteBetter.net

Jackson Rawlings.




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