Planning and structuring your writing

Before you start writing you will need to ensure that you understand very clearly what the question is asking you to do. Once you’ve done that, you can start your planning. Remember that your plan need not be slavishly followed as your ideas may well change to some degree as you write your essay. As you read more widely or discover unexpectedly rich sources of information, you can modify your plan. This might happen several times before the essay is ready to hand in.

It is often very helpful to brainstorm ideas before you build a structure into your essay. Brainstorming involves writing down all the ideas that you have in your mind concerning one particular topic. They should be written down in any order, just as they come into your mind. Many students find it helpful to brainstorm by writing the topic in the centre of a large piece of paper and then placing around this central word/theme/topic a list of words/topics that they believe might be appropriate. This is a task that you will do at the very early stages of your writing and while some of the ideas you note down at this stage will be central to the essay, others may be discarded at an early stage. This is quite natural, and a part of the whole process of brainstorming. Having gathered together as many points as you can, your next task is to link them where possible, and provisionally order them into a coherent structure.

The essay plan

Having put together as many relevant ideas as possible, the next stage is ordering these points in an appropriate way. The important thing is to try to build up a coherent picture of your essay so that you can use it as the foundation for your writing. Your plan may be modified and developed as you proceed but the important thing at each stage is to focus precisely on the essay question and try to ensure that your essay plan provides a logical response to the needs of the task.

An academic essay is likely to be divided into three main sections:

  • an introduction
  • the body of the essay (a number of paragraphs exploring the topic)
  • a conclusion

The introduction and the conclusion are likely to be moderately short, while the main paragraphs in the body of the essay are likely to be similar in length. There might, for example, be two or three paragraphs to a page. If one paragraph is noticeably longer or shorter than others, it would be well worth re-examining this paragraph. It may need to be divided in two if it is too long, or expanded if it is too short. It would be very unusual for a paragraph to be only two sentences. A paragraph should never be merely one sentence in an academic essay.

It’s very important to make your plan before you start to write. Try to express each point in your plan simply and clearly in note form. This will help you during the writing process. Look at this example:

Topic: The pros and cons of tourism in Tanzania

Thesis Statement: Tourism in Tanzania is valuable, but only if it is properly regulated and monitored by the central government.

Paragraph 1: A brief outline of Tanzania’s history.

a) independence in 1964; President Nyerere

b) self-reliance; Ujamaa

c) economic difficulties in 1970s

i) low primary product prices

ii) high price of oil

Paragraph 2: Government control of tourism is not a success.

a) government lodges

b) game parks

i) numbers of tourists

ii) poor service

iii) financial losses

iii) attitudes of local people

c) competition with Kenya

Paragraph 3: Economic reform in the late 80s brings about change.

a) the growth of private enterprise

b) the availability of foreign exchange

i) national funds

ii) international funds e.g. IMF

c) the expansion in foreign direct investment

i) foreign funds

ii) foreign companies

d) an increase in collaborative ventures

Paragraph 4: The growth of tourism has brought some benefits to Tanzania.

a) foreign exchange

b) employment

c) opportunity

d) reduced isolation

Paragraph 5: The growth of tourism has had a negative impact on Tanzania in some ways.

a) the growth of unsuitable hotels

i) cultural clashes

ii) limited local employment

b) a small increase in local jobs

i) low skilled

ii) poorly paid

c) an increase in exploitation; pandering to western needs

d) additional damage in the game parks

e) a low percentage of tourist costs being paid in Tanzania

Conclusion: Tourism needs to be fully exploited in Tanzania but it can only bring significant benefits to the country is if is carefully regulated by the government. Unless this is done, the tourists will exploit Tanzania, and then move on to new pastures, leaving a poorer country behind.


Study the essay questions below and then prepare an outline plan for each one.

1. “The privatisation of the underground system in London cannot be defended on either social or economic grounds.” Discuss.

2. ‘The establishment of cycle paths throughout our towns and cities should be a priority for this government.’ Evaluate this statement.