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Planning the essay

“A good plan is like a road map: it shows the final destination and usually the best way to get there.”

H. Stanely Judd


What does planning involve?

Planning is an important part of the writing process. It begins when you receive the assignment question. Before you start to gather ideas on the topic and before you write anything, you need to spend some time reading the question carefully to understand exactly what you have to write about and how you have to organise your ideas.

This section will look at the following:

  • the types of questions commonly used in undergraduate essay assignments
  • strategies for reading the question to find the central focus
  • strategies for thinking aound the focus and making a rough plan
  • some basic principles for organising ideas.

First, let us have a look at the crucial steps in the writing process.

The writing process

As the diagram below shows, writing is a process with a number of logical steps. Working through the pre-writing steps of the planning stage will ensure that you have a better understanding of the topic and of how you might want to answer the question asked, before writing the essay.

Some types of questions

Understanding different types of questions can help you to plan your answer more efficiently. We will look at four types of questions commonly used in undergraduate essay assignments.

Types of assignment questions

Click through the slideshow to find out about different types of assignment questions.

Types of questions

Finding the focus

Most questions have an internal structure. There is often a content focus and a function focus. Content is the answer you will have to write in response to the question asked, and function refers to the approach you need to take in answering the question:

Click for a list of Function words.

Some strategies

Some common strategies employed by students when reading their assignment questions include underlining or circling the key words or phrases. Some students may like to use colour to distinguish the key words from other words in the question.

Identify key words

How would you identify the key words in this essay question?


Discuss the effects of the unemployment benefit system on the New Zealand economy.


Use your own paper and then click below to view how it might be done using the various strategies mentioned.

Click here to view different strategies.

The Bull’s Eye Strategy

Click through the slideshow to see a demonstration of the bull’s eye strategy, which you might like to try. 

Bulls eye strategy

Using the Bull’s Eye Strategy

Use the Bull’s Eye Strategy to analyse the following questions:

Question 1: How relevant are the principles of public service broadcasting to television in contemporary New Zealand society? (FTVMS 100 – Type 1 question)

Question 2: International society has long recognised the economic disparity between Northern and Southern Hemispheres. However, it is not reduced. Why? What are the implications? (Political Studies – Type 3 question)

Use your own paper and click below to view some suggested answers. Try the strategy with questions from your own subject area.

Click here to view the suggested answers.

Think around the focus

There are two steps in the thinking stage:

Step 1: Make a rough plan or map of initial ideas

At this point you are putting down, or mapping, ideas that might be relevant to the central focus of your essay. The central focus is what your essay will be mainly about and comes from your question analysis.

  • Gather relevant ideas from lectures, textbooks and other readings, and add them to your map.
  • Note down the details of the sources of these ideas.
  • Do not be too concerned about ordering the ideas at this point.


Step 2: Refine the thinking

After some initial research, you may begin to form a thesis (a point of view) about the topic. As you begin to select and group ideas – into those that support the thesis and those that do not – you will have a clearer understanding of the general direction you want your essay to go. You will be able to decide what to leave out and what to include. Go back to the essay question often to remind yourself what you need to do. 

Example: For the question “Discuss the effects of the unemployment benefit system on the New Zealand economy”, your final thinking may be represented in the diagram below, where ultimately six ideas have been chosen – four to support the thesis and two to be used as counter-arguments.



Organise ideas

Organising is concerned with the linear progression of ideas. Before you begin to write your essay, you need to have a clear idea of how you will develop it from the introduction to its conclusion. You will also decide on the final number of main points for the body of the essay, and the most logical order for your discussion of these ideas. In other words, you need to develop an outline for the essay.

The organisational pattern you use for your essay outline may be determined by the type of essay: expository, problem-solution, comparison and contrast, or argumentative. Here are some organisational patterns:

  • order of importance or significance (least important to most important, or most important to least important)
  • chronological (by time) order
  • block method (positive points followed by negative points, or negative points followed by positive points)
  • point-by-point method (both positive and negative points for one main point)

Click on Some organisational patterns to view some essay outlines within the structure of a basic academic essay.

Basic structure of an academic essay

Most students are familiar with the basic structure of an essay. The main problem, however, seems to be deciding how many body paragraphs to have in the essay. The following presentation provides a suggestion for developing a logical outline within a given word limit.

A sample essay outline

Here is an example of an essay outline developed using the guidelines:

         Discuss the effects of the unemployment benefit system on the New Zealand economy.

         (word limit: 1000-1200 words)

The ideas are organised using the block method. In essays that explore opposing views, the dilemma for students is deciding which view (or block) to discuss first. Generally, you should be guided by your thesis.

In this outline, the positive effects are discussed first, so that the main part of the answer supports the thesis - that the unemployment benefit system has more negative than positive effects.


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