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Tips on essay planning and writing

What is an essay?

Traditional academic essays are pieces of writing which are designed to demonstrate the following points:

  • that you understand a particular subject
  • that you have undertaken some kind of research
  • that you can produce a clear and coherent argument

This means that you have to combine important ideas, examples, and interpretations from other writers with your own. All of these have to be put together in a linear, written format (making one point, then moving on to the next), which persuades the reader that your line of argument is a convincing one.

Note: There may be variations in the approach you need to take depending on the discipline you are studying. Check with your tutor/department for discipline specific guidelines.

Brainstorm your topic by creating a mind map

Check you understand what your essay question is asking you

When you choose, or are assigned, an essay question, you are asked to focus on something very specific. It's not just a case of writing down everything you know about the subject. An essay question instructs you to do something with the knowledge you have, and to put it into a certain context, which will allow you to demonstrate the range of your critical thinking.

Essay questions therefore have instructional verbs to determine what your approach should be. These are words such as: discuss, analyse, argue, compare, review, evaluate, examine, outline, illustrate.... These tell you how to answer the question and what your essay should do. It is important that you understand exactly what these words mean so that you don’t misinterpret a question.

Creative Commons License Bloom’s Taxonomy Verbs by Fractus Learning is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 4.0 International License.

Academic writing style

You will usually be expected to write using academic language and specialist vocabulary from your subject area. Academic writing normally contains these features:

  • Formal writing in an impersonal or objective style and often takes the 'passive' voice. Passive constructions can be used to avoid using 'I' in essays, e.g. 'It can be argued...'
  • Vocabulary appropriate for particular academic contexts is used which may include technical and specialist words. 
  • Contains references to other writers’ publications which are used to support the arguments in the text
  • You may notice that cautious language is frequently used in reporting research and making claims. 'Cautious language' indicates reservations or tentativeness about the conclusions that may be drawn from the evidence presented. Useful phrases are: 'it may be concluded', and 'we can assume'. 


Signposting is the use of words and phrases to guide the reader through your written work. There are two types – major and minor.

Major Signposting

Major signposting is used to signal the introduction of key sections or aspects of the work. These might include the aim, purpose, or structure.

Examples (click to open)

In the introduction:

  • This essay will…
  • The aim of this essay is to…
  • The major issue being discussed is…
  • This essay will define and describe…
  • This essay will critically examine…
  • This essay will first define…then discuss…before making recommendations for…
  • This essay is organised in the following way;

In the conclusion:

  • To conclude,
  • In conclusion,
  • To summarise,
  • It is evident that


Minor Signposting

Minor signposting are linking words and phrases that make connections for your reader and move them through the text.

Examples (click to open)
  • They may be as simple as: First, second, third, next, then, last, lastly, finally
  • To offer a counterpoint: However, although, though, yet, alternatively, nevertheless
  • To indicate an example: For example, notably, for instance, in this case


Linking words and phrases help give your writing more fluidity. Linking words and phrases will help the flow of your academic writing.

Linking words are particularly useful for use in comparing and contrasting ideas and to move from one idea to another.

Check these resources for examples of linking words and phrases:



Source: Academic Writing Skills by Patricia Williamson is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0

Building an argument and summarising other people's ideas

Once you have understood exactly what the essay title is asking you and brainstormed or mind mapped your ideas, you will need to start your research and find out what other people have written or published about your topic. In an essay you apply those ideas, alongside your own interpretations, ideas and conclusions, to the question. This mixture of 'voices' provides the basis of your argument. Remember to reference other people's ideas even if you are not using a direct quote. (Check Write it Right for more information on referencing).

Often the clearest way to combine different points of view and to show that you have understood those points of view is to summarise them. Each summary of a different viewpoint can include direct and indirect quotations of key points, plus your understanding of what they mean and a comment on the weaknesses and strengths of the idea or viewpoint. Having described, interpreted and analysed other people's ideas, you can then go on to describe your own point of view and explain why you have chosen it.

Writing which ignores any of the parts described above, can become unbalanced. For example, if there are none of your own ideas, the piece becomes a review of everyone else's work. In these circumstances you could be accused of being uncritical. If the writing does not refer to other people's ideas (directly or indirectly), there is a problem of being too personal and non-academic (this partly depends on your subject). Neither of these would be persuasive arguments.

What is Paraphrasing?

Paraphrasing is expressing someone else’s writing in your own choice of words, while keeping the same essential meaning. As Pears and Shields (2019, p. 15) explain, it is ‘an alternative way of referring to an author’s ideas or arguments without using direct quotations from their text’.

Paraphrasing is generally more highly valued by academics than direct quoting because it allows you to demonstrate a greater understanding of your source and helps you to maintain your personal writing style and the smooth flow of your essay.

Don’t forget to include in-text citations (author and date) in the text of your assignment and full references at the end of your assignment every time you paraphrase someone else’s words or ideas.

Example - The influence of Karl Marx

First, here is the original extract, taken from the book, Marx and Marxism, by Peter Worsley:

Karl Marx has probably affected the course of twentieth-century history more than any other single thinker. Because of this, his ideas have generated a vast output of writings, ranging from texts written by revolutionaries aimed at telling people how to do revolution - how to carry on Marx's work of demolishing capitalism and creating a new socialist society - to the many hundreds of volumes dedicated to proving that Marx was wrong about practically everything (Worsley, 2002, p. 1).

Here's what two students wrote in their dissertations: 

                            Karl Marx, the inspiration for revolutionary activity in many countries, has probably affected the course of 20C history more than almost any other thinker. Because of this, his ideas have generated a vast output of writings, ranging from books written about revolution - how to demolish capitalism and create a new socialist society - to books dedicated to proving that Marx was wrong about practically everything.

Reference: Worsley, P. (2002) Marx and Marxism. 2nd edn. London: Routledge.  

Worsley (2002) suggests that Karl Marx has had a significant impact on the course of twentieth-century history. He argues that Marx's ideas have led to a great deal of writing, across a spectrum from promoting his call for revolution to trying to show he was wrong in his analysis and predictions.

Reference: Worsley, P. (2002) Marx and Marxism. 2nd edn. London: Routledge. 

Essay structure

The introduction is the official start of the essay and it usually includes some or all of the following:

  • a statement introducing the topic
  • an explanation of why it is important
  • a brief mention of work on the same topic written by other writers
  • a gap or problem in previous related work which will be solved or answered in this essay
  • an outline of the structure of the essay
  • definitions of key terms
  • an anecdote or vignette (short story) which highlights the main point of the essay

The body is the largest part of your writing and this is where you guide your reader through your main ideas and arguments. These ideas and arguments come from your brainstorming and research. It is therefore a mixture of other people’s ideas and your own. These points should be organised into a logical order which allows your reader to follow your train of thought. 

The balance of discussion between your own ideas and information and those from external sources is crucial to the development of your argument. Without this balance, the writing can become either a summary of other people's ideas and theories, or a description of your personal ideas and experiences with no evidence of research. Both of these would lack analysis, a core component of a good essay. It is therefore vitally important to ensure that a mixture of positions are presented.

Each main point will be described, supported and analysed using examples from your own experiences, and information and theories from external sources (books, journals, websites, lectures, etc.). The main points should be clearly organised by using paragraphs. 


In short pieces of writing (< 3,000 words), there will be groups of paragraphs which together form one part of your argument. Usually these sections in "short" essays do not have specific headings. However, they can be clearly identified by using linking phrases which show for example:

  • how many elements the section consists of:

There are four main reasons why ...

  • the connection of additional points:

Another important point to consider is ... 
A further issue of importance is ... 
Moving on the the issue of ...

  • or the introduction of a contrasting point:

On the other hand, ... 
In contrast to the above, ... 
An alternative understanding of the issue is ...

Longer pieces of writing and dissertations

In long pieces of writing (> 3,000 words) it is sometimes useful to identify clear sections by using sub-headings. Each section (or chapter of a dissertation or thesis) with a sub-heading is like a short essay which could stand alone. The sub-headings may come from your brainstorm and/or your research. However, the best order for the sections in long essays may only become clear after you have started writing them. When the best order becomes clear, chapter introductions and conclusions can be written in each section.

A short chapter introduction should briefly outline the contents of each section and where possible, should also refer back to the sections before and explain how they are related. Similarly, each section needs a conclusion. This should summarise what has been written in this part and should again make connections to other sections. In particular, it should describe the relationship between this part and the next. These are crucial in order to tell the reader what each part is about and how it fits with the other sections. It is like tying knots between separate pieces of string in order to make a single, stronger cord: your argument. 

The conclusion is the closing part of the essay and, like the introduction, connects the body of the essay to the title. However, whereas the introduction often starts generally, becomes more focussed and often includes an outline of the main points; the conclusion attempts to summarise the main ideas and arguments, then leads to a final statement.

It should not include new ideas which have not been mentioned before, although you can join ideas you have mentioned in a new way. You may also want to restate questions which you could not answer in your essay, but which you think deserve further study. As the final part of the essay, the conclusion is the last thing which the reader sees. Therefore, it should tie together the different points you have made.

Conclusions often include the following elements:

  • language 'markers' showing that this is the conclusion (e.g. to conclude, in summary, this essay has given an account of...)
  • a summary of the ideas in the main body
  • a comment about the limitations of the scope of the essay / study
  • a glance to the future: a prediction, recommendations for action, suggestions for further research, implications for future policy

A bibliography (or reference list) comes after the conclusion (or appendices and final figures) and includes all the information about the sources you have mentioned in the essay. For more information on referencing please see the Write it Right guide.

Useful Links

The Library, Technological University of the Shannon: Midwest