Planning essays

Study guide (adapted for Occupational Psychology)

A good essay plan makes the most of your essay material by helping you to organise the content of the essay before you begin writing. This guide shows you the key steps in preparing and planning an essay for your Occupational Psychology or Psychology of Work MSc effectively.

Other useful guides: Writing essays; Thought mapping; Referencing and bibliographies.

Using essay plans

Being organised before you begin writing your essay will make the writing process quicker and easier. Good preparation and planning gives you a clear overview of your material so you can see the best way to organise your points. This guide presents four main steps to planning your essay:

  • planning ahead;
  • analysing the question;
  • selecting material;
  • organising your material.

Why an essay?

Essay writing gives you a chance to:

  • explore a specific subject area in depth;
  • select relevant material;
  • explain theories and concepts;
  • evaluate arguments;
  • express and support your own views and opinions.

Before you begin

Check your department's guidelines. There may be information about:

  • how long the essay should be;
  • what the deadline is;
  • relevant assessment criteria;
  • requirements for presentation, referencing and bibliographies.

Planning ahead

Choose your title as soon a possible. The availability of journals, books and other resources may affect your choice of title. Plan ahead to ensure you can use the resources you need in time. Make an action plan or 'to do list' for:

  • finding relevant resources;
  • reading and making notes from articles on short loan;
  • obtaining items through inter-library loan;
  • using computer facilities.

Look at how much time you have before the deadline so you can see what can be realistically done.

Refer to the Guide Organising your time for more information on action planning.

Analysing the question

Before you can begin to select material for your essay, you need to make sure that you understand the exact requirements of the question. The following method of title analysis encourages you to break the question down into clearly identifiable elements so that you can accurately see what the question requires.


Analysing an essay title

Selecting the material

Use your analysis of the question as a focus for the selection of materials. Begin with the basic reading:

  • lecture notes;
  • handouts;
  • relevant chapters in core texts.

When you understand the basics you can then select more detailed and specific texts. This may be in the form of journal articles or texts referred to by your lecturer. You can also follow up useful references in handouts or core texts to widen your reading.

  • Be selective, use the techniques described in Improving your reading skills to identify relevant material for your essay.
  • Use the essay question as a focus for note taking.
  • Be sure to record only information that is directly relevant to your essay question. This will save you time and make your notes easier to organise in an essay plan.

Organising your material

All essays need a structure that is logical and coherent. An essay plan gives you a quick way of trying out different structures. One way of making an essay plan is to list your main points in keywords and phrases and organise them under main headings. This gives you an overview of your points so you can decide which should be included and what is the most logical sequence for them.

An example of a linear essay plan using key words and phrases

Index cards can be useful in essay planning.  Write the keyword or phrase for each point on a separate index card. Use the cards to group and order the points. Number the cards sequentially when you are happy with the order of your points.

You may wish to use diagrams for essay planning. This method is described in the guide: Thought Mapping.


An example of a non-linear essay plan using key words and phrases

Find your preferred style

Experiment with different styles of planning essays and use the method that you find most useful. Make as many essay plans as you need to find the best sequence for your material. By separating the planning stage from the writing stage you will be better able to write an essay that is well organised and clearly expressed. The guide Writing essays explores the key elements of an essay and shows you how to use these elements effectively.


  • Make an action plan or 'to do list' as early as possible.
  • Analyse the essay question before you begin making notes.
  • Be selective in your reading.
  • Record only information that is directly relevant to your essay question.
  • Use essay plans to create a clear and logical sequence for your material before you begin to write.

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