For any essay, whether it is for an exam or for a piece of coursework, planning is essential for giving a coherent structure to your essay. For exams, you should not spend more than 5 minutes planning as you are very much restricted on time. For coursework, however, it is a very good idea to make a detailed plan before you start writing the essay so you aren’t deciding how to structure it and what to include as you go along. It will save you time in the long run and make it easier to write the essay if you make a good detailed plan of both the essay content and structure. My plans were always organised as bullet points of what I was going to include in each paragraph of the body of the essay.
The first thing to do when planning your essay is to read the question carefully and work out what exactly it is asking you to do. The question will have key words that should make it clear what to do, such as ‘describe’, ‘explain’ or ‘compare’. The more you practise questions and look at mark schemes, the easier it will become to know what the questions are asking of you.
Once you have worked out what the question is asking you, you should come up with your main points in your argument, which could be organised by theme, by text, whatever works for the question or for you. I would always try to come up for 5 main points which would form a paragraph each.
Each paragraph should begin with a topic sentence, which is the main overarching point of the paragraph. Next in your plan, for each paragraph you should include all the key quotes which illustrate your point. Include some brief analysis of the quotes in your plan such as looking at looking at the language e.g. metaphor, alliteration, and its effects. Or form/structure/meter if looking at poetry such as the effect of enjambment, iambic pentameter etc. You must link back each point to the question, answering it explicitly and referring back to specific elements of the question, to make it clear to the marker that you are answering the question directly.
Here is a good basic structure to use within your essay to make it coherent, to ensure you analyse your quotes and that you answer the question, in each paragraph: P E A L: POINT, EVIDENCE (quote), ANALYSIS (explain), LINK. You must first make a point, then back it up with evidence (a quote), explain what it means and make further comments about the language/techniques within that quote. At the end of your point you must refer back to the question. This structure should run within each paragraph, with the topic sentence being the overarching point, and the paragraph including sub-points which are backed up by quotes. Do not include a specific analysis of a quote if it is not relevant to the question, it must add to the point you are making.
You can always write your introduction first if it helps you to structure your argument, but I tend to find it best to write it after you have formulated the structure in your detailed plan. Your introduction should lay out your argument, and can be made more effective by including a simple, blunt statement about the style, genre, purpose or tone of the text you are writing about. Whereas your conclusion should summarise each topic sentence/point plus answer the question directly.
Where possible, it’s a good idea to look at example A* essays and to see how they structure their essay, how they analyse language etc. so you can practise improving on these elements in your essays. Practise practise practise!