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Step 3: Essay Planning

While at this point you may be tempted to just start writing, it’s actually quicker and faster if you first spend some time doing some essay planning and then put together a proper essay outline. This will allow you to catch any major problems before they come up and you will never be confused during the writing process. In fact, with a well written outline and overall plan the actual writing portion will be just fill in the blanks!

Read over your instructions very carefully

The first thing that you should do is carefully read over your original instructions. No matter how well you write your essay, you will note score well if you don't follow the basic instructions that were provided. Generally, you were given a document that included the guidelines. If it was brief and open-ended then that's even better. However, most professors include specific instructions for how they would like you to write your essay. They assume that you're not the best essay writer out there, so they want to help you by providing structure. 

Now you may be thinking, "what do I look for in my instructions?" What you need to look for is any information that you have to follow. Here are the most important ones to look out for:

  • Essay length: how many pages does it have to be? Is it in pages or words? Remember that a standard double spaced page in normal font and size is 275 words (unless it's single spaced).
  • Source requirements: how many sources do you need to use?
  • Essay type: is it argumentative, persuasive, creative, personal or any other type?
  • Citation style: while your essay will most likely be in MLA format, you should check just in case.

Inspect Opinions and Biases

At this point, you should begin to really inspect the opinions and biases of the articles that you have been reading about. For example, do the authors take any specific positions that may have influenced their overall conclusions? As with human nature, you're bound to find that this is very common among scholars. Many times, they have a bias towards a specific school of through. For instance, consider the differences between sociologists and psychologists. One group studies society as a whole while the other studies individuals. When evaluating the root causes of social problems, they will take a specific side based on what their subject and school of thought is.

Tip: Remember to pay attention to your audience. A paper meant for an undergraduate research group will look different than a paper for a doctoral committee.


It's therefore your job to sift through these opinions and see what stands out as being interesting, unexplored or maybe even subject to discourse. On the topic of inspecting biases, keep in mind that you may be required to write an audience analysis (explained in the essay introduction page). An audience analysis basically asks you to assess and address the level of expertise your reader is going to have in the subject matter of your custom written essay. Consider the same train of thought when evaluating your sources and planning your essay.

Identify Core Assumptions

Your topic or subject will usually have some core assumptions that you need to know. These are universally or locally understood truths about your topic that may not necessarily be written down or fully explained. However, finding out the core assumptions around your topic will help you get a deeper understanding of the issue you are planning to write about. For example, if you are writing a sociology essay and want to explore causes of poverty.

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The core assumption in the field of sociology is that most social problems are caused by social structures as a whole, not individuals. Without having this core understanding of the assumptions, you may be researching psychology articles that would address poverty on an individual basis. You want to avoid this simple mistake by carefully assessing the core assumptions in your field of study or topic in general.


Example #1

Topic at hand: Exploring causes of poverty


Core assumption: social problems are caused by institutional social structures.


Solution: Focus on material that addresses institutional social structures, and does not focus on individual explanations of poverty.

Find Common Themes

Finally, you want to start putting together common themes from your research that you can use for the next portion of your essay writing journey. By identifying the common themes in your research, an argument begins to take form. The evidence that you looked through and collected begins to point in direction or another. Otherwise, there may be just contradicting evidence that you can use to highlight how the issue is more complex and such. Either way, you should begin to develop common themes and write them down in chunks.How many common themes you find depends on the page length of your essay. Most commonly for a 3-4 page essay you will want to find a single theme that you can work with.

Let's do an example together to see exactly how this works. Imagine that you are researching the causes of the civil rights movement. Your research should reflect these international and domestic issues at hand:

  • The U.S. took on a protective international role, intervening when human inequality took place around the world.
  • The world was heavily divided between communism and democracy.
  • Civil rights activists and groups began to form and organize protests, marches and events.

Example #2

Topic at hand: The U.S. took on a protective international role, intervening when human inequality took place around the world.


Core assumption: The world was heavily divided between communism and democracy.


Solution: Civil rights activists and groups began to form and organize protests, marches and events.

From this information, a major theme should come up: the difference between America's stance on inequality at home versus abroad. It didn't really make sense for the U.S. to internationally enforce "free democratic" societies when American citizens were being disenfranchised. In this case, the common theme suggests that this underlying hypocrisy abroad could have been a catalyst for Americans to raise red flags regarding how a truly free society should function. This gives us enough information and evidence to begin working on our thesis statement and then outline. 

If you are having difficulty with this portion, then try to critically think about and analyze the information that you have until you can find commonalities. Thinking creatively about how different forms of evidence relate to one another will result in a strong argument that is unique. 


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