Developing your plan is a two-way process in which you are constantly moving between your research and your plan. You need to use the one to focus the other. Keep developing the ideas in your plan, ensuring that your ideas form a coherent argument and provide evidence and examples for what you say.
Click the play button below to listen to Jonathan Buckley, from the Royal Literary Fund, talking about planning essays and dissertations.
A dissertation is not just a long essay. The etymology dissertation comes from the Latin verb ‘to debate'. It is a discussion involving different points of view or sets of ideas. It is examining a subject revealing different points of view about that subject. Your discussion gives evidence of critical analysis; you're standing back from the subject, you are weighing up the pros and cons, you've shown that you understand the particular aspects of various viewpoints open to question. It is a debate.
To keep that debate tight you have to plan. I think the writing becomes easier, the writing becomes better, the more you can dissociate the thinking process from the writing process. Now, obviously you can't make a clear cut distinction between the two but I've read lots of dissertations where the student has got in a mess because she is thinking about what she is going to say while she is saying it. You want to separate the two. Before you put pen to paper or type the first word on your keyboard you've got to have an absolutely rigid plan, not just a menu with the points you are going to make but a table of contents which shows how much space you are going to assign to each point because the proportion of the thing is important. Again and again I see dissertations where the student might, in the course of 20 pages, have 20 good points to make. She makes the first 15 points in the first 19 pages then realises that the finishing line is in sight, she is in the stage where there is not much time left and the rest get all shoe horned in the last couple of pages. This is horrible, everything has to be assigned its due space. The assignment isn't ‘Give us ten thousand words on this subject', it's ‘Give us a shapely, coherent, well reasoned discussion of that argument in that space'. Fitting it into that space is part of the test.
So, say you have to write a dissertation of 8,000 words you know that as a rough guess you're going to have 5-700 words for the introduction, you're going to have slightly less for the conclusion. That tells you how much you are going to have for the body of the dissertation, you know how many points you have to make, you do a simple division and that tells you roughly how much you have for each point. When you look at the plan it becomes apparent that some deserve more space and some deserve less. But it is important to know that by the time you get to page four you know where you should be. You get students who are in a mess because they get to page 4 and they realise they have only covered 2 out of 20 points and suddenly the pace accelerates and then it slows down a bit. The thing has got to have an even pace to it. The only way to ensure that, is to plan diligently. Some people can just sit down and write 8,000 words off the top of their heads in perfectly coherent, well balanced prose. I've never met anyone who can do it but if you can, then congratulations to you!
The other thing doing the plan shows you is there are two common problems with dissertations. One is, you've got an 8,000 word essay that really is like a 3,000 word essay on steroids, there is just not enough real bulk in there to justify the length and the student has resorted to vast paraphrases and quotations or terrible repetition to get to that mark. Conversely, you get essays where someone has taken on the scope of 8,000 words and it deserves a book. If they had sat down and looked at what they are trying to cover it would have become apparent that they are trying to cover too much or too little. So that is another virtue of the plan.
Obviously the plan will change as you write. While you're writing you really want to concentrate on making the writing as lucid as possible and the way to ensure lucidity is to know exactly what you are going to say before you embark on it.
listen to the full Podcast of Jonathan Buckley's Dissertation Busting lecture
View Robin's Guide to Essay Writing
Plan your essay: Express your key points in complete sentences
My third guideline for writing an essay is to use a plan. Once you've done all your reading, once you've done all your research you need to step back from it and decide what you're going to say. Come up with your main line of argument, but plan your essay before you launch into the actual writing of the essay. That means that you need to decide exactly what your key points are. So you need a logical sequence of key points that actually build up your argument. It's really important when you've arrived at your key points, it's really important to express them in complete sentences. One of the mistakes that I often see students doing, and one of the things that makes plans a bit problematic for a lot of students, is that when they're coming up with their outline for their essay they just have a list of subject headings: First I'm going to be talking about this, then I'm going to be talking about that, and then last of all I'm going to talk about that. And actually that's not a very good plan, because when you go down to write something you don't know what you're going to say. You know what you're going to talk about, but you don't know what you're going to say about it. So the most important thing about the plan is to decide what your main points are and to express them in complete sentences -- not just what are you going to talk about but what are you going to say about it? Once you've got that sequence of key points expressed in complete sentences you should have a pretty good summary of your essay. And that should be able to stand alone as an answer to your essay question.
Check the title, idea or plan with your tutor before writing it. He or she might have expectations you haven't realised and may spot a problem with the basic idea. (Luke Martell)
Think about the structure of your work. You may want to use sub-headings to organise your ideas. If you're writing an essay it is likely you will have an:
Work through your comparative and analytical categories.
Consider making your basic outline in the form of a table.
If you have been given any specific guidance from your tutor about the structure your written assignment make sure you follow it. For more help with structuring your assignment see Drafting
Making a tabular plan can be a really helpful way to clearly visualise your argument. This can be particularly useful for a comparative essay - as you can see from the example below (click on the image to enlarge).
Example plan (originally produced by Sherry Ferdman, Academic Skills Handout 5 (2005), University of Sussex)
Is globalisation a new phenomenon? [pdf 22kb]
A linear plan can provide a helpful starting point for thinking about the structure that you would like to use in your final assignment. Sometimes your tutors may ask to see your essay plan and, even if you do not need to hand your plan in, It can help you to write a clear plan if you imagine you are writing it for someone else to read. Below is an example of a linear plan (click on the image to enlarge).
Second year student: Molecular Cell Biology essay outline:
What are peroxisomes? What do they do? And, how are proteins targeted to them? [pdf 65KB]
You may prefer a more visual plan such as a mind-map. This can also be a really helpful starting point for generating ideas.