How to plan an essay: the Introduction

How to plan an essay.essay writing, planning an introduction

As I talked about here: something you need if you want to write anything is a plan. Essays are written by students the world over for many years of their academic careers. Once we have finished with academia we are finished with the essay. Or are we?

An essay is often seen as just a formal assignment to prove your knowledge in academia but it is more than that. Essay writing involves a set of skills that we use throughout our lives even when not writing. We use them when we are trying to convince people of something or when explaining something. While the spoken word is not exactly the same as an essay the basic set of skills that people use to write an essay are used to form our arguments. Many careers involve writing, often to persuade others. This writing requires a structure and a basic essay structure can be used. So what goes into an essay? What is this simple structure?

Essentially an essay has three main parts:

  • The Introduction
  • The body of the essay
  • The Conclusion

The Introduction:

This is where you introduce the topic. Quite obvious really, but what do you include in this introduction? Well, you want to say what you are going to talk about. You want to avoid going into too much detail. This section should be around one tenth to one fifth of your essay. A few example lengths are below:

  • 100-200 words in a 1000 word essay
  • 150-300 words in a 1500 word essay
  • 200-400 words in a 2000 word essay
  • 500-1000 words in a 5000-word essay

You get the idea. It is better to be at the shorter end of this. One fifth of your essay as the absolute maximum and for larger essays this can be shorter. In the above example of a 5000-word essay you should be around the 500-word mark but a 250-word introduction can be good enough if it is punchy and your topic is very specific.

What to put into the introduction is largely governed by your topic but there are some simple rules to follow.

Very few references.

While everything in an essay should be supported with evidence you shouldn’t be putting forward your specific referenced points this early. The reader wants to know the topic not be hit with a bunch of information that they have to tease a structure from. There are exceptions to the avoiding references rule. These are references to broad topics, a very specific quote, or a line from a book or article that the whole essay rests on.

You could start with a quote from a historical source. Quotation dictionaries and quotation sites (such as are good to find these although it is best to try and track down the original document and reference that. Not only will that reference show the reader that you can follow an idea to its source but shows you have read around the subject.

Perhaps you are writing about a topic of debate in your field and have two particularly snide quotes you want to use to see if you can draw the original author’s works together. In this case, you would be writing a compare and contrast essay.

Example: The Grierson and Metcalf debate about Anglo-Saxon coinage got quite catty . Incidentally, that opening paragraph hits right to the point with quotes. One is used to highlight the point which the article is arguing against.

The point with these references is either to draw the reader in or give a point of view from a respected (or not) author. Following this with a question of ‘are they right?’ can be a good opening pointer. An opening quote such as:


Government is too big and too important to be left to the politicians.


Chester Bowles (1901 – 1986)


Could be followed by a line such as. Is Bowles correct in his assessment?

Once you have that quote and reference you need somewhere to go with it.


Explicitly state what the essay is about in no uncertain terms.

Well, you have your quote (or not depending on your topic) and you have asked the readers if the person quoted is correct. Now, what do you say? You have to tell them both why the quote is relevant and tell them what you are blathering on about.

The Bowles quote shown above could be the opener to a discussion of modern democratic systems and their change (or not) into oligarchies. This is where you tell people what your main points are. You don’t want to elaborate too much as you are going to talk about it below.

Aside: The phrase ‘as I shall explain below’ or ‘as I shall talk about below’ should be avoided in a formal essay and also in general when writing an introduction. The whole introduction is one big ‘As I shall explain below’. If you need to use the phrase itself you are doing something wrong.

You will see at the top of this article I have an introduction. In that introduction, I say what the topic is I then define its reason for being. For our quote above the following example might be used:

Example: The Government of nations is often undertaken by those wealthy families and elites who have the resources to become politicians. In this essay we shall explore whether the government is important for a nation and also if politicians are the best people to being running our current system.

In the example above I have shown that I know who currently governs nations. In this part of the paper it is ok to put in a sweeping statement or two. It will set the tone and also give you something to tear apart later. Just try not to be too obnoxious. As you can see I use a qualifier of ‘often’. This shows that it is not a universal thing and shows the reader that I haven’t already decided the outcome of the paper.

I have also defined the nature of the essay at hand. It is an exploration of ideas. We are trying to make a decision about who should be running our nations. The two important areas of discussion are also revealed. The first is quite an expansive topic. The topic of whether the human race actually needs government. This is quite a deep topic that will intrigue the reader and also sets you up to show an opinion as well as the sources. The second topic is the politicians. Are they who we think they are? If they are what we think they are (or not) should politicians be running the nations?

Aside: Note the use of the phrase ‘In this essay we shall explore’. While similar to the phrase ‘as I shall explain below’ it is subtly different. In this instance you are telling the reader you are going to explore the topic and setting parameters not simply saying ‘look below I wrote something’ which suggests the introduction is merely filler.

Define the parameters of the Essay.

As I mentioned above, the topic of whether there should or should not be a government is an expansive topic. This topic could fill a book. I say a book it would fill several and could be a lifetime’s work. This makes it a good topic as it is clearly an important subject and will have an extensive amount of literature. The issue is you only have a few thousand words. In fact, as one of two discussion points, it is going to be less than half of the essay. If the essay is 2500 words you will have 1000 words or less to do this justice. The simple fact is you won’t be able to. What should you do about it? Well, you should define its scope by setting the parameters of the essay. There are several ways in which this can be done. Some are:

  • A set time frame.
  • A single country as the focus.
  • Specific topics within the discussion that will be covered.

There are more but they all essentially boil down to the three listed above. I shall expand on each in turn here.

A set time frame.

This is most commonly used when discussing history. It can be useful to set a bracket for a larger topic that may already have a time frame. An example would be the Roman Empire. The Roman Empire is in itself part of a longer narrative of the Roman people including the early mythological monarchic period, the following republic era and after the complete Empire the Eastern or Byzantine Empire. A time frame in this could be a particular century, a dynasty of emperors or a particular campaign such as the conquest of Britain. This will tell the reader that you are excluding everything outside of the brackets due to space and relevance not because you simply forgot or couldn’t be bothered.

A single country as a focus.

With the example from earlier a good country to focus on would be one’s own native country. Another suggestion would be the country of the person quoted, in this case, Chester Bowles, so the U.S.A. This does not mean you cannot talk about any other countries that you wish to but it gives focus. You would compare all other examples to that of the original. If you used the person you quoted it also means you can discuss why they said what they did and what the circumstances were without straying away from the point.

A specific topic in the discussion that will be covered.

This is a bit more ephemeral but has some good opportunities if you wish to make a particular point with your essay. For example, you could state you are going to look at what would happen if there was no government. While there aren’t many historical examples to draw on the discussion of no government is pretty well covered. That would be anarchy. It is a divisive topic so to discuss it with academic flair without spouting political propaganda would show that you can tackle a topic with academic rigour. While it is taking a point to the extreme this can be a useful method of essay writing. While it is frowned upon to use such a technique when debating, writing it in an essay can be done well. To show two extremes and then draw them together to form a conclusion shows you can consider a debate from both sides. Another specific topic that could be covered is an event. Similar to putting it in a time frame the actions surrounding an event can be used as an example. A compare and contrast of before the original quote used and after could lend credence to its validity or not. Essentially you are narrowing the topic down into something you wish to talk about.

Example: The quote suggests that government is both big and important. To define its importance we need to discuss what it would be like without a government to see what it gives us that is so important. To this end, I shall focus on Anarchism as a philosophy of no rulers and thus no government.  

Use all three.

If you really want to drill down then you can use a combination of all three. If we were to do this and use the example above we might end up with something like this:

Example: The quote suggests that government is both big and important. To define its importance we need to discuss what it would be like without a government to see what it gives us that is so important. To this end I shall focus on Anarchism as a philosophy of no rulers and thus no government.  This will be contrasted with the United States government between 1901 and 1986 as Chester Bowles comment is likely to be borne out of his lifetime experiences.

The above example narrows down exactly when and where you will focus your efforts. It also tells the reader the exact topics you will be comparing in half of your essay so they know exactly what they will be looking at.

Aside: The other half of the essay will be considering the politicians. If you wish to use the examples above try to define how you would set out the reason why and what exactly you will be discussing about politicians.

essay writing and planning notesThe last part of the introduction: The questions.

I find it helpful to ask questions at the end of my introduction. This is for the benefit of all parties. The reader will have a couple of questions that they will want answering. This is good as you have those questions that you can keep referring to while you are writing. Did you answer those questions? Is something you need to consider both when writing and editing your essay.

If you refer to the introduction of this particular piece you will see that I throw out a series of questions. I also do this throughout to engage the reader and also to focus the essay. A particular answer or reference may beg a question. Identify these as you write. In an academic essay, you may want to refrain from too many questions but they can be useful when putting together a first draft. Editing them out afterwards or smoothing them into the paragraph they are ending can also work. Think of them like bookmarks.

Example: To restate the original question: Is Bowles correct in his statement and if so to what extent?

Well, that is the end of part one. Part two will be coming soon so please sign up with your email address to get the next section.

How do you go about writing?

We have a new page here at
The page is
I have been answering a lot of questions lately about how to write and plan essays and books. I thought that people here may appreciate my insights.

Please sign up to the page to receive updates.


How do you write essays or articles?

How do I write essays and articles?

A Quora member had a very good answer. The trick is to use a “standard process”.
I’ll expand upon this with my thoughts as well.

Learning how to do something takes a lot of time. It may take you less time than the next person but it will still take time. The important thing is to have a plan of action. Planning an essay is easier when you have a word count. For example a 1500 word essay. 250 words introduction 300 words main point one, 300, main point two, 300 main point three, 100 words either spare or to connect these together before, 250 words conclusion. Simply done you break your essay down into several sections. I actually used a science project I got a good mark for as the basic structure for my essays at masters’ level. The science project was written when I was 14/15 but it had a clear workable structure.

The key points you need to have for a good essay are an introduction and conclusion and the core points/arguments.
I’ll use the example of ‘Who were the Normans?’ as it is a subject I am currently researching.

The introduction:

This has no references usually, well the introduction can do if it includes a quote or historical date or study etc., but all in all it should be limited. The introduction is where you say what you are going to be writing about. (see my opening, it’s a quote referencing the author, and then a statement of what I am going to do). Keep it short and to the point.

EXAMPLE: The Normans were a cultural group from what is now northern France. Many think of them as French but they came from Scandinavia. Does this make them French or Viking as an ethnic group, especially during the 1066 invasion of England?

Optional addition Background paragraph/chapter/section:

In a longer essay, or dissertation, you may want to add in some very specific background. For shorter essays this can be placed in the introduction. (that would be the bit above where I say the example I am going to use)

EXAMPLE: The Normans occupied the lands of Normandy in northern France. Rollo their leader was granted this area as a duchy buy the king of the Franks.

Argument/core point 1:

This section should be a third of the main bulk of your essay (see the numbers a gave above for a rough breakdown). This is either your argument for the main question or the main reason for its truth. Use examples to back up your points with references. Also be very clear when it is your conclusion/idea, or an authors. Try to keep on track and don’t include too much dissenting opinion. This should be a fairly main stream argument for the proposal or truth of the original assertion leave the quirky stuff till later (do mention you will be talking about it later though) that you will see in the section a little further down.

EXAMPLE: The Normans were clearly Vikings look where they came from X, Y and Z say this in their books. They spent time fighting the Franks (French) during the Norman expansion (reference A) so how could they be considered French?

Argument/core point 2:

This is exactly the same as your last section apart from being the complete opposite point of view. Again reference works and keep the ideas fairly mainstream. You can hint at which idea you prefer but reinforce that this is the background and arguments of others rather than your ideas (although you should include some). Hint at ideas you have hit on such as the quirky ideas that I mentioned above and will expand upon below.

EXAMPLE: The Normans were clearly French look how long they were in France before 1066 and the amount of intermarriage with the locals (reference B). Look at their use of horses (picture of Bayeux tapestry) the Vikings fought on foot like the Saxons.

Argument/core point section 3:

This section is slightly different. This is almost a mini conclusion. Use this area to talk about the ideas that you have come across that are further out from the main crowd that you should have mentioned above. That would be those quirky ideas I have talked about. You need these to show that you have read around the subject and understand more than the mainstream points. If you throw them out to early then the marker may decide that you are on a rant with lots of bias and that may set them against you causing distrust. This section should have more of your own ideas in. Whilst you will have put in opinions in the above sections this is where you should really shine. Things like picking a badly researched or thought out article and shredding it go in here. You should be hinting at your conclusion near the end of this section.

EXAMPLE: They were neither French nor Viking although the Brithonic settlement of northern France had left a different genetic make-up in the area (reference C). France is often split into north and south with distinctive language change between the two (reference D). They weren’t French because France didn’t exist and they weren’t Vikings as that is a verb and they had stopped Viking. if you look at their genetic make-up they were actually the same as the Saxons so it’s actually a civil war (reference crazy man F).

The conclusion:

This should be a rough mirror of the introduction in size and subject. This has no references usually, well the conclusion can do if it includes a quote or historical date or study etc., but all in all it should be limited. The conclusion is where you say what you have written about in the essay and what it means. (see my introduction , it’s a near mirror of this paragraph, and then a statement of what I am have done). Keep it short and to the point. I have now shown you how to plan an essay.

EXAMPLE: We have seen above that there is strong evidence for both sides of this debate. A middle ground is likely the correct interpretation. The Viking raiders under Rollo had had a lot in common with the original Saxon tribes due to the areas they originally migrated from. The Brithonic nature of Brittany which had a large impact upon the growing Normandy would have led to an identity French yet Brithonic in part. If we draw this together it might be suggested that they were none of the above but by the time of 1066 they were a distinct group of people.

Now structuring is only part of the battle. Spelling, punctuation and grammar are also important. The way to do this is to use a product such as Type your practise essays into there or even throw some of your old work in there. This will highlight the areas that you need to improve on. As long as you can write clearly and structure your essay well then you are almost there.

Other considerations: Your subject. Don’t just read the books on the book list. read around the subject. Use connected disciplines. Say you are writing about cafe design perhaps make a point about the growing issue of back pain wand reference a medical journal to support a point about ergonomics of chairs etc. Another consideration is how to write a sentence or paragraph. The structure I used above is very similar to the way in which one would write at any structure level.
I hope that is of use, I had fun writing it!

This is another answer that I wrote at you can follow me both here and at Quora to see more articles of this nature.

If you have any thoughts please do comment below.