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How to plan an essay

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Edited by Jonathan Vernon, Thursday, 4 Sep 2014, 12:02


Fig.1 A mindmap using the App 'SimpleMinds'

You try all kinds of different approaches, software and apps. You can any of this on paper (I often do), even working on a mindmap on a whiteboard. Practice, and pain, taught me the way that works for me. Ahead of the deadline with the bulk of the reading done I assemble and sort 'the facts' and 'issues'; I'd liken this to taking a large bundle autumn leaves and sorted them out by colour and leaf type. Then I create a mindmap.

SimpleMinds is free - the basic version does more than enough.

My habit is to keep it under 12 'themes' so the 'clock face' is a starting point for the mindmap, not best practice according to mindmap aficienados but what works for me. Six to eight 'tendrils' is probably about right. If I can be bothered to so so that I'll re-order all of this to that in chronological order I have the topics to write about. Any set of these links can be 'closed', which in effect means that you are looking at the introduction. It is no more than a doodle so few of my mindmaps are finished: the above is enough to work from, it's not going to illustrate the essay.

Of course, talking about 'how to write an essay' is one thing: sitting down and getting on with it is quite another.

The first draft is always the hardest. Get them out of the way and hopefully it's then just a case of editing. It takes far longer than you could imagine. I repeatedly used to run out of time and wished I'd got down to it earlier. If you're really brave you might write a version under 'examination conditions' - you, three hours and a blank sheet of paper. You can be surprised at how much 'the Muse' will deliver to your fingertips and there'll be little else that you write that will be so fluid.

Bonne chance.

Various tips, hints and guides on this kind of stuff are hereabouts on the brilliant OU Student platform

Yes, it does help to read the thing out loud! The pain is to listen back and realise that at times you're not making sense sad Re-writing is pain, pain, pain. 

The final thing (click the link for a larger version)

From E-Learning V


This can also be exported as a wordfile with the sub-menus creating a set of logical sub-headings. Depending on the density of the mindmap you may end up with too much, or too little information on which to build an essay. It also rather depends on the length of the assignment.

The other thing I do is to TAG content here from a module that could be used in a pending TMA. When you select that tag you may then export the assembled notes and entries you've gathered over a few weeks - with comments too. Again, you can end up with 8000 loose notes for a 4000 word assignment, but its a start.

Any kind of engagement with the content is better than none?

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This certainly looks impressive, but as you wrote, time pressure can deliver something equally fluid. My question is, does mind mapping free up that part of you that as an essayist would otherwise by preoccupied by wondering if you had forgotten some angle/theme? And if so, do you think the result is as good as if you had sought the muse? Is the trick juggling the mind mechanic and the muse? If you were to not mind map, but rather write and edit and re-edit, would you spend less or more time and be less or more happy with the end result? I lie, that was more than a question.

I remember being taught at A level many moons ago to spend 5 minutes gathering one's thoughts possibly looking through the essay questions and taking a couple and sketching out what one could say in reply and using these primitive maps to judge which is the better essay to tackle.

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All of these work and for A'levels I only ever did a lesson plan. The thing is to put in the required focused effort - mindmapping is a gathering in of the facts and issues and trying to discover the pattern that will work for me to answer the question. Writing a draft then editing could well achieve this. The very best results come from writing a few essays on the topic and having these marked and discussed and then, having got your head around the 'right' answer to learn a set of facts/issues and sit an exam sad Too often an examination is dropped in distance learning as they are too expensive to put on? Not so with MBA programmes where for so reason the need to be tested and identified as the author is more scrupulously adhered to to meet international standards. 

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Do you enjoy the mind mapping more than the essay writing? I wonder if you like the logic and order of the mapping and the sense of relief it brings to be getting on with the task while also consulting the interesting source material, as well as the obvious stimulation it creates for the artistic part of the brain.

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It is an interim stage as I got my head into gear and as I plan to focus on writing for real. Unusually, with this exercise, I still have six days to go. I'll write my first draft this afternoon or tomorrow morning. The more careful I plan and edit and prioritise, and the closer I tie my response exactly to the question, the more likely that the first draft will be close to the final one.

Four years of this I found that in the first two years, and some three modules, and therefore some nine or more TMAs and a couple of EMAs, that my grades could be very low indeed: a couple of 40s, a couple of 50s. Year three I started to get 60s and 70s as I learnt to bring the research and reading phase to an earlier close and gave myself ample time to construct my answer before rambling on as if I were ... well, writing a blog post or comment in a blog post! 

Topic matters very much though. I achieved 80s and even 90s in a module on research but this settled back to high 60s and mid 70s with a more standard module that exposed my weaknesses on theories of learning, or rather my inclination to stubbornly argue that there could be some 13 theories, not the accepted four or five! I digress.

I do better on the narrative essay or the well-argued stance, which makes a history degree, or possibly a law degree, ones that I should have done. Never mind.

Meanwhile I'll take a break. Export this mindmap to a wordfile and compare this to the ... 23 pages of detailed, tabulated notes from which I constructed the mindmap in the first place.

Though I've never done it, the ideal thing would be to project this mindmap onto the kitchen wall, then stand there with a pen and pad of paper and use it as an aid memoir to write the first draft. The alternative could be to have the mindmap on a large desktop screen while I stand back and write it up on an iPad or laptop.

Pen and paper remains extraordinarily versatile and fluid. Cut and paste in a digital format can and often ends in something unreadable - blocky, bitty, and potentially cutting and pasting direct quotes. 

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A challenge I am loath to rise to, no matter the sense of obligation and challenge, is to take this third essay for this qualification up ONE point having been three, then one point short of a distinction over the last year. In all honesty I feel like someone doing backstroke up rapids in a cold river: it is not my natural thing at all, far preferring 'stream of consciousness' journalistic blogging or indulgent, unintelligible fiction smile But sometimes you commit to something without really knowing what you are getting in to!!

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This is very interesting (and I don't mean to sound judgemental but rather excitable and in awe of your posts), but it seems that you have an internal struggle between bringing order to your thoughts through constant self-improvement/mastering e-learning that works for you and want to cut free and simply express yourself particularly on topics like WWI that remain very dear to your heart and which you have a deep-seated and personal interest in. I would love to be disciplined enough to do the MMing and it appeals to my inner neat-/control-freak and perfectionist, but I would be perhaps completely overwhelmed by the magnitude of the task. That said, I'm currently only doing languages and toying with the idea of creative writing so I have not had to write structured essays in years. Keep up the very thought-provoking posts!

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Perfectly put on the internal struggle. Personally I wish I'd never had an aptitude for the academic and could hwve ended up on or behind stage, behind camera or in front of a large canvas sad