An academic essay is an act of communication between you, as the author, and your supervisor, as your reader. As writing and reading take place at different times and places, the communication only goes in one direction (although feedback and the discussion in supervisions are an opportunity for your reader to respond afterwards). It might be helpful to imagine the process of writing your essay as a real-time question and answer dialogue between you and your reader, almost like an interview in which the reader determines the flow of ideas. Using this strategy helps you to anticipate what the reader would want to know, and in what order it best makes sense to them.
An advantage of this strategy is that using questions to plan allows you to make a start thinking about the order and links between your points without knowing in detail exactly what you are going to say. You can develop the answers later, once you have done more research and thinking. It can therefore be used at a very early stage of the process. It can also be used at a later stage in your writing, to help you shape and edit your draft. It is a linear technique, and so is particularly helpful in thinking about the logical ordering of your ideas.
Step 1: Brainstorm questions
Brainstorm - not writing down what you already know, but questions about what you don’t already know.
Jot down as many questions that arise out of your essay title as you can think of, in whatever order they occur to you. If you are beginning the process of generating your ideas and argument, this may help to develop them more fully and outline your research needs when reading. However, this process also gives you an insight into what your reader wants to know (or wants to know that you know).
Some of these questions may seem obvious or basic, but may still be useful in reminding you to demonstrate your knowledge to your reader. Some questions may seem very large and complex, and these can be broken down into smaller questions. This will help you to develop your points fully and explain your reasoning to the reader. Some of these questions may be relevant to the topic you’re studying, but they may not necessarily help you to answer the question you have been set. You can re-examine these in the next step of the process.
Analyse the following essay title and think of as many questions as you can: Discuss the power of the eye in Frankenstein.
Examples of questions raised by this essay title might include:
- Do different people have different reactions to the different things they see?
- Whose eye is looking, and what does it see? Do we mean see in a literal or metaphorical sense?
- Do people always perceive the monster's physical appearance as ugly?
- How do they respond to it - do they see a link between outer and inner ugliness?
- What about people who can't literally see- can they see inner ugliness?
- Does the act of looking have a power to change the thing seen?
- What is inner ugliness, and what causes it?
- Does the monster see himself as ugly? Outwardly or inwardly?
- Is the response to seeing ugliness innate or is it learned?
- Is the inner ugliness that is seen a fixed part of identity, or does it change?
- Are humans ever seen as ugly? How do perceptions of humans contrast or parallel that of the monster?
Step 2: Ordering the questions as a dialogue
Refine and order these questions into a sequence that makes sense - in which each question arises out of and builds on the last, and leads on to the next.
There are a number of factors you could consider when deciding on an order.
- Some questions naturally arise out of, or lead on from, others. Some of the questions you have generated in your brainstorm will naturally be in a logical order because of this.
- Some generic principles might be useful, for example: moving from general questions to specific ones; large to small scale, abstract concepts to concrete instances.
- Some questions may need to be repeated in different sections if they are a thread running throughout your argument.
- Generally, an essay will begin with lower order questions (ones that prompt a description or explanation) to higher order ones (ones that prompt analysis or evaluation) as the essay lays the foundations on which it later builds. See the resource on How might I interpret an essay title?
During this stage, you will also have to determine the likely size and relative importance of the question and its answer in your essay. This will help you to decide which questions will eventually form the basis of the sections of the essay, and which are subquestions within the sections, which will eventually become paragraphs and sentences. Some questions could become an essay in their own right, but you will need to decide which are the main ones which will help you to answer the whole essay question, and which will have to be given more cursory treatment in this instance. You cannot answer every question to its fullest extent.
Below are some examples of this stage of planning using the essay title Discuss the power of the eye in Frankenstein
- (Introduction) Whose eye is looking in Frankenstein? What is the eye looking at? What does it see?
- Is there a link between outer and inner ugliness? (needs breaking down, and may need repeating for different characters)
- Do people have different reactions? Do they all make a link between outer and inner ugliness?
- Is it an innate reaction or a learned response?
- What is this innate ugliness? What causes it? Is it innate or does it change?
- Are humans perceived as ugly or beautiful?
- how do they contrast with the monster?
- how are they similar?
Step 3: Q&A dialogue
During the previous stages, you have not actually included any content, as the questions as such have no answers; they are just a way of experimenting with order. As you research the content and take notes, note down information, quotations and ideas under the appropriate question in your plan (together with any relevant referencing details).
You may find during this process, or the process of writing up as a draft, that the questions do not make sense as you had anticipated. They may be in the wrong order; you may have missed out part of the 'conversation'; some questions may simply turn out not to be as extensive or relevant as you initially thought, and unexpected ones may arise from your reading. The plan can be kept fluid, the plan and the draft working in parallel as checks against each other, so that each informs the other. Working with both the plan and the draft alongside each other, evolving together, can help you to maintain an overview of the structure and identify precisely where it may need to change.
The process of writing then becomes naturally broken down into easily manageable sections which you may find will help to motivate you and manage your time. You could write up a single paragraph Q&A if you only have a little time, or to give you a small, manageable goal if you're having trouble getting started. You could also write up each Q&A in any order, if you're stuck on one part.
Using this strategy, your developed plan might read rather like a piece of drama:
Q: Whose eye is looking in Frankenstein? What is the eye looking at?
A: Various humans and the monster himself.
Q: What does it see?
A: The monster's ugliness, which is the crux of the disaster.
Q: Is there a link between outer and inner ugliness? (needs breaking down:)
A: It varies.
Q: How? Do people have different reactions? Do they all make a link between outer and inner ugliness?
A: Yes: the child.
Q: Is the child's response an innate reaction or a learned response?
A: The monster thinks it's a learned response but is wrong; the child automatically makes the link between outer and inner ugliness although it is young and innocent.
Q: What is this innate ugliness, according to the child? What causes it? Is it innate or does it change?
A: It is a moral ugliness - monsters kill, and this is an innate part of their identity.
Q (repeated): Do people have different reactions? Do they all make a link between outer and inner ugliness?
A: No: the blind old man. He cannot see the monster's physical appearance yet judges him well.
Q: Is the blind old man's response an innate reaction or a learned response?
A: Learned. He uses the monster's words to judge his character.
Q: What is this innate ugliness, according to the blind old man? What causes it? Is it innate or does it change?
A: He perceives the monster as innately 'human' - but it is arguable whether this is an accurate perception of the monster's true inner self or mistaken, because he cannot read the outward signs that he is a monster.
Q: (repeated) Do people have different reactions? Do they all make a link between outer and inner ugliness?
A: Ambiguous: the monster himself.
Q: Is the monster's response an innate reaction or a learned response?
A: Innate reaction to his own reflection.
Q: What is this innate ugliness, according to the monster? What causes it? Is it innate or does it change?
A: He labels himself a monster, as his fixed identity. Yet elsewhere, he perceives beauty, without needing to learn what it is.
Q: Are humans perceived as ugly or beautiful?
A: Beautiful, even in death.
Q: How do they contrast with the monster?
A: Deformity/perfection, serenity/aggression, natural/unnatural
Q: How are they similar to him?
A: The monster is a distorted but recognisable form of humans in all things except the mode of their creation.
Q: So, What is the power of the eye? Whose eye is looking in Frankenstein? What is the eye looking at? What does it see?
A: The monster's outer and inner ugliness, which is fixed and visible due to his unnatural creation in contrast to the viewer’s natural creation.