Skip to main content

Critical Essays: Planning for success

Watch this to understand the power of effective planning in Higher English essays (and how to avoid a tailspin)

search thinkfour.

When I was on holiday with my family in Australia, my brother desperately wanted me to go with him on a helicopter flight around the Kings Canyon in the Northern Territory.

I was horrified and terrified. My brain went into overdrive: how prepared was this pilot? Did he know where he was going? Had he thought about how much fuel he was going to need? Had he checked the weather? Was this helicopter going to fall out of the sky? I needed the pilot to have thought of EVERYTHING.

And that’s exactly what you need to do before you start writing a critical essay for English.

You need to have thought through every part of the journey before you put pen to paper, or else you will simply spin out of control and not get to your destination.

So let’s get planning.

This is thinkfour.

Planning is something that lots of students hate doing. You only have 45 minutes to write an essay, and planning everything you are going to say is just a waste of time, right? WRONG.

You cannot start an essay hoping you know where it is going, because, chances are, you won’t know where it is going without some planning. If you don’t think carefully before you begin, you could end up getting half way through the essay and running out of ideas or realizing you have spent too long on one idea, only to run out of time to fully explain your other ideas. Trust me, starting to write your essay without a plan is a recipe for disaster.

So, to begin with, let’s think about the structure. I always think of essays as having a six-part structure.

We start with the introduction, then we have sections 1, 2 ,3 and 4, followed by the conclusion.

Of course, you may choose to have a different number of sections in the main body of your essay but, for me, four always seems about right.

So let’s look at what makes up a section. Within each section you need the following:
A topic sentence and
2 PCEE paragraphs

PCEE stands for Point, Context, Evidence and Explanation. This is a way of structuring your paragraph, to ensure that you write in detail and include all the crucial elements.

There are a few variations used by teachers across Scotland, such as PEA (Point, Evidence, Analysis) or PEEL (Point, Evidence, Explanation, Link). Just use the version you have been taught.

So overall, you are writing 4 topic sentences and 8 PCEE paragraphs in the main body of your essay.

Now you have that skeleton structure, you need to think about how to flesh it out.

If you have chosen your question carefully and already considered what you are going to write about, that is a great start to the planning process. The question is central when planning.

To begin with, you need to think about what you are going to be writing about. What has the question asked you to do? The second part of the question usually gives you some guidance, so make sure you follow it. If it asks you to start in a particular place, for example, explain the concluding scene, then do it.
When I plan, I start with the main body of the essay.

What are the four main ideas I want to get across in my four topic sentences? You don’t need to write these in full in your plan, but have a good idea what they will be about.

Then, I plan what quotations I will use within each section. Again, you don’t need to write out the quotes in full but give yourself a reminder by using some of the key words.

If I am doing ok for time, I usually try and write down a few key words I am going to use in my introduction (best to use the key words from the question).
If you have any time left, have a think about what far-reaching comments you might make.

And that’s it!

Choosing the question and planning your essay should take about 5 minutes. I know that may sound like a long time considering you only have 45 minutes to write the whole thing, but time spent planning and thinking at the start, saves you time in the long run. It means you know what you are going to say, and you know where the essay is going.
Outro: 30-40seconds [approx]

So never underestimate the importance of planning. It could be the difference between a well-structured, thoughtful and relevant essay and a totally disastrous one.

And as for that helicopter trip, despite being told it was very safe, I just wasn’t that confident that the pilot had planned for every eventuality and I’m really not fond of disasters, especially when they involve me.

This was thinkfour, thanks for watching.