Important Notes Of Essay

4 things to do before you start writing an essay

As tempting as it might be to just launch into the process of writing, there are important steps to take before actually setting pen to paper (or fingers to keyboard, as it were). These four steps in essay preparation should give you a solid footing before you start the essay-writing process.

1. Plan out your time

Plotting out a schedule for how you plan to approach writing the essay is a crucial first step. You will want to set aside time for effective brainstorming, as well as time for doing the appropriate research. You should also set aside plenty of time for the actual writing of the essay, making sure to leave a one-day gap between first and second drafts.

For an example schedule, see ‘How to plan time for essay writing’.

2. Understand the essay question

This might sound obvious, but grasping the full implications of the essay question or prompt is an important part of the process. Make sure that you set time aside to explore the meaning of the question and think about what you are being asked to do.

Another helpful way to approach an essay question is to break it down. For instance, a standard essay question might include words like analyze, contrast, and illustrate. Spelling out the meaning of these words may help in properly exploring the essay question; for instance, you might think about ‘breaking down an issue into its main features and looking at them in detail’ instead of just ‘analyzing’.

For more of these common essay words and how to better understand them, see the list on ‘How to understand the essay question’.

3. Plan and execute your research

Your research for an essay topic should be systematic rather than general. In other words, you should not worry about learning everything that has to do with the subject of your essay. You should target the information that is relevant to the essay question.

Deciding how much research is necessary for the essay is a major consideration. How many books or articles will you need to read? What sorts of online resources will you need to explore? Are there audio/visual sources that you will need to locate?

You will also want to consider what sort of primary sources you might need, and whether or not you should set aside time for gathering original data or planning museum/gallery visits.

For a list of specific research tactics, see ‘How to do research for an essay’.

4. Organize your material

At this point, you have finished with your research, and have collected all the material needed to write the essay. However, before you begin you should take a moment to step back and re-evaluate the essay question or topic. Consider your approach to the question, the main themes or ideas that are emerging, the arguments you can pursue, and the kind of evidence that you need.

Another important step is outlining the structure of the paper. You are probably aware that an essay needs an introductory paragraph, a main section, and a conclusion, but that basic format should be expanded upon in your specific essay plan. Think about creating an outline of headings for the main section based on the different themes and points you plan to touch on. You might also consider adding drafting notes under these headings to help you once you begin writing.

For more tips on how to approach outlining your essay, see ‘How to organize material for your essay’.

Next steps

Of course, planning is important, but the actual writing is, too. Visit ‘Writing essay drafts’ and ‘Top tips for writing better essays’ for further help.

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Making notes is essential. The act of writing or recording notes helps motor, visual and auditory recall. This makes the subject easier to remember. You can learn more about note-taking in the following section.

Individual styles

Everybody makes notes in their own ways. They are for your purposes so the most important aspect is that they suit your purposes. Your notes may be neat or messy, ordered lists or sprawling webs. This does not matter as long as you can make use of them.

Methods of taking notes

Headings and bullet points

This is a very common way of making notes. It is especially useful if you are making notes on a computer as you can reorganise information under new headings. The heading is the key point or a question. The bullets or list of points under it all refer to that one heading.

Double notes

These are notes where you use either two colour or two columns or two sheets of paper in order to make two connected sets of notes. The first set is a summary of what you are reading or hearing. The second set is your commentary upon the first set. This is useful for separating out other people's ideas and words from your own.

Pattern notes

These are notes that are organised around a central concept and work their way out from that idea. Each line from the centre leads you into more depth on a particular theme. Use colour and shape to make the notes distinctive. Look for a particular image formed by the final shape of the notes - or aim to develop a particular image. This will make the notes more memorable.


If you own the text, you can highlight key points and write additional information and comments in the margins or underneath. This can save time making longer notes, but is less effective for processing the information and ensuring that you understand it than other forms of notes.


It is useful to summarise your notes on any one topic or questions down to a few key points, quotes and examples. This familiarises you with the material. It also makes it easier to carry the information around to refer to on work placement or to revise for exams.


These are useful, for example for:

  • Identifying all the tasks that have to be undertaken on a particular day.
  • Noting the key themes in a book or lecture.
  • Numbering key points.
  • Being able to see what you need to do or remember very easily.
  • Identifying resources to follow up.
  • Keep a record of resources such as useful web-pages.

Keep a record of sources

It is important to keep a very good record of where you gained each piece of information so that you can find it again quickly and easily if you need to check something about it. You will also need this information when you make reference to the information in your work. If you do not state where you get ideas, material and quotations, then you may be accused of plagiarism and cheating.

Record the:

  • Author's name and initials.
  • The full name of the chapter, book or article.
  • The name of the journal for printed articles or of the book for chapters.
  • The place of publication.
  • The date of publication.
  • The publisher.
  • The shelf reference or web address.
  • It is also useful to keep a record of the ISBN number at the back of the book.

Noting down quotations

Take special care when copying quotations. To avoid plagiarism:

  • Copy only very small phrases or very short sections to quote in your work.
  • Use a different colour pen to copy these.
  • Make very few such quotes.
  • Write down details of the source of the quotation and reference these in your text and list of references.

This content has been written by Bryan Greetham, author of How to Write Better Essays.

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