Part 5: How to Plan and Structure an Essay

In this part of the Guide, we discuss how essays work and show you how to plan and structure a Band 6 essay response.

Do you struggle to get started when writing essays? Are you ensure of how to structure an essay? In this article, we’ll show you how to plan and structure an essay so you give markers what they want.


Planning and structuring an essay

In Part 5 of our Beginner’s Guide to Acing HSC English, we’ll give you a step-by-step process for producing those strong essay responses you’ve been struggling to write. Knowing how to write an essay is one of the most important skills you will need to master as an English Student. In this section, we focus on how to plan and structure an essay.

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In this article we discuss:


What’s an essay?

Essays are a means for individuals to convey detailed ideas to others. Essays usually convey a particular perspective on the issue or idea being discussed. Because of how human beings process information, we tend to apply universal conventions and structures to essays – as we do to speeches – so that our audience can understand and retain the ideas and arguments they contain.

Why do so many students find essay writing hard?

Essays can sometimes feel like vague tasks. Comments like “you haven’t answered the question” can be demoralising.

By far the most common issue in essays is using evidence effectively. They list rather than developing an argument!

Students struggle because:

  • They don’t understand their questions and how to unpack them.
  • They don’t know how to scaffold their essays.
  • They don’t know how to develop a thesis statement or topic sentence.
  • They don’t know how to use evidence effectively.
  • They don’t realise that you need to take different approaches to essay writing for practice essays and take-home assessments and in-class examinations.

Things you must do before writing your essay

Before you begin to write your essay, you need to complete the following checklist:

  1. Read and watch your texts.
  2. Analyse them according to the module.
  3. Do any additional research you need to use that knowledge to write responses.

But how do you do that? You should read Part 2 of this Guide: How to read and Analyse Texts if you are unsure.

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Once you’ve done your prep, you need to know how to write an essay to refine your ideas. But how do you actually do that? Before we show you how to write an essay you need to know how it should work and what its different parts are.

The structure of an essay

There are three main parts to an essay:

  • The Introduction
  • The Body
  • The Conclusion

The flowchart below illustrates the different components that are necessary for a Band 6 Essay:


The anatomy of an essay


Now you have visualised this structure, let’s discuss the various parts involved:

1. Introduction – Outlines your argument.
It has 2 parts:

  • Thesis – The thesis is the central argument
  • Framework – A summary of the key ideas that support the argument

2. Body – A series of paragraphs that substantiate the argument presented in the introduction.
It has three important parts:

  • Topic Sentence – Presents a key idea and connects it to the thesis.
  • Evidence -This substantiates the point you are trying to make in your topic sentence. This is the proof of your argument, this will include examples and quotations as well as explanations of why these are important. Matrix Year 11 and 12 English students learn how to write T.E.E.L paragraphs.
    • Technique – List the technique
    • Evidence – Provides examples
    • Explanation – Discusses the technique used
    • Link – Summarises the argument the evidence is supporting and connects it to the thesis statement or topic sentence.
  • Linking Statement – This summarises your paragraph and connects it to the rest of your essay.

3. Conclusion –  A summary of your argument.

You need to be succinct yet comprehensive when concluding your essay. To do this, you need these three parts:

  • Thesis – Restates the argument
  • Recap – Summarises the logic of the argument
  • Final Statement – A final statement that reinforces the argument


Why should I use this essay structure?

It helps readers follow your argument. When you employ an essay structure that uses a thesis statement, topic sentences, linking statements, and a conclusion you guide the reader through your argument. This is a very important thing to do as it allows them to follow along with your ideas and thought processes. This is a process of using signposting and framing. So let’s see what that entails and how it works:

Framing and Signposting

Essays and speeches require you to introduce your ideas/themes so the audience knows what things are going to be discussed in your arguments.

Your introductions and conclusions are framing devices. Foreshadowing your argument with an introduction and reminding the reader of your ideas with your conclusion provides readers with a clear understanding of what you have argued.

Topic sentences are signposts that work in conjunction with introductions and conclusions to guide a reader through your argument. They say to the reader, “Remember that idea from the introduction? We’re going to discuss it in detail in this paragraph.” The other signposting device is the linking statement at the end of the body paragraph. This will connect your argument back to the rest of the essay and make the connection clear to your reader.


Repetition helps convince an audience of your position. As humans, we don’t retain as much information as we think we do. Repeating ideas, and reinforcing how your examples relate to your overall thesis, will help your audience follow your argument and retain key ideas like those stated in your topic sentences and theses.


We use evidence to support our points. Audiences are sceptical, evidence allows us to give a practical demonstration of why our argument is correct. This will support our point and reinforce our key ideas and theses. Matrix English students learn how to use T.E.E.L structures to produce insightful essays.


Summaries remind audiences of the arguments they’ve been exposed to. Thus, your conclusion helps them retain the key ideas and convince them of your position.

Now you understand how essays and signposting work, it’s time to take you through the step-by-step process for writing an essay to ace English like Matrix students do.

The step-by-step process for writing an essay

An essay needs to take all of a student’s ideas and study notes and translate them into a logical and well-structured response that shows the reader your understanding and perspective of the text. There’s a step-by-step process for doing this effectively, let’s have a look at it. Below is the process for writing an essay at home or in class:

The process of writing an essay

You can see that this process is different to what you need to do in an exam. In an exam time constraints mean that you must begin with the introduction and work forwards to your conclusion. However, when you are developing your ideas, writing practice essays, or producing a longer essay as an assignment, you will plan your introduction and refine your body paragraphs before crafting the perfect introduction for your argument. In light of this difference, we will address exam essay technique after this step-by-step process.

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Step 1: Unpack the question

Planning an essay is a step-by-step process. Students need to think things through before they put pen to paper. Having thorough study notes is crucial to this. Let’s consider what this process involves:

  1. Read the question – Make sure you read the question several times to fully understand it.
  2. Unpack the question – You need to put the question in your own terms.
  3. Figure out your position – Ask yourself whether you agree or disagree with the question, and to what extent.
  4. Rough out your thesis – Jot down a rough version of your thesis.
  5. Pick your themes – Now you’ve got a rough idea of what your argument is, go through your notes and pick 3-4 themes that best support it.


Step 2: Plan your essay

Once you’ve done the unpacking, you are ready to plan things fully. Use this as an opportunity to brainstorm and choose relevant examples, you must also think about the structure you will use for your response.

  1. Pick your examples – You need 3-4 examples to support your argument in a body paragraph. because you have your notes in tables, these examples are easy to find.
  2. Mind-map your essay – Draw a map that connects your rough thesis to your themes and examples. This will give you an outline of your essay scaffold. You will be able to see what structure will work best for your question! There’s a student mind-map below:
Image: A Student’s Mindmap


  1. Choose between a divided or integrated structure – You need to decide whether to write a divided response that addresses a pair (or more) of texts in one paragraph, or to contrast text specific paragraphs against each other. There are pros and cons to each approach. We will discuss this in detail in Step 3, next.
  2. Edit, or redraft your mind-map – If you’re not happy with your map, edit it or redraft it completely. Once you’re happy with your mind-map, you’re ready to write!

Now that we’re ready to write, let’s look at how to write the essay.


Step 3: Scaffold the essay

Now you’ve planned everything in terms of ideas and examples, you must make a decision about what process you will follow to write your essay – do you begin with body paragraphs or the introduction? Then you need to decide on your essay scaffold. Let’s start by considering your approach.

Strategies for writing a practice essay

There are two different ways to go about producing a practice essay or take-home assessment. Begin with the body paragraphs or write from introduction through to conclusion. You will probably find it easier to begin with body paragraphs when you are developing your ideas and analysis and practising your writing.

When you are more confident, you may start writing from introduction through to conclusion. This is something you must practise if you want to be prepared for essays in exams.

What are these strategies:

Strategy 1: Begin with body paragraphs and topic sentences

Some students find it easier to flesh out the arguments around specific ideas first. This is a useful method for students who aren’t sure of how their ideas might fit together, or who struggle writing conclusions. This method requires students to:

  • Use their rough topic sentences from the mind-map to write their body paragraphs
  • See how their paragraphs develop an argument logically together
  • Order them appropriately for a logical argument
  • Write the introduction
  • Write the conclusion

Strategy 2: Start from the introduction and write through to the conclusion

Some students are able to write from an introduction and develop their ideas directly into body paragraphs. This is a skill all students need to have for exams. But not everybody can produce their first drafts this way.

Often, students need to develop their individual ideas to see how they fit together.

The first method is fine for writing practice essays or “take-home” assessments. But in exams, you should only use the second method (you don’t want to run out of time without an introduction or a conclusion).

As this is a practise essay, we’ll begin with the body paragraphs. We’ll discuss exam essays after we’ve worked through this step-by-step process. But first, before we continue with Step 3, we need to understand what an essay scaffold is and the differences between integrated and divided structure are.

Let’s have a quick look.

What is an essay scaffold?

When you plan an essay, you must think about how you will scaffold it. Let’s look at some of the options you have.

An important consideration for writing essays is the scaffold. When we talk about scaffolds, we mean the order in which themes or texts are discussed in an essay. Different Modules will require different approaches. A Module that requires you to compare multiple texts will need a type of scaffold that allows you to efficiently contrast and compare ideas rather than just the texts.

Let’s look at the difference between integrated and divided paragraphs.

Should I use Integrated or Divided Paragraphs?

One of the important questions students will need to answer is:

Do I write a divided or integrated response?

The two common scaffolds for the HSC are integrated or divided:

Integrated paragraphs

Integrated paragraphs discuss multiple texts around one theme in a paragraph.

  • Pros – clearly contrast texts; allow for detailed exploration of an idea; are more concise and direct in addressing comparative study.
  • Cons – difficult to write; they require students to juggle multiple texts clearly in one paragraph; easy to get sidetracked; easy to make convoluted.

Divided paragraphs

Divided paragraphs discuss one text and at least one theme in a paragraph.

  • Pros – allow for the detailed exploration of one text; keep ideas and texts neatly compartmentalised; less complex to write.
  • Cons – require additional statements that contrast the texts; easy to not adequately contrast the texts; not as concise as integrated responses.

Neither scaffold is “better” than the other, they both work and in the HSC, markers must treat both the same. You will not lose marks for using an integrated response or a divided response. You will only be marked on how well you use the scaffold. Matrix English students get detailed qualitative feedback that will help them choose the right scaffold for their assessments. Getting the scaffold right for your abilities and the content you are producing is important.

Below are a couple of single text scaffolds you might use:

Image: Scaffolds for an essay about a single text

Below are some different comparative essay scaffolds that you can use to structure your essays:

Once you have decided which scaffold will best suit your response, you are ready to start composing the body paragraphs.

In the next part of this article, we’ll step you through the writing process. We’ll give you step-by-step processes for writing your body paragraphs and then developing killer introductions and conclusions.


How to use 10-minute essay scaffolding drills to boost your English marks!

While scaffolding drills aren’t the same as writing practice essays, they are an excellent way to develop confidence for unpacking questions and structuring answers!

You should aim complete scaffold drills throughout the term. Ideally, you should be doing them at least once a week, and slowly ramping up when you are nearing your exam period. So, what are they?


What’s in a scaffolding drill:

To do a scaffold drill, to a 10 minute timer you must:

  1. Unpack the question
  2. Write your thesis statement
  3. Write your thematic framework
  4. Write a linking/module statement
  5. Write your topic sentences for your body paragraphs
  6. And, if you’ve time left on the clock) list some evidence for each body paragraph

As you can see, this a challenging amount to get done in a small amount of time – an introduction and essay plan! But this is a great way to simulate exam conditions and help you get used to thriving under exam pressure!

We have a detailed article, here, that will help you understand the process in a practical and detailed manner. Alternatively, you can watch our video where we talk you through it and discuss a worked example from Year 12 Common Module!



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