Writers should plan something about their essays before sitting down to write. You might plan the writing process (the “how”) or the marketing (the “why”), if not the content of the essay itself (the “what”). It isn’t always essential that you know exactly what you’re going to write ahead of time — in fact, a research-based essay may require you to keep an open mind about the conclusions you will draw. But even if you do not yet have a conclusion, you must have a reason for wanting to write your essay, and if you know what your motivation is, you should be able to articulate a plan.
It may help to envision a different kind of art. When a sculptor works with marble, there is a finite amount of material that can only be subtracted from. The sculptor must be careful not to remove parts of the stone unintentionally, as the carving cannot be undone. By contrast, when she works with clay, she can either add or subtract material to the sculpture.
This is an imperfect analogy for writing, but it highlights the need to understand what you are working with. Have you written any parts of the essay yet, or are you beginning with a blank page? Are you planning to use quotations or facts from other sources? Are you collaborating with other writers? How much freedom do you have to choose your tone or voice? Will your essay turn an undecided argument back and forth like a pearl between your thumb and forefinger, or do you need to express certainty? How much time do you have to complete it? How many words can you use? Whether you’re working with marble or clay, figuratively speaking, has ramifications for how you approach your task.
A plan will help you finish your work on time, which keeps you and your editor or teacher happy. Your plan may include methods to keep distractions at bay. It reduces your headaches and stress because you will be able to keep track of your progress. It reassures any other writers with whom you may be working and identifies their tasks. As part of your plan, an outline of the essay itself will help you know whether you’ve accomplished the key parts of your argument and whether your paragraphs are organized coherently.
Again, having a plan does not mean that you have to be certain of your message. “It seems to me that the best fiction (or painting, or dancing, or anything) carries a message, and that the message is one of which the artist is largely unaware,” the novelist and writing coach Lawrence Block said in Writer’s Digest in March 1986. “If I have the desire to write a novel, let us say, and if I know in advance what I want to say in that novel, why on earth should I bother to write it?”
Block is saying that the writing process and the finished product can be valuable to the writer as well as to the readers. The writer does not always know what the essay will contain; it is this not-knowing, this mystery, this unconscious drive that pushes the writer to produce. When Block writes, he is driven to answer his own questions, to fill his own need. It will be impossible for a writer like Block to plan every detail of the essay. The essay will be complete when it appears to be so — not when some predetermined outline says it ought to be so.
Another potential pitfall of over-planning is that the essay can become merely instrumental toward achieving some other goal. A thought attributed to the Catholic writer Jacques Maritain is that when one writes in order to worship, or worships in order to write, both the writing and the worship fall short. The teaching means that a writer should be fully invested in the beauty, truth, and completeness of the essay itself and avoid treating the essay as a stepping-stone on the way to some other goal.
In a similar vein, an observation attributed to the philosopher Schopenhauer holds that some people think in order to write, while others write because they have thought. This is a subtle way of warning that you oughtn’t write if you have nothing to say. More specifically, you shouldn’t invest a lot of time in thinking and planning an essay just because you want to write an essay. The essay should be urged along by a genuine idea, feeling or knowledge base that calls it into being; the essay cannot spring merely from a plan to find some ideas, feelings and knowledge, or the essay will fall flat.
All things being equal, it’s better to plan. Between two equally inspired, talented, and dedicated writers, the one who plans their essay ahead will produce a more comprehensible written argument in less time.
Sticking to a plan can restrain you from “over-sharing” your opinions, feelings, or collected facts. As the playwright Thornton Wilder said, “Art is not only the desire to tell one’s secret; it is the desire to tell it and hide it at the same time.”
A plan cannot hurt if you remember that you have the freedom to change your plan if the need arises. You might discover new things you want to say, or you might need to take a break from writing to attend an unexpected distraction. What is more likely to hold you back is not having a plan at all.