Essay plans can be extremely useful tools, not just for students but for anyone dealing with complex and detailed materials. They can help us organise our ideas, decide how the different parts of the essay relate to each other, what the relative weight of different sections of the essay should be, how to integrate what we have read to what we want to say and clarify what our own contribution to the topic will be.

In this section:

An example of a successful essay plan

An example of a poor essay plan

An example of one of my own plans

The first example is taken from the work of one of the MA students at the University of Keele. The student was working on the second chapter of her dissertation.  I am very grateful to this student for kindly allowing me to use her work to illustrate these points. The example of a poor essay plan is made up, please note that only positive examples are real examples taken from the work of actual students, examples of how not to do things are made up by me. The third example is my own plan for a paper that is published in Res Publica.

An example of a successful essay plan

Comments in italics are the supervisor's comments to the student. Comments in italics and underlined are my commentary on the interaction between supervisor and student.


Dear XXX,

this is a very good plan. It is well structured and detailed. It indicates how you will use what you have read and develops an in-depth discussion. I know you worked hard to pull it all together and at times it seemed as if there were too many ideas out there, but this plan is very clear and coherent and I think you will find that writing the chapter is very easy now.

Your supervisor

Plan for Chapter 2:

Surrogate decision making: the rights and duties of parents.

Notice how the student organizes her thoughts around headings, this makes it a lot easier to see which ideas fall under which sections and how the sections should be structured to relate to each other.

Discussions about parenting tend to divide into “rights based“ discussions and “welfare based” discussions. In this chapter I will discuss the philosophical basis of parenting and parental rights in general. I will leave the detailed examination of the “best interests of the child” for the next chapter. Both chapters contain the concept of a spectrum between what is desirable or optimal in the care of a child, what is “good enough “ or adequate  care and what is considered to be inadequate.

Good point.

Because the student mentions her ideas in detail, the supervisor is able to pick out good ideas, which gives the student hints as to which thoughts she should expand on.

Thresholds for outside intervention are defined when the child is thought to be at “risk of significant harm” but the exact judgement about this is shared between health professionals, social workers and courts. 

2.1 What is surrogate decision making?

JS Mill - weak paternalism allowable for those who lack capacity eg children.

Yes, this is a good point and one which is often overlooked. Mill’s remarks on autonomy are only meant to apply to mature adults in full possession of their faculties, so whatever the objections one may have against Mill, that he had a silly view of the capacity of children is not one of them.

Student illustrates that she has read the relevant literature and has found an appropriate place for it in her argument. The supervisor can the ‘encourage’ this line of thought which will lead to a draft chapter richer in detail and in-depth discussion.

Previously expressed wishes, substitute judgements do not apply to children.

Yes, also good point as children do not have a ‘previous self’ so we have to rely on basic assumptions (as you say below) about what is good for human beings in very general terms.

Notice how the supervisor can help the student link the ideas (by suggesting this point be linked to what is said below). The plan needs to have sufficient detail for the supervisor to be able to do this, then the student can take this on-board and the draft chapter will have good links between different arguments.

Basic assumptions- child wants to grow up happy and well as possible

Ethical principles: future as well as current well being, future personhood.

A surrogate decision maker must determine the highest net benefit amongst the available options

Good. Benefits here are construed broadly, e.g. not just the avoidance of physical harms, but also preserving function, preserving future options, etc. (of course there is a big question about whether the obligation is to merely preserve or to actually enhance, but I think this won’t be directly relevant to your topic).

Here the supervisor is able to indicate how this idea can be expanded and to what extent it should be expanded, giving specific guidance to the student.

2.2 Children’s rights and paternalism.

Feinberg – children have rights of welfare more than liberty. Weak paternalism morally justifiable.

Nuffield Council Public Health Ethics Report Nov 2007 – “libertarian paternalism"

2.3 Parenthood, parental rights and obligations.

Page – status of parenthood beyond rearing children, role and importance of being a parent to structure of society.  Ruddick 1979 – parents as “providers of life prospects” for their children. Children nolonger  seen as parental “property”. Gillick judgement. (Brazier 2003). Guardians or care takers.

Yes, note how this is an ‘open-future’ type approach. The role of parents, it is claimed, is to keep options and opportunities open so that children can exercise their autonomy as adults and make their own choices.

Because the student makes such good reference to the ideas in the literature, the supervisor is able to help her with identifying the kinds of approaches out there.

Parental altruism - eg consent for non therapeutic research of no benefit to child but only minimal risk of harm. (Wood Harper p48).

Do you think it makes sense to be altruistic on behalf of someone else? Remind me to talk about this when we meet.

Now the supervisor can draw on points that should be discussed in the meeting.

2.4 Do parents have a right to privacy?

Support for allowing parents to rear children according to their beliefs and standards up to threshold of “risk of significant harm”. Basis of Children Act 1989. Human Rights Act section 8 (1) and (2). Cannot abuse or neglect children due to their own beliefs.

Right to family life (Human Rights Act) seems very relevant here. How should we interpret this right in light of the parental duties you have outlined above?

The supevisor can encourage the student to make links with earlier parts of the essay.

2.5  What is the role of the state in terms of children?

Children collectively as social assets, citizens of the future. Investment of education and social support in order for children to become economically viable. Financial and societal costs of criminal/judicial systems if childhood nurturing fails.

A liberal state will seek to promote policies designed to minimise ill health which is an obstacle to independence and personal autonomy. (Nuffield Council CBi 2.10, p 15). 

2.6 When does the state have a role in limiting/over riding parental autonomy?

JS Mill “Classical harm principle” ( Nuffield bioethics 2007 2.13, p 16) .

State can rightfully intervene to protect children. 

Threshold of harm: The state expects children to be nurtured in loving stable environments where they are allowed to thrive physically and emotionally. State can intervene only when threshold crossed.

Mill supported compulsory education. (Guttman, Nuffield Council  etc). Parental fines.

Say more on this idea, especially linking it with what you have said above. Why would one want to be in favour of compulsory education? How does this link with claims about the duties of parents to provide life prospects for their children.

Again it is only because the plan is detailed that the supervisor can give advice on possible links and areas where the argument can be expanded further.

Courts- contact and custody disputes.

Sliding scale of weak to strong paternalism shown in state intervention in abuse/neglect eg parental education/support, formal registration or removal . Intervention itself not neutral - may be damaging. .

Onora ONeill – perfect obligations of parents vs backup obligations of state when things go wrong. State has no right to intervene if parents do not act in child’s interests at all times.

For specific legal examples, see Chapter 3.

Very nice sign-posting, leaving some ideas for a later chapter thus making sure this discussion isn’t overwhelmed.

2.7 The role of the family and state.

In communitarian terms, the family is viewed as an intermediary unit between the individual child and the state. Less emphasis on individual rights or autonomy. (B&C 363).

Duty of care to community in which one lives, justice of sharing risk if common benefits, private duty to the common good. (B&C pages 362-369.)  Collective responsibility (Wood-Harper 2005).

2.8 The role of experts and professionals dealing with children

Potential conflict of deontological duty to individual child and consequentialist duty to “common good” of wider public health needs.

In non life threatening situations, health professionals cannot undertake medical interventions in children without the valid consent of parent. 

Page – superior expert knowledge does not supersede parental wishes unless at legal stage.

2.9  Consent, dissent and forms of influence

Conditions for valid consent – capacity (parents), voluntary, information. No test of understanding.

How is valid dissent different – is not information also needed to make a valid negative decision ? Display autonomy as opposed to non-engagement.

Scale of influence – persuasion eg education,

               manipulation eg altering/ biasing facts,

               coercion – impact on personal autonomy and future relationships of trust etc.

Nuffield Council “Ladder of Intervention” from doing nothing, giving advice, enabling choice, incentives, disincentives, coercion etc.  Nov 2007.

I wonder if this section, 2.9, is best suited after the next chapter (or within the next chapter).

This is one of the best ways to use your supervisor: if you give details of everything you want to say he can advise you on what is feasible for any one chapter. Instead of wasting time trying to squeeze this idea into this chapter, this student can concentrate on developing an in-depth discussion of relevant ideas here and leave section 2.9 for the next chapter.

Having argued that the state does have a responsibility in protecting its children, I will now examine the determination and implications of decision-making based on the “Best interests of the Child”.


An example of a poor essay plan

This is a made-up example, i.e. not one produced by a real student but one made-up by me to illustrate a point. Please note that in order to make this point I will be very frank in my criticism of this plan. Supervisors will take a much more encouraging and supporting approach to giving feedback, but I am being very blunt here as this is not a real student and we are using this plan to think about what a good plan should be like.

Imagine you are the supervisor and you receive this plan for your student’s first dissertation chapter, what will you say in response given that you want to help the student as much as possible?

“Autonomy: the Guiding Principle of Medicine

Autonomy is one of the ‘building blocks’ of the illustrious profession of medicine, having a central role in the practice of health care from ancient times to today. It is clear that respect for autonomy is one of the central tenets of medical practice and many authors state this: “Autonomy is the first principle amongst many” (Wikipedia).

Many interesting and difficult questions are raised by autonomy and the answer, as is usual in ethics, is never black or white but shades of grey:

  • do children have autonomy?
  • many people disagree on what is best, who decides?
  • autonomy must always respect others as ends
  • we must give patients full information but then if they want to harm others should this information be disclosed for the public good? What does autonomy require in such cases?

In this chapter I will consider these and many other difficult questions on autonomy and conclude that we must be careful in our answers as these are complex issues.”

Spend a few minutes thinking about how you would help this student before reading further.

It seems to me that the supervisor’s hands are tied here by this plan:

  • The plan is too brief to give the supervisor a good enough idea of what the student wants to work on, so he has nothing to go on to base his feedback on.
  • Despite being too brief, much of the plan is taken up by platitudes (‘building blocks’ etc) which reveal nothing about the details of the arguments the student wants to rely on.
  • The plan lacks a thesis. It does not have a point of view, a position, an idea or an approach it wants to defend or attack, and by extension it does not say what specific arguments will be used to make this case. This can be a real problem for the draft chapter, as it will end up being disjointed and un-focused.
  • The plan does not mention any relevant literature in any significant depth so the supervisor cannot advise on what else to read along that vein, or on how some ideas have been mis-interpreted, or on how some arguments link to others, etc.
  • By handing in such a brief plan this, imaginary, student has ensured that none of the issues relating to relevance, focus, depth of argument and validity of argument have been dealt with here, and these are problems that will merely ‘stick around’ to re-appear at the draft chapter.


An example of one of my own plans

Plans are not just for students, everyone uses them!! Plans are not part of an evil conspiracy by supervisors to ‘torture’ their students. We strongly advise studentsto use plans because doing all the hard work for the plan means less work for the essay. We use them ourselves to organise our ideas when we write articles and lectures. Below is an example of one of my plans for an article which was published in Res Publica.

Note how headings are very clear, they can then be used in the finished paper to help the reader orient himself in the argument. Clever use of headings, underlining, bold, etc. can help clarify the different sections and how they relate to each other. Note how there are references to specific arguments I want to use, e.g. the work of J.S. Mill. This helps me connect all the reading I have done to the paper I am writing as I am finding a place for all the ideas I want to use, I know what work I want them to do and in what order. Note how I am also trying to state my own ideas at this stage. The outline should make it clear what it is that I will be arguing for, in what order, using what kinds of ideas, etc.

The Role of Consent in Sado-Masochistic Practices


Introduce the R. v Brown (1993) case: convicted under the Offences Against the Person Act (1861) for assault, despite their consent to the acts.

Discuss some background considerations which will support my case:

The Importance of Consent:

J.S. Mill on autonomy and self-determination; the individual is the best judge of what is in his/her own interests. Establish that society should not intervene in self-regarding or consensual acts.

The Nature of Consent:

Requirements for consent: Rationality, free, voluntary and knowingly. Consent is specifc.

Consent and the Law:

“To one who has consented no harm is done”.


some harms are too grave to be consented to,

some consensual acts violate standards of social decency.

Apply these thoughts to this specific case by discussing each one of the main arguments raised by the Court:

Consent and Sado-masochism

(a) ‘Known exceptions’

  • Sport: rules and referees. Reply: not significant; consent is significant, rules and referees clarify and regulate consent. SM also involves rules.
  • Sport: use of violence is unintentional and incidental. Reply: implausible for some sports, e.g. boxing. Similar argument for SM: the object of SM is enjoyment, the violence is a means to this.
  • Parental chastisement: assumed consent as parents are acting in the interests of child. Surgery on unconscious patient: assumed consent as surgeon is acting in the interests of the patient. Reply: SM consent is explicit. Hidden premise: it is reasonable to inflict harm on a consenting individual in the interests of his health, correction, for another person’s benefit, in the interests of vanity or his career but not for the purpose of sexual gratification.

(b) The use of violence for sexual gratification

  • What is the purpose of the violence? Assault: maliciously, against the person’s interests and wishes. SM: in accordance with the person’s wishes and to cause pleasure.
  • Pain and Pleasure: the connection between pain and dislike is not a logical one. We do get pleasure out of some pains e.g. emotionally upsetting film.

(c) Violence and the law

  • Rape: not a sexual act, but an act of violence expressed through sex; lack of consent is crucial.
  • SM: not a violent act, but an act of sex expressed through violence, presence of consent is crucial.

Remaining Objections

  1. Masochists are mad, sadists are bad.
  2. Sport is ‘manly diversion’, SM is depraved and disgusting.
  3. How do we police SM practices should they become legal?
  4. What is consent is withdrawn during SM?
  5. Should SM be legal if it results in extreme harm or death?
  6. SM causes harm to society.


The Courts were wrong to uphold the original conviction, consent is an adequate defence for such practices.