“Even a journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step.” – Laozi

This section discusses the basics of putting together an item of written work. Here we will cover how to best make your plans of attack, how to get your ideas together and how to execute a body of work that is well thought-out and has the appropriate evidence available.

Getting Started

Before beginning your work it is sometimes worth reminding yourself that the purpose of an assignment is notto torture a poor, suffering student. Indeed it is designed to provide a valuable opportunity to learn skills such as critical thinking, research, analysis, problem solving and communication.

Assignments can be challenging at the best of times and this challenge can be amplified substantially when you find yourself have difficulties with the act of writing in the first place. Never the less, a very safe place to start is to always ask yourself a few questions to ensure that you understand what it is that you are actually expected to do.

What do I need to do for this assignment?

Nothing is worse than wasted effort. The moment that you are given an assignment always make sure that you understand the instructions that have been provided and the limitations that have been set. Some of the questions you should be able to answer before you start your work include:

  • When is the submission date(s)?
  • What is the word limit?
  • Are there any special formatting or content requirements?
  • Am I required to read/cite any specific work?
  • Is there a particular structure I should be using?

If you are able to answer all of these questions then you should have a good grasp of the expectations of the assignment.

What am I being assessed on?

Assessment tasks are generally designed as an opportunity for you to demonstrated your understanding or accomplishment of certain learning outcomes. In many instances these learning outcomes will be clearly illustrated to you in your lesson materials, tutorial sessions or assignment description.

Always make sure to review the assessment criteria in the description that is provided with your assignment. This will often be found on your Learning Management System (LMS) page and may include a series of basic instructions, dates and even, in some cases, recommended reading materials. Occasionally you may even be provided with the marking rubric that will be used to assess your work after you submit it. It is critical that you make use of all of these resources in order to apply your effort appropriately when doing your work.

How does this task relate to what I am currently learning?

In most instances you will find that the assignment relates directly to topics that have been discussed during class or in tutorials. This is important because it gives you a strong indication of the range of background information that will be expected in your work. More often than not the assignment is also a way for your assessor to understand whether you have learned to apply the information that you have learned in these classroom scenarios rather than simple memorising facts and figures.

Understanding the course material that the assignment relates to will help you understand which concepts you need to re-visit and what reading you will need to do. This will give you an excellent starting point for your work.

Critical Remember: As your understanding of the expectations that are in place for each of your assignments is important for your success makes sure you speak to your lecturer as soon as possible if you need advice or don’t understand what is expected.

In most cases you will find that the information detailing the requirements of the assignment can be divided into two separate groups:

  • Instructions on what is required of you (e.g. due dates, word counts, formatting, etc.).
  • Topic information telling you what you need to write the assignment about.

If you have trouble separating the different instructions being given try using different kinds of highlighters to highlight either instructions or topics. If you find certain keywords or instructions confusing consider using a dictionary to look up the terms or approach your lecturer.

Critical Remember: This step is important as it will allow you identify specific issues you may have with the assignment requirements. You will generally find that your lecturer is better able to help you if you are able to ask specific questions about the assignment requirements (e.g. “I am unsure about whether to place my figures into the text or into the appendices…”) as opposed to very general questions (e.g. “I don’t know what to do for this assignment…”). This  will, however, mean that you need to make an effort to dissect the instructions before seeking further assistance.

Important Pro Tip: A good way of doing this is to try and re-write the question in your own words. This can help you understand the question better and may also already help you begin formulating your discussion strategy in your mind! This is also an excellent way to discuss your understanding of the assignment with your lecturer.

For example:

  • Assignment: Examine the impact of American pop-culture on the modern cultural development of Western European nations. What are the implications of this influence?
  • Paraphrase: American pop-culture has had many influences on the cultures seen today in Western European countries. What are some examples of this influence? How has it affected current-day politics? How has it affected the perception of America in Europe?

Assignments at a graduate (and particularly at a post-graduate) level are typically designed to extend beyond the confines of the standard course material that is provided to students. This mandates that students develop their understanding of the topic and subject content. This may seem tricky at first but there are a number of strategies that can be employed to make this task a little more manageable.

Don’t leave it to the last minute!

Success in writing is all about planning. Start thinking about the project the moment you are issued with the assignment details and don’t put it off. Frequently the due date offers some clue as to the complexity of the work. A longer lead-time may seem luxurious, but it usually means that the assignment requires substantially more work than something which is only due in a few days.

  • Set target date for your progress. If you know that you tend to procrastinate or have trouble motivating yourself to get work done, include achievable milestones in your calendar. These may include things such as dates for certain activities, appointments to meet with class/group mates, meetings with your lecturer or draft completion/submission dates.
  • Start accumulating your necessary references as early as possible. Borrow books from the library, download articles on your topic or conduct any necessary interviews. Some resources may be limited and delaying their acquisition may leave you without access to them.

Work with your class mates.

In many cases you will find that your fellow classmates are an invaluable resource for your success in your chosen programme of study. Not only is it likely that you are, cumulatively, likely to fill the gaps in each other’s knowledge, your classmates will likely explain topics that they understand differently to the lecturer. Often a slightly different explanation style is the difference between struggling with a topic and a moment of sudden enlightenment!

Make sure that you take the time to:

  • Form regular study groups.
  • Discuss the topic of your assignment(s).
  • Brainstorm key ideas that would be of use in doing the assignment(s).
  • Discuss your approach, trade ideas and share key resources.

Critical Remember: When trading ideas or working with others it is usually still critical that you end up doing your own work. Do not copy off your classmates. Do not obtain copies of your classmates’ work and do not disseminate your own. Your work is your own intellectual property. Sharing your work with others places you into great risk of either instigating or being the victim of collusion. This is a very serious type of academic misconduct.

Relate your work the topics covered in the current module.

Assignments are generally closely related to the content being covered in the related subject of study. Fortunately this allows you to substantially narrow the scope of the work that you need to complete and gives you import clues as to the focus of the assessment task.

Think about the module that you are currently studying:

  • Begin by identifying the lectures, tutorial or practical sessions that relate to this particular assignment.
  • Identify an particular resources that were highlighted or used during these sessions.
  • Review your notes and pay attention to the concepts and ideas that were presented by your lecturer.
  • Examine where this assignment topic fits in relation to the issues discussed in this module.
  • Consider any related topics that may strengthen your understanding of this topic.

Critical Remember: Assignments represent an opportunity to communicate your ideas to the examiner. As such you need to pay attention to how this communication is implemented. Are you using the correct terminology? Are you demonstrating your clear understanding of the theories at hand? If necessary, are providing descriptions of how your study was constructed?

Decide on how you wish to present your argument.

In many instances your assignment will required you to take a stance on a particular issue. This may, for example, relate to the review of a political issue, the justification of a moral stance or the analysis and interpretation of scientific data. While each of these requires a substantially different style of writing it is still necessary in each case to provide a convincing, evidence-based discussion of the topic.

Ultimately, your decision on how you wish to present your argument depends on the perceived pros and cons of a particular stance and whether you feel that you are able to successfully present or argue the position you have chosen. Remember, you will need evidence to support any argument you make!

While your final assignment is expected to be a well-organised piece of academic writing, the truth is that our understanding of a topic rarely exists that way in our head. It is important that you identify the information available to you before you start writing your paper.

A common way of doing this is via a technique called “brainstorming”. Brainstorming allows you to get all the knowledge you have on a particular topic down on paper so that you can have a good overview and assemble the information into a coherent discussion. It is a lot like doing a puzzle!

How do I brainstorm?

Ordinarily brainstorming is performed by focusing on just getting all your ideas on paper in no particular order. As soon as you think of something that is relevant to the topic at hand just write it down. You will be surprised at how much you already know about the topic! Sometimes you will only have a vague recollection of a particular point. Don’t worry, this is completely normal and you can just go back and look up the information later on.

A common way of brainstorming employed by many people is to construct what is known as a “mind map”. Mind maps allow you to physically connect your ideas to a central topic or set of topics. This is incredibly useful because you will be able to use this mind map later on in order to structure your assignment in a meaningful way.

Fig 1. A typical “mind map” showing a number of sub-topics and sub-sub-topics connected back to the central theme of an assignment.

As you can see in the image above, a mind map helps you group your ideas into relevant segments. Now when it comes to writing your paper it becomes much easier to do so in a structured fashion because the arrangement of your ideas has already been completed!

Mind maps may be constructed graphically (as in the image above) or in a listed topic/sub-topic text format. Try different styles of mind mapping and find what works for you. If you prefer to do your mind mapping digitally (especially if you want to collaborate with others online!) there are a number of free, and paid, applications that can help you with this process. A common free tool to achieve this is offered by MindMup.

A mind map should be one of the first things you do before starting writing. It will make the whole process much easier and will make the finished product much easier to read.

“Plans are worthless, but planning is everything.” – Dwight D. Eisenhower

When working on your assignment always bear in mind that you are not only being graded on raw content. A big portion of your grade will come from how you present your work. If you have all the facts in the world but present them in a disorganised way you are unlikely to do well.

How should I structure my work?
The answer to this question very much depends on the study area that you are writing the paper for. Assignments written for humanities disciplines will often have a substantially different structure as compared to science papers. It is important that you understand the expected structure for your work before starting work on your draft. For more details on how to generally style your work towards a particular study area do see the section on “Discipline specific writing styles.”

Regardless of the writing style it is important that you plan things in the correct manner. Ask yourself some questions:

  • When is my assignment due?
  • When must I complete/submit my draft by?
  • Do I understand the instructions?
  • Do I know what writing style to use?
  • Am I clear on the topic?
  • Have I brainstormed my knowledge on the topic?
  • Do I know what my best sources of information are?

Putting together a robust plan will also help you identify areas where you are unclear or and will allow you to ask your tutor or lecturer for assistance where necessary.

During the planning stages of your assignment you will likely find that you already know a good deal about the topic that you are going to be working on. Never the less, it is also likely that there are a number of areas where you may feel that you have gaps in your knowledge and simply do not know how to expand or build on a particular point. In addition you will need to gather evidence that supports the arguments that you will make in your assignment. Since doing your own research on the topic at hand is of critical importance writing an assignment is a learning experience. The idea is to assemble a body of work that demonstrates your understanding of the topic while simultaneously providing the reader a description of the sources you have used in order to educate yourself on the topic. As such this means that it is important that you can demonstrate that you have obtained your information from trustworthy sources.

Where do I find reliable information?

Finding good information from reliable sources is one of the challenges of academic writing. The good news is that the internet has made information much more readily available to anybody who seeks to acquire it. The bad news is that the vast majority of information available through web sources is opinionated, biased, unreliable or even fabricated – hardly good material for supporting an academic article. This means that common web resources such as Wikipedia, YouTube, blogs and opinion pieces are not generally regarded as being a valid form of evidence. Learning to identify reliable sources of information is one of the core aspects of tertiary education.

In most instances you will be searching for peer-reviewed articles to support your statements. “Peer-reviewed” means that the article was reviewed and approved by one or more experts in the field of publication prior to it being accepted by the publisher. This process substantially improves the confidence you may have in the information presented in such articles and makes them useful sources of evidence for your assignment. There are a number of locations where such articles may be located (e.g. Google Scholar or PubMed) but more often than not you may find yourself accessing such publications via your university’s library page.

When putting your work together it can be very helpful to ensure that you approach writing your report in a structured way. Above all it is important that your report matches the appropriate structure and style required by your assessor.

Things to pay attention to.

While the particular requirements for your assigned piece of work may vary there are some general things that you should consider paying attention to.

Topic

This mainly involves making sure that you have answered the question that the assignment calls for.

Abstract

An abstract may not always be necessary, but if it is it usually follows a very particular style:

  • It states the topic/question you have been asked.
  • It provides a brief/general answer to the question.
  • It provides a brief/general outline of your methodology.
  • It outlines the main findings of your research.
  • It outlines the main conclusion of your study.

Critical Remember: An Abstract should always be the last thing that you write for your report. This will make it much easier to structure it in relation to the points above.

Introduction

Your introduction is one of the most important parts of your assignment. Here you need to cover several things:

  • Provide a context for your research. What is the background? Why are you investigating this?
  • Set the focus for your work. What is the scope of your assignment?
  • Provide necessary background information with strong links to the available literature.
  • Include any key terms that the reader should know before proceeding to the rest of your report.
  • Provide a statement or summary that outlines your argument.

Main Body

The main body of your report will vary substantially depending on the style of your report. A literature review may simply cover content, whereas a scientific paper may cover materials, methods used and results of a study. Make sure use a appropriate style.

Some simple things to pay attention to may include ensuring that:

  • Each paragraph has topic and closing sentences.
  • Each paragraph explores a single idea and concept.
  • Each discussed idea has the appropriate evidence (citations) associated with it.
  • Statements are made with an appropriate level of certainty.
  • Appropriate terminology is correctly used.
  • A connection exists between individual paragraphs/concepts.
  • The writing style is appropriate.
  • The writing is done in your own words, not copied from an external source.

Pro Tip: If you have completed the mind-map portion of your preparation it can help separate your content into logical sections. This will make writing your report in a coherent manner much easier.

Discussion and Conclusion

Your discussion is the “sibling” of your introduction. These two sections should directly connect to each other and provide a coherent overview of your work. Indeed, where the introduction sets the stage for the context of your report, the discussion is your opportunity to tie all of your evidence together and provide a rational appraisal of what this means in context to the literature.

Some things to consider include:

  • Making sure you provide a summary of all of your arguments.
  • Ensuring that your discussion addresses and closes any questions proposed in your introduction.
  • Making sure you have sufficient references to back up your final comments.
  • Ensuring that you have answered the major question/topic of the assignment.
  • Ensuring that you have an appropriately phrased closing statement.

Referencing

Referencing is a critical component of successful academic writing. As such it is important that special care is taken when checking this aspect of your report.

Some things to consider include:

  • Making sure you have provided your citations and references in the correct format.
  • Making sure you have used sufficient references to support each of your statements.
  • Ensuring you have avoided copying directly from your sources.
  • Making sure that all quotations are in inverted commas.
  • Ensuring that your reference list is in the correct format (numbered or alphabetical).

More information on correct referencing can be found here.

Presentation and Formatting

The presentation and formatting of your report is important not just because it is required in order to meet certain academic standards (journals, for example, have very strict formatting requirements for articles accepted for publication) but also because it reflects on the care and effort taken to prepare the assignment. Poor formatting generally leads to a poor reader experience and will likely cost you marks.

Some things to consider here include:

  • Making sure you have used the correct grammar and tenses throughout the report.
  • Ensuring that you have used a cover sheet with the necessary information included (your name, the lecturers name, the subject name, the date, the title of the report, etc.).
  • Making sure that the page formatting is correct (margin widths, header/footer content, justified vs left-aligned justification, etc.).
  • Ensuring that you have used the correct fonts (font type, line spacing, font size, etc.).

Pro Tip: Many of the stylistic elements of your report may be described in the assignment instructions or the grading rubric (if you have been given access to it). Make sure to have these instructions within easy reach as you work on your assignment!

While it may be tempting work on your assignment right down to the last minute, doing so will deprive you of the valuable opportunity to review your work before submitting it. In addition to leaving sufficient time for the review of your submission, many online platforms that you may use for the submission of your work may require several hours to days to give you feedback (such as similarity reports) so it is important to be organised and leave yourself enough time to review your assignment.

At very least you should give yourself 24 hours to go over your work one more time so that you are able to review your draft with fresh eyes before submitting it for examination.

Some things to focus on:

Some common issues that may cost you marks in your assignment may include:

  • Typing and spelling errors that may garble your message or convey a lack of care in the preparation of your work.
  • Errors in grammar.
  • Errors in punctuation.
  • Missing citations/references.

Pro Tip: Due to the familiarity you will have you with your assignment (having written it yourself) it may be extremely difficult to catch spelling/grammatical errors in your text if you just read it quietly. A good way to catch these errors is to read your work out aloud! This will slow down your reading speed and will help you catch errors that you may otherwise have missed.