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Planning and Structuring Assignments

When writing an assignment, the hardest part is often getting started! This online guide covers the key principles of planning your work, including guidance on making sense of assessment criteria along with template structures and paragraphs.

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Steps to planning your writing

Planning is an essential part of writing a successful assignment and ensuring you reach your full potential. Key benefits to a clear plan are that it:

  • Helps you to manage and make efficient use of your time
  • Ensures that you understand and appropriately fulfil the assignment criteria
  • Makes the writing process easier and helps you to produce a coherent and well-structured assignment.
     

At the start of writing your assignments, it is helpful to create a schedule to help organise your time and break the assignment process up into manageable chunks. Your schedule should include:

  • Analysing the question
  • Research, reading and note taking
  • Planning your answer
  • Writing the first draft
  • Time to meet with your tutor or module lead (if needed)
  • 1st edit, further research, amendments
  • Proofing and formatting
  • Submit!

Understanding the assignment

What type of assignment is it?

It’s crucial to understand what type of assignment you are being asked to produce – is it an essay, a literature review, a report, annotated bibliography, or a piece of reflective writing? Each type of assignment has different conventions and will have different requirements to be successful.

To find a definition of your assignment type, search our glossary.

Understanding the title

Break down your question to make sure you understand what is being asked of you and what your focus should be.

Questions can usually be split into three sections:

  1. Instruction words – these will guide/instruct you in how you should approach addressing the question. A list of definitions for commonly used instruction verbs can be downloaded at the bottom of this box.
  2. Topic words – these will tell you the primary subject of the assignment and may draw your attention to an aspect of the subject that should be given consideration in your response.
  3. Limiting words – these function as restrictions that help narrow the scope of the question and focus your response.

Let’s look at an example:

To what extent has Batman contributed to reducing crime in Gotham City?

The green topic words give us our focus – these can be used as key search terms in Library Search as a way of kickstarting your research on the topic. The red term acts as a restriction – if we started to write about how Batman’s actions had impacted crimes in neighbouring cities, or on a national scale, this would fall outside of the boundaries of the question, and therefore would not gain any marks in this particular assignment.

Question the question

Once you understand the assignment type and have analysed the question, there are a few more questions you should ask:

  • Are there key concepts/theories that you will need to define?
  • Are there particular aspects of the topic that you want to emphasise?
  • If you are required to make a judgement, or give a verdict on something, how will you make this decision?
  • Are you going to impose any of your own limiting factors? (This can be a helpful way of focusing a very broad question topic. You can impose your own limiting factors by including them in the introduction of your essay)

Practical considerations

Finally, there are a few practical considerations before you start your essay plan:

  • What’s the word count?
  • What’s the referencing style? For help with APA referencing look here [insert hyperlink]
  • How am I being asked to present my work? Can I include subheadings? What are the requirements for font and size?

It’s useful to know these from the start to save time making changes later in the process.

Planning your content

Prior knowledge and resources

As you start to plan your answer, the first step should be to consider what you already know about the topic. Think about what has been covered in your lectures/seminar/labs/reading – you may already have quite a lot of relevant information to help you. Likewise, check to see if there are any online reading lists available as these are a very useful starting point.

Top tip: Widen your search
Create a list of synonyms or alternative terms to use in Library Search to widen your search. For example, rather than just searching for Batman, you could include terms like ‘superhero’ or ‘crime fighter’ to broaden your search and find other relevant articles that influence your ideas on the topic. Find out more about searching the Library Gateway using the Hallam Library help pages


From here you should have a good idea of what
aspects of the question you will need to research in greater detail and where to focus your reading.

When you are reading, your note taking should be an active process. This means engaging with the text rather than just being a passive reader mindlessly highlighting large chunks of text. Here are some key tips to make sure you are an active reader/note-taker:

  • Keep your notes selective and concise
  • Write notes in your own words as this will help your understanding of the topic
  • If you do want to use any direct quotations, keep them short and purposeful. Also, remember to note down the page number straight away so you don’t struggle to find it later!
  • Look out for links between what you are reading and what you’ve previously read - do authors agree/disagree? Are theories/models well supported/poorly supported? Are there key challenges?
  • Use sub-headings to organise your notes as this well help when you come to write your essay plan.
  • Don’t be afraid of making your notes memorable – use colours, underlining and highlighting to draw attention to important information.

For more information, visit our online study guides to critical writing and effective reading.

Throughout this process you should try to reflect on your position in relation to the question and start thinking about what your conclusion might be. This is especially important for questions that are looking for you to give your verdict or opinion on a topic/debate. To help support this it can be useful to try and sum up your argument in one or two short sentences; this helps to ensure that your argument is clear and will help keep your response well-structured and coherent once you start writing.

Structuring your answer

Now that you’ve completed your reading, it’s time to structure your writing:

  1. Establish links between different parts of your reading through mind-mapping or identifying common themes.
  2. Create headings to organise your links – these will become the basis for your paragraphs.
  3. Start to structure these headings into a logical order and consider how you will order and use these examples to construct and support your response to the assignment.
  4. There are several different ways you can structure your response, and this might be dependant on what your assignment is asking you to do. For example, if your assignment is organised around themes it might be structured something like this:

Introduction (about 10% of the total word count)

  • Introduce topics, key terms, debates
Theme 1 (about 30% of the word count)
  • Explanation
  • Evidence for
  • Evidence against
  • Evaluation/discussion
Theme 2 (about 30% of the word count)
  • Explanation
  • Evidence for
  • Evidence against
  • Evaluation/discussion
Theme 3 (about 20% of the word count)
  • Explanation
  • Evidence for
  • Evidence against
  • Evaluation/discussion
Conclusion (about 10% of the word count)
  • Summary of main points
  • Future directions

Alternatively, if you were contrasting two theories it might look like this:

 

General introduction to theory A and B (about 10% of the word count)

  • Introduce topics, key terms, debates between the theories

Theory A (about 30% of the word count)

  • Overview
  • Evidence for/against
  • Evaluation/discussion

Theory B (about 30% of the word count)

  • Overview
  • Evidence for/against
  • Evaluation/discussion
Synthesis section comparing relative strengths and weaknesses of both theories (about 20% of the word count)

Conclusion

  • Summary of main points
  • Future directions

Of course, these aren’t the only ways to structure your writing and it’s likely that you will need to adapt your plan for each assignment depending on what is required. However, remember that a plan should always help to organise your content so that your response is clear, coherent and well-structured. 

Writing your answer

In the same way that essays have a clear structure (introduction, main body, conclusion), the paragraphs within your essay should also follow a pattern. Considering how you structure your paragraphs is important as it helps to improve the clarity of your writing by presenting your chosen evidence and subsequent critical response in a clear and effective way.

Paragraphs should be TIED together:

  • Topic sentence – The first sentence of your paragraph should introduce the main topic, theme or next step of your argument. It should summarise what the reader can expect from your paragraph. If the paragraph links directly to the question or assessment criteria you’ve been set, think about what key words make this clear to the reader.
     
  • Introduce evidence - Before discussing your evidence, it is helpful to signpost to the reader what aspect of the literature you will talk about in more detail. This can be achieved by drawing their attention to something interesting or contextually important that will be relevant in the following section of the paragraph.
     
  • Evidence – This is where you introduce references and highlight how these support your argument. You could also include counterpoints to your position within this section (and why these challenges are not upheld) or you could have this as a separate paragraph – the choice is up to you!
     
  • Discussion – Your paragraph should end with your interpretation of the evidence and how this links back to the assignment topic. Within these sentences you may explore ideas such as relevance, significance, impact and future directions – for more help with this, check out our guide to critical writing [insert hyperlink]

Let’s look at this in an example:

"As noted by Alexander (2017), talk has always been an essential component of teaching, and, consequently, learning. Evidence has demonstrated that talking about prose can enhance written responses to texts through increasing student confidence about qualities such as character, theme, and motifs (Coultas, 2006). Despite this however, the most recent version of the National Curriculum has hugely decreased the role of speaking and listening; this includes even going so far as to remove speaking and listening from formal assessment in GCSE specifications. Furthermore, as noted by Yandell (2013), this has included moving the focus of talk as a collaborative experience to only being on the speaker, thus relegating listening as a key skill. Parallel to this, the types of talk discussed within the classroom has considerably narrowed, to the extent that what students now understand as spoken English, is little more than public speaking. Consequently, teachers are now faced with the responsibility of instilling the foundational skills of speaking and listening in students at an earlier age, to ensure that they have the necessary skills to navigate the complex social world.

Signposting language

Linking your ideas

Signposting language is also a key part of academic writing. Signposts are words or phrases that show a link between two ideas and can also be used to signal transition in your writing. This helps to make your writing more coherent and avoids any jarring changes of topic that leave your reader struggling to understand the connection between two paragraphs. Likewise, you can use signposting to develop your argument by identifying ideas that support or contrast one another, or ideas/findings that have built upon the outcomes of prior work. Ultimately, signposting helps to show the reader the structure of your argument and the direction of your response.

In terms of your planning and structuring, you should think carefully about to use signposting language to link the ideas between your paragraphs, signal key transitions develop your argument. Some examples are included below:

To reference other parts of your essay

  • As noted above
  • As previously stated,
  • Given the evidence outlined earlier in the essay

To introduce a supporting point

  • Likewise,
  • In the same way,
  • Similarly,
  • Relatedly,

To introduce a contrasting point

  • Against this,
  • A clear challenge for
  • By contrast
  • Although

To introduce reason/outcomes

  • Consequently,
  • Taken together the evidence seems to suggest
  • Accordingly,
  • As such,

To introduce a conclusion

  • As this essay has demonstrated
  • From the evidence detailed here, it seems that
  • In summary,
  • In conclusion,

 

More examples of signposting words and phrases:
Signposting phrases, UEA 
Manchester Academic Phrasebank, University of Manchester