Planning Essays and Assignments


Written assignments are an important part of university education. They give you a chance to exercise your skills at assessing evidence, developing and evaluating arguments, and expressing your views. On many courses essays are a major component of the marks.

Students often find the task of sitting down to write an assignment quite daunting. But, as you'll see from the list of contents for this section, writing comes quite late in the process. This page covers planning your essay:

1. Read the question
2. An assignment with a general title
3. Decoding essay questions
4. Researching for assignments
5. Structuring essays
6. Essay outlines

Further pages cover the writing process:

7. Writing the assignment
8. Writing the first draft
9. The second draft

and writing scientifically:

10. Writing about science
11. Writing scientific reports


1. Read The Question

People often tell you to Read The Question. With assignment topics this is crucial. What does the question ask you to do?

Does it ask you to:

discuss = put the case for and against a proposition, and end with some statement of your own position.

compare = list, in an extended way, points of similarity between two or more subjects.

contrast = list points of difference between two or more subjects.

consider or evaluate = describe the subject and say how effective you think it is.

summarise = put together all you know about a topic.


2. An assignment with a general title

You may be given a general title, such as Public Transport. An assignment on this topic needs:

A definition: What is public transport?

Advantages: What are the advantages of public transport?

Problems: What problems are caused by, or encountered by, public transport systems?

Your opinion: Your opinion about the need to expand, subsidise, abolish public transport; whatever standpoint you wish to take.

These four components form part of any general essay.


3. Decoding essay questions

Before you start writing an assignment at university you will need to do some research. And in order to do that, you need to be certain of what the question asks you to do.

Here's an example of an essay question and a way to decode it: Mentally disordered offenders should be the responsibility of Health rather than the Criminal Justice System. Discuss.

Box: Put a box around the activity words - what does the question ask you to do? Here it's 'Discuss'.

Underline: Underline the key things which the question asks you to discuss. Here it's 'Mentally disordered offenders... responsibility... Health... Criminal Justice System'.

Other words: Glance back at the words which aren't underlined. Does it make a difference if you include them? That little word 'should' makes a big difference to the meaning.

Grid: It may help to make a grid into which to put your research findings:









Criminal Justice System




As your reading uncovers facts that support the different sides of the argument, note them in the appropriate square. Use colour coding and arrows to show words which are closely linked.


4. Researching for assignments


When you have read the question and decoded it, check your department's guidelines:

  • How long should the assignment be?
  • What is the deadline?
  • What other requirements are there (presentation, referencing, bibliography, etc.)

Select materials

Keep the question in mind as you start to select materials. Start with basic reading:

  • Lecture notes
  • Handouts
  • Relevant chapters in core texts.

More detailed texts

When you are familiar with the basics, go on to more detailed texts:

  • Articles in journals
  • Texts referred to by your lecturer
  • References in handouts
  • References in core texts.

Be selective

Keep the question in mind, and check that the material you read and note down is relevant to it.

See also:
Active reading
Taking notes
Gathering information

You are now ready to structure your essay.


5. Structuring essays

When you have finished researching your assignment and collected your material together, you need to plan your essay to give it a coherent and logical structure.

Here are three methods of organising your material. See which you find most helpful (it might be a combination of two or more of them):

a. Mind maps
b. Grid of pro's and con's
c. Index cards.

a. Mind-maps

Mind-mapping is especially useful for Visual Learners. Draw your ideas on a large sheet of paper and use all of the page:

  • Highlight in colour
  • Add links
  • Use different shapes to mean different things.

See also: Mind mapping

b. Grid of Pros and Cons

Assign pluses and minuses to aspects of the essay question.

c. Index cards

Write a separate card for each key word.

Add: Important phrases, quotations and cross-references to your notes

Arrange: Try arranging the cards in various sequences until you find the one that works best

Number: When you are happy with the order, number the cards.


6. Essay outlines

When you have organised the content of your assignment, you may think that you are ready to begin writing. Not quite. You need to draw up some outlines before you start writing.

First outline of an assignment

Decide how you will present the material, by writing an outline which shows the main points and subsidiary points. Following the earlier example:

Mentally disordered offenders should be the responsibility of Health rather than the Criminal Justice System. Discuss.
1 Introduction
2 Historical treatment of mentally disordered offenders
2.1 First 'institution' Baghdad 918 AD
2.2 Bedlam hospital, 1247 (etc.)
3 Modern treatments
3.1 C. Whittingham Beers, 1908, A Mind That Found Itself (etc.)
4 Advantages of present system (Criminal Justice System) (etc.)
5 Disadvantages of present system (etc.)
6 Advantages of other system (Health ) (etc.)
7 Disadvantages of other system (etc.)
8 Conclusion.

Second outline of an assignment

Before you invest time in writing your essay, take a critical look over your first outline. Does it:

  • mention the facts you intended to include?
  • present the facts in a logical sequence? for example:
    - from simple to complex
    - from ancient to modern
    - from specific to general
    - from ineffective to effective
  • list the material in a way that will make your case convincingly?

If you work with mind-mapping software like Inspiration, you can click a button to convert a mind-map to an outline.

> Writing essays and assignments

> return to the list of quick-reference guides


Further Reading

Your next step should be to print out and work through the study guide Writing effectively

You might also want to work through the study guide Writing your Dissertation

There are further helpful tips about writing essays in the section on Excellent Essays on Arts.Net

University of Southampton

last updated on October 16, 2008
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