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
Further pages cover the writing process:
7. Writing the assignment
10. Writing about science
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:
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:
Keep the question in mind as you start to select materials. Start with basic reading:
More detailed texts
When you are familiar with the basics, go on to more detailed texts:
Keep the question in mind, and check that the material you read and note down is relevant to it.
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
Mind-mapping is especially useful for Visual Learners. Draw your ideas on a large sheet of paper and use all of the page:
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.
Second outline of an assignment
Before you invest time in writing your essay, take a critical look over your first outline. Does it:
If you work with mind-mapping software like Inspiration, you can click a button to convert a mind-map to an outline.
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
last updated on
October 16, 2008