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Plan your writing

Interpret your assignment

Planning how you approach your writing will make sure that you understand the task, can manage your time, and present a researched, structured and focused assignment.

Before you start writing, you need to understand what type of writing you are required to produce. For example, you might be asked to produce a report, an essay, an annotated bibliography or a literature review. This will shape how you will prepare, research and write your assignment. Take time to understand the conventions of each type of assignment and what is expected of you.

Understand instructional words

Instructional verbs in the assignment task will indicate how to plan your approach. Choose the intructional words that you have been given below to reveal what they mean.

Instructional verbs

Analyse

Examine an issue in close detail and break it into its constituent parts. Look in depth at each part, consider the evidence, and show you understand the relationship between them.

Assess

Decide on the importance or usefulness of something and give reasons and evidence for your decision.

Compare

Identify similarities and differences between two or more things, problems or arguments. Draw a conclusion about which (if either) you think is preferable or more convincing.

Define

Outline the meaning of a word, concept or theory as it is used in your discipline. In some cases it may be necessary or desirable to examine different possible, or often used, definitions.

Describe

Present factual information about something, using appropriate evidence to support your description.

Discuss

Examine the arguments and the evidence to support them. Consider different sides of the issue and weigh up the implications of each argument.

Evaluate

Make an appraisal of the worth of something, an argument or a set of beliefs, in the light of its validity or value. This does involve making your own judgements, but they must be supported by an evidenced argument and justification.

Illustrate

Explain or clarify something using evidence, diagrams, figures, or case studies.

Justify

Provide adequate reasons for a decision or a conclusion by supporting it with sufficient evidence and argument; answer the main objections that are likely to be made to it.

Outline

Summarise the main features or the general principles of a subject, topic or theory.

Review

Provide a thorough examination of a topic. You may be asked to draw your own conclusions.

To what extent

Explore and present the argument(s) for a particular topic and state the degree to which you agree with them.

Adapted from: Greetham, B. 2018. How to write better essays. 4th ed. London: Palgrave Macmillan.

Scope and focus

Look at the assignment task to identify whether there is a specific aspect of the topic that you are being asked to focus on. For example:

  • Is the topic or question limited to a certain time period, region, or group of people?
  • Are you being asked to consider a particular angle (for example, political, social, economic aspects of the topic)?

If the assignment task does not include information about the scope or limitations of the topic, you should choose these yourself. Think about what key issues have been covered in your module and whether you could use any of these to produce a focused answer to the question.

If something in the assignment brief is unclear, check with your module leader as soon as possible before starting to plan your answer.

Define your purpose and reader

The next step before writing is to clearly define the purpose of the writing and the audience.

Most formal academic writing at university is set by, and written for, an academic tutor or assessor. There should be clear criteria against which they will mark your work. Your tutor may ask you to write for different audiences such as a lay audience or your peers, so make sure you know who your intended audience is before you start writing.

Once you have a clear idea of what is required for your assignment, you can start to plan what you are going to write.