How To Make A Writing Assignment

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Step-by-step guide to assignment writing

When you’re undertaking tertiary study there are often a lot of assignments and writing to do, which can be daunting at first. The most important thing to remember is to start - and start early.

If you give yourself enough time to plan, do your research, write and revise your assignment you won’t have to rush to meet your deadline. Once you've started, you’ll also have something down on paper or on screen that you can improve on.

Using the steps below will help your assignments to become do-able, interesting and even enjoyable.

Step 1: Plan

Step 2: Analyse the question

Step 3: Draft an outline

Step 4: Find information

Step 5: Write

Step 6: Edit and proofread

Step 1: Plan

Planning your assignment will help you get focused and keep you on track.

  • Check how much your assignment is worth and what percentage of the final mark it is. This will help you decide how much time to spend on it.
  • Check the marking schedule to see what your tutor will be looking for when they mark your work and how the marks will be assigned. This will help you know what to focus on. If there is no marking schedule check the assignment question to see if the information is there.
  • Think about what you need to do to complete your assignment (for example, what research, writing drafts, reference checking, reviewing and editing, etc). Break these up into a list of tasks to do.
  • Give each task a deadline, working backwards from your assignment due date.

Step 2: Analyse the question

Before you can answer a question, you need to know what it means. Read it slowly and carefully, and try to understand what's expected of you. Ask yourself:

  • What's the question about? What's the topic? 
  • What does the question mean?
  • What do I have to do?

To help you understand the question, try rewriting it using your own words using the format below:

‘This assignment is about ______________________ I have to___________________ ’

When you are analysing the question:

  • Look for words that tell you what to do (instructional words). For example, analyse, compare, contrast, etc. 
  • Check the meaning of the words used. 
  • Look for topic words, which tell you what you have to write about.
  • Look for restricting words, which limit the topic and make it more specific.

You can also check for additional information about the assignment and what’s expected of you in the course materials or on your course page or forums.

Tip: When you find something about the assignment on a course page or in a forum save a copy of it. If you save all the information you gather about the assignment in one file you will have all the information in one place when you start writing.

More about instruction words:

List of instruction words - Otago University website (opens in new window)

Question wording quiz - Language and Learning Online, Monash University website (opens in new window)

Step 3: Draft an outline

Drafting an outline will give you a structure to follow when it comes to writing your assignment. The type of assignment you are doing will give you a broad structure, but you should also check the question and marking schedule, as they will help you understand how the lecturer expects the topic to be structured, what must be included, and which sections are worth the most marks.

From there you can create your outline, using headings and gaps for the information you have to fill in.

Types of Assignments

Essay outlines

Most of the assignments you will have to do are essays, which generally follow the same basic structure:

  • Introduction (+ 10% of the assignment) – This is where you introduce the topic and the main points, and briefly explain the purpose of the assignment and your intended outcome or findings. It is a good idea to write the introduction last, so that you know what to include.
  • Discussion (+ 80% of the assignment) – This section is divided into a number of paragraphs. Decide what points you want to discuss and include a new paragraph for each main point. A paragraph usually starts with a topic sentence stating the main idea, followed by supporting evidence and examples. In your outline try and include draft topic sentences and a few ideas outlining what you want to include in each section.
  • Conclusion (+ 10% of the assignment) – Conclusions briefly restate your main argument, evaluate your ideas and summarise your conclusions. They don’t introduce any new information.

Step 4: Find information

Before you start writing, you need to research your topic and find relevant and reliable information. You will find some in your course materials and recommended readings, but you can also try:

Once you have found information, the next step will be to evaluate it to ensure it is right for your assignment. For more on how to researching and evaluating information go to:

Step 5: Write

Once you've found the information you need it’s time to bring it altogether and write your assignment.

Write your first draft

  • Use your outline and fill in the gaps, writing your main points for each section. 
  • Write freely, getting as much down as you can without worrying about the wording being 100% right. 
  • You may find it easiest to start with the conclusion so that you know which direction your writing is heading, or the background. 
  • The introduction is often the hardest to write, so leave that till last. 
  • Don’t spend too much time trying to make this draft perfect as it will change!

Fine tune

  • Revise your first draft, and check that it makes sense and includes everything it needs to.
  • Fine tune the wording, and make sure your writing flows well.
  • Make sure you keep different copies of your drafts as you may want to go back to them. 
  • Leave the writing for a day, read it, and fine tune again.
  • Compile your bibliography or reference list.

Academic writing

How to use APA referencing

Step 6: Edit and proofread

Once you've written your assignment, you can improve it by editing and proofreading, but before you do take a break. Even a short break helps you to get some distance from your work so that you can check your assignment with a fresh eye.

Look at the big picture

  • Have you answered the question you were set? Check your assignment against the marking schedule as well as the question.
  • Is the structure correct?
  • Have you included all relevant parts? For example, the title page, introduction, conclusion, reference list?
  • Is the content logically arranged?
  • Does your assignment read well, with each section flowing smoothly on to the next? A good way to check this is to read it aloud.
  • Have you used your own words and acknowledged all your sources?
  • Is your assignment well presented?

Check the details

  • Have you used academic English (if required)?
  • Check the grammar, punctuation, and spelling. Don’t just use a spell checker (it won’t pick everything up).
  • Check your referencing - have you acknowledged all work that isn't your own? Is your APA referencing correct?
  • Are your pages numbered?
  • Have you included your name, student ID, the assignment details and the date on each page?

Tip: If possible, ask a friend or family member to proofread your assignment, as it can be difficult to see mistakes in your own work. 

More about editing and proofreading:

Editing and proofreading - Massey University website (opens in new window)

Editing and proofreading - The Writing Center, University of North Carolina website (opens in new window)

Before you submit your assignment, print it out and check it one last time. It’s often easier to spot errors in print than on screen.

Once you’re happy, submit your assignment.

Submitting your assignment

Related information

Research and reading

Types of assignments

Referencing and avoiding plagiarism

Copyright and disclaimer information

This page contains four specific areas:

Creating Effective Assignments

Checking the Assignment

Sequencing Writing Assignments

Selecting an Effective Writing Assignment Format

Creating Effective Assignments

Research has shown that the more detailed a writing assignment is, the better the student papers are in response to that assignment. Instructors can often help students write more effective papers by giving students written instructions about that assignment. Explicit descriptions of assignments on the syllabus or on an “assignment sheet” tend to produce the best results. These instructions might make explicit the process or steps necessary to complete the assignment. Assignment sheets should detail:

  • the kind of writing expected
  • the scope of acceptable subject matter
  • the length requirements
  • formatting requirements
  • documentation format
  • the amount and type of research expected (if any)
  • the writer’s role
  • deadlines for the first draft and its revision

Providing questions or needed data in the assignment helps students get started. For instance, some questions can suggest a mode of organization to the students. Other questions might suggest a procedure to follow. The questions posed should require that students assert a thesis.

The following areas should help you create effective writing assignments.

Examining your goals for the assignment

1. How exactly does this assignment fit with the objectives of your course?
2. Should this assignment relate only to the class and the texts for the class, or should it also relate to the world beyond the classroom?
3. What do you want the students to learn or experience from this writing assignment?
4. Should this assignment be an individual or a collaborative effort?
5. What do you want students to show you in this assignment? To demonstrate mastery of concepts or texts? To demonstrate logical and critical thinking? To develop an original idea? To learn and demonstrate the procedures, practices, and tools of your field of study?

Defining the writing task

1. Is the assignment sequenced so that students: (1) write a draft, (2) receive feedback (from you, fellow students, or staff members at the Writing and Communication Center), and (3) then revise it? Such a procedure has been proven to accomplish at least two goals: it improves the student’s writing and it discourages plagiarism.
2. Does the assignment include so many sub-questions that students will be confused about the major issue they should examine? Can you give more guidance about what the paper’s main focus should be? Can you reduce the number of sub-questions?
3. What is the purpose of the assignment (e.g., review knowledge already learned, find additional information, synthesize research, examine a new hypothesis)? Making the purpose(s) of the assignment explicit helps students write the kind of paper you want.
4. What is the required form (e.g., expository essay, lab report, memo, business report)?
5. What mode is required for the assignment (e.g., description, narration, analysis, persuasion, a combination of two or more of these)?

Defining the audience for the paper

1. Can you define a hypothetical audience to help students determine which concepts to define and explain? When students write only to the instructor, they may assume that little, if anything, requires explanation. Defining the whole class as the intended audience will clarify this issue for students.
2. What is the probable attitude of the intended readers toward the topic itself? Toward the student writer’s thesis? Toward the student writer?
3. What is the probable educational and economic background of the intended readers?

Defining the writer’s role

1. Can you make explicit what persona you wish the students to assume? For example, a very effective role for student writers is that of a “professional in training” who uses the assumptions, the perspective, and the conceptual tools of the discipline.

Defining your evaluative criteria

1. If possible, explain the relative weight in grading assigned to the quality of writing and the assignment’s content:

  • depth of coverage
  • organization
  • focus
  • critical thinking
  • original thinking
  • use of research
  • logical demonstration
  • appropriate mode of structure and analysis (e.g., comparison, argument)
  • format
  • correct use of sources
  • grammar and mechanics
  • professional tone
  • correct use of course-specific concepts and terms.

Checking the Assignment

Here’s a checklist for writing assignments:

1. Have you used explicit command words in your instructions (e.g., “compare and contrast” and “explain” are more explicit than “explore” or “consider”)? The more explicit the command words, the better chance the students will write the type of paper you wish.
2. Does the assignment suggest a topic, thesis, and format? Should it?
3. Have you told students the kind of audience they are addressing — the level of knowledge they can assume the readers have and your particular preferences (e.g., “avoid slang, use the first-person sparingly”)?
4. If the assignment has several stages of completion, have you made the various deadlines clear? Is your policy on due dates clear?
5. Have you presented the assignment in a manageable form? For instance, a 5-page assignment sheet for a 1-page paper may overwhelm students. Similarly, a 1-sentence assignment for a 25-page paper may offer insufficient guidance.

Sequencing Writing Assignments

There are several benefits of sequencing writing assignments:

1. Sequencing provides a sense of coherence for the course.
2. This approach helps students see progress and purpose in their work rather than seeing the writing assignments as separate exercises.
3. It encourages complexity through sustained attention, revision, and consideration of multiple perspectives.
4. If you have only one large paper due near the end of the course, you might create a sequence of smaller assignments leading up to and providing a foundation for that larger paper (e.g., proposal of the topic, an annotated bibliography, a progress report, a summary of the paper’s key argument, a first draft of the paper itself). This approach allows you to give students guidance and also discourages plagiarism.
5. It mirrors the approach to written work in many professions.

The concept of sequencing writing assignments also allows for a wide range of options in creating the assignment. It is often beneficial to have students submit the components suggested below to your course’s STELLAR web site.

Use the writing process itself. In its simplest form, “sequencing an assignment” can mean establishing some sort of “official” check of the prewriting and drafting steps in the writing process. This step guarantees that students will not write the whole paper in one sitting and also gives students more time to let their ideas develop. This check might be something as informal as having students work on their prewriting or draft for a few minutes at the end of class. Or it might be something more formal such as collecting the prewriting and giving a few suggestions and comments.

Have students submit drafts. You might ask students to submit a first draft in order to receive your quick responses to its content, or have them submit written questions about the content and scope of their projects after they have completed their first draft.

Establish small groups. Set up small writing groups of three-five students from the class. Allow them to meet for a few minutes in class or have them arrange a meeting outside of class to comment constructively on each other’s drafts. The students do not need to be writing on the same topic.

Require consultations. Have students consult with someone in the Writing and Communication Center about their prewriting and/or drafts. The Center has yellow forms that we can give to students to inform you that such a visit was made.

Explore a subject in increasingly complex ways. A series of reading and writing assignments may be linked by the same subject matter or topic. Students encounter new perspectives and competing ideas with each new reading, and thus must evaluate and balance various views and adopt a position that considers the various points of view.

Change modes of discourse. In this approach, students’ assignments move from less complex to more complex modes of discourse (e.g., from expressive to analytic to argumentative; or from lab report to position paper to research article).

Change audiences. In this approach, students create drafts for different audiences, moving from personal to public (e.g., from self-reflection to an audience of peers to an audience of specialists). Each change would require different tasks and more extensive knowledge.

Change perspective through time. In this approach, students might write a statement of their understanding of a subject or issue at the beginning of a course and then return at the end of the semester to write an analysis of that original stance in the light of the experiences and knowledge gained in the course.

Use a natural sequence. A different approach to sequencing is to create a series of assignments culminating in a final writing project. In scientific and technical writing, for example, students could write a proposal requesting approval of a particular topic. The next assignment might be a progress report (or a series of progress reports), and the final assignment could be the report or document itself. For humanities and social science courses, students might write a proposal requesting approval of a particular topic, then hand in an annotated bibliography, and then a draft, and then the final version of the paper.

Have students submit sections. A variation of the previous approach is to have students submit various sections of their final document throughout the semester (e.g., their bibliography, review of the literature, methods section).

Selecting an Effective Writing Assignment Format

In addition to the standard essay and report formats, several other formats exist that might give students a different slant on the course material or allow them to use slightly different writing skills. Here are some suggestions:

Journals. Journals have become a popular format in recent years for courses that require some writing. In-class journal entries can spark discussions and reveal gaps in students’ understanding of the material. Having students write an in-class entry summarizing the material covered that day can aid the learning process and also reveal concepts that require more elaboration. Out-of-class entries involve short summaries or analyses of texts, or are a testing ground for ideas for student papers and reports. Although journals may seem to add a huge burden for instructors to correct, in fact many instructors either spot-check journals (looking at a few particular key entries) or grade them based on the number of entries completed. Journals are usually not graded for their prose style. STELLAR forums work well for out-of-class entries.

Letters. Students can define and defend a position on an issue in a letter written to someone in authority. They can also explain a concept or a process to someone in need of that particular information. They can write a letter to a friend explaining their concerns about an upcoming paper assignment or explaining their ideas for an upcoming paper assignment. If you wish to add a creative element to the writing assignment, you might have students adopt the persona of an important person discussed in your course (e.g., an historical figure) and write a letter explaining his/her actions, process, or theory to an interested person (e.g., “pretend that you are John Wilkes Booth and write a letter to the Congress justifying your assassination of Abraham Lincoln,” or “pretend you are Henry VIII writing to Thomas More explaining your break from the Catholic Church”).

Editorials. Students can define and defend a position on a controversial issue in the format of an editorial for the campus or local newspaper or for a national journal.

Cases. Students might create a case study particular to the course’s subject matter.

Position Papers. Students can define and defend a position, perhaps as a preliminary step in the creation of a formal research paper or essay.

Imitation of a Text. Students can create a new document “in the style of” a particular writer (e.g., “Create a government document the way Woody Allen might write it” or “Write your own ‘Modest Proposal’ about a modern issue”).

Instruction Manuals. Students write a step-by-step explanation of a process.

Dialogues. Students create a dialogue between two major figures studied in which they not only reveal those people’s theories or thoughts but also explore areas of possible disagreement (e.g., “Write a dialogue between Claude Monet and Jackson Pollock about the nature and uses of art”).

Collaborative projects. Students work together to create such works as reports, questions, and critiques.

To discuss any of these formats or to explore other ways of adding a writing component to your classes, please contact the Writing Center’s director (Steve Strang, 253-4459, smstrang@mit.edu).

 

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