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
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!
- 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.
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
Research and reading
Types of assignments
Referencing and avoiding plagiarism
Copyright and disclaimer information
15 foolproof tips for writing a great assignment
If you’re the kind of person that only has to hear the word “assignment” and immediately has flashbacks to stuffy classrooms, ticking clocks and staring a blank page for hours….DON’T PANIC.
Our 15 foolproof tips for writing a great assignment will guide you to success.
Before you start…
1. Do your reading
Your course or module will have a reading list; make sure you actually use it! Your tutors choose texts to specifically help with your assignments and modules, and you’ll gain some valuable insights into the topic that are sure to make writing your assignment easier.
Expert tip: If you have the time, do some reading from other sources not on your list to back up your argument.
2. Check the deadline
There’s nothing worse than scheduling time to sit down and write then glancing at the calendar and realising you’ve only got a few days left. Double-checking the deadline means you’ll have no nasty surprises.
Expert tip: There are many apps out there that can add a ‘countdown’ to your phone or tablet. Use these to keep your assignment deadline front of mind.
3. Plan your time
Finding time to write is easier said than done, but if you break your time down into manageable chunks you’ll find it’s much easier to keep on top of your workload. Try scheduling mini-deadlines along the way (e.g. aim to have the first section done by a certain day) to keep your momentum going.
Expert tip: Be realistic about the time you have spare, and the time you’re willing to give up. If you schedule a writing session at 9 p.m. on Friday evening when you’d rather be relaxing, chances are you won’t get anything done.
4. Ask for help (if you need it)
If there’s any doubt in your mind about the question or the requirements of the assignment, ask your tutor. It’s better to start right than have to re-write in the last few days.
Expert tip: Remember, your tutor wants you to do well. He or she will not be annoyed if you need to ask a few questions.
5. Plan your assignment structure
Before you start, it can help to create a basic assignment structure. This can be as detailed as you like but the basic structure should contain your introduction points, your key arguments and points, and your planned conclusion.
Expert tip: Try writing out your plan on sticky notes. These will allow you to rearrange your arguments and points easily as your plan develops.
As you’re writing…
You wouldn’t start a conversation without introducing yourself; your assignment is the same. Your first paragraph should introduce your key argument, add a bit of context and the key issues of the question, and then go on to explain how you plan to answer it.
Expert tip: Some people find it easier to write their introduction after they’ve finished the rest of their assignment. Give it a try!
7. Structure your argument
As you write the body of your assignment, make sure that each point you make has some supporting evidence. Use statistics or quotes you gathered during your reading to support your argument, or even as something to argue against.
Expert tip: If you’re using a lot of different sources, it’s easy to forget to add them to your reference list. Make things easier for yourself by writing it as you go along.
Your conclusion is your final chance to summarise your argument and leave a lasting impression with your reader. Make sure you recap the key points and arguments you made in your assignment, including supporting evidence if needed.
Expert tip: Make sure that you don’t introduce any new ideas in your conclusion; this section is purely for summarising your previous arguments.
9. Getting over writer’s block
Struggling to write? There’s nothing more frustrating than putting aside time to write and then just staring at a blank page. Luckily, there are lots of thing to try to get you inspired: a change of scenery, putting on some music, writing another section of the essay or just taking a short break.
Expert tip: If you find yourself unable to write, try to use your time to read ahead or re-read what you’ve already written.
10. Make sure you use your ‘essay voice’
While each university, school or each college will probably have its own style guide, you should always use a neutral and professional tone when writing an assignment. Try to avoid slang, overly-familiar phrases and definitely don’t use text-speak!
Expert tip: If you’re not sure about a phrase or word, search for it online to see what other publications use it. If it’s in a dictionary or used by a national newspaper it’s probably OK to use in your assignment.
After you finish…
11. Get a little distance
If you’ve got time (and you should have if you managed to stick to your schedule!), put your first draft aside for a day or two before re-reading it. This will give you time to step back and read your assignment objectively, making it easier to spot mistakes and issues.
Expert tip: If you find it easier to review on paper, print out your assignment with double-line spacing to accommodate your notes and corrections.
12. Make sure you’ve answered the question
As you’re reading through your first draft of your assignment, check that all your points are relevant to the original question. It’s easy to drift off on a tangent when you’re in mid-flow.
Expert tip: Read each paragraph and consider it on its own merit as to whether it answers the question, and also to check that it contributes to your overall argument.
13. Don’t be afraid to cut text out
Sometimes, when you’ve struggled to reach a word count it can be hard to remove text that you’ve slaved over. But if a piece of text isn’t supporting your argument then it doesn’t have a place in your assignment.
Expert tip: With word processing software, the ‘Track Changes’ feature allows you to edit text without losing it forever. And if you realise later that you’ve made a mistake, just reject the change.
14. Check and double-check your spelling
Nothing can give a bad impression as quickly as a spelling mistake. Errors are distracting, look unprofessional and in the worst case they can undermine your argument. If you’re unsure about the correct use of a word, look it up online or use an alternative that you’re more comfortable with.
Expert tip: While you’re running your spell-checker, check your word count too. You’re usually allowed to deviate by 10% above or below the assignment word count, but check with your institution’s guidelines.
15. Cite your sources
References and creating a bibliography are key skills that you unfortunately have to master when writing an assignment. Check your institution’s guidelines before you start to make sure you’re including all the information you need.
Expert tip: Some eBooks have a citation feature that automatically collates all the information you need for your bibliography.