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Plan your assignment
Whether you are answering a short question or writing and assignment or essay, a good plan helps to organise your writing before you begin. Getting organised before you begin writing will make the whole process easier and faster.

There are 4 main steps to the planning process.

1. Plan ahead

Think carefully about the size and complexity of your topic because the success of your writing project will depend on the information you can find in the time that you have. Be realistic about what you can achieve.

Make a ‘to do list’ because you will need to find relevant sources of information. Plan to visit the library to find books and journals articles, and also plan to spend time looking for online information via the internet or the library’s website.

Before you begin planning be clear about:

  • How long your writing must be.
  • What the deadline is.
  • How your writing will be assessed.
  • Formatting and referencing criteria.
2. Analyse the question

Make sure that you understand exactly what you have to do to answer the question.

  • What are you being instructed to do?
  • What is the subject?
  • What are the keywords in the question?
  • Check out the list of assignment words explained at the bottom of this page to help you.
3. Select material

After analysing the question do some background reading. Start with your class notes and chapters of your text book or reader (if you have them). You need to form a basic and quick understanding of the subject or topic that you are going to write about.

When this is done you can search for more in-depth information. Take notes as you read. Remember to :

  • Be selective and assess whether an information source is helpful to your question.
  • Use the question as the focus for your note taking.
4. Organise your material


A long or short assignment must be logical and coherent. A plan will give you a quick way of trying out different structures.

One way of making a plan is to list your main points in keywords and phrases, and then organise them under main headings. This gives you an overview of the points you will discuss, and helps you to decide what to include and in what order. Some people like to draw a thought map. 

Experiment with several different plans before you start writing. The time you spend at this stage will help your writing be well organised and easy to understand.

Plan summary:

  • Make a plan and ‘to do list’ as early as possible.

  • Analyse the question.

  • Be selective in your reading. Only read something if it is directly relevant to your question. Take notes as you read and don’t forget to include the full reference details of what you are reading.

  • Only start to write when you have decided on a clear and logical plan.


[The text above is based on that provided by the University of Leicester]


You can save a lot of time if you improve your reading skills and increase your levels of understanding and concentration. Reading for study purposes is a skill - the way you read a text book or journal article is different to way you read a novel, a magazine or a telephone directory. 

Before you start reading make sure you:

  • Have a goal eg are you working on an assignment topic or class presentation?
  • Have useful things to read. Don’t waste your time. Prioritise what is most important and tackle that first.
  • Adopt the right reading style eg read the introduction and conclusion first.
  • Take notes as you read. This means you don’t have to re-read large amounts later.

How to choose what to read:

  • Check the date of publication. Is the information old or current?
  • Get a quick overview by reading the abstract of journal articles or the back and inside cover of books.
  • Check the contents pages of books to see if there are relevant chapters.
  • Check the index of books for the page numbers that address your topic.

Reading Tips

* Set a clear focus or goal before you start reading.

* Assess the text before you spend time and effort reading it.

* Scan and skim to identify what you need to read in detail.

* Scan and skim before you have read something in detail to understand it better.

* Take notes while you read in detail. This active process helps you concentrate and understand.

* Reading to understand is smarter than reading for speed.

* To improve reading speed don’t increase the speed at which your eyes move across the page, increase the number of words the eye recognises in a single glance.

Scanning is a reading technique that you might already use eg when reading a telephone book. Scanning means that you quickly pass your vision over a section of text to find words or phrases. When reading books or journal articles for study purposes it is a good idea to quickly scan these sections to find words or phrases that are relevant to your research:

  • Introduction, preface or abstract.
  • First and last paragraphs of a chapter or an article.
  • The conclusion.
  • The index at the end of a book.

Skimming is a reading technique where you read quickly to get the general meaning of a chunk of writing. To skim you let your eyes skip over sentences or phrases, and concentrate on identifying the main points. Skimming is useful to get an overview before you read in detail. It can also be used to refresh your understanding of something you have read previously.


Assignment Terms Explained

Word Definition
Analyse Break an issue into its constituent parts. Look in depth at each part using supporting arguments and evidence for and against as well as how these interrelate to one another.
Assess Weigh up to what extent something is true. Persuade the reader of your argument by citing relevant research but also remember to point out any flaws and counter-arguments as well. Conclude by stating clearly how far you are in agreement with the original proposition.
Clarify Literally make something clearer and, where appropriate, simplify it. This could involve, for example, explaining in simpler terms a complex process or theory, or the relationship between two variables.
Comment upon Pick out the main points on a subject and give your opinion, reinforcing your point of view using logic and reference to relevant evidence, including any wider reading you have done.
Compare Identify the similarities and differences between two or more phenomena. Say if any of the shared similarities or differences are more important than others. 'Compare' and 'contrast' will often feature together in an essay question.
Consider Say what you think and have observed about something. Back up your comments using appropriate evidence from external sources, or your own experience. Include any views which are contrary to your own and how they relate to what you originally thought.
Contrast Similar to compare but concentrate on the dissimilarities between two or more phenomena, or what sets them apart. Point out any differences which are particularly significant.
Critically evaluate Give your verdict as to what extent a statement or findings within a piece of research are true, or to what extent you agree with them. Provide evidence taken from a wide range of sources which both agree with and contradict an argument. Come to a final conclusion, basing your decision on what you judge to be the most important factors and justify how you have made your choice.
Define To give in precise terms the meaning of something. Bring to attention any problems posed with the definition and different interpretations that may exist.
Demonstrate Show how, with examples to illustrate.
Describe Provide a detailed explanation as to how and why something happens.
Discuss Essentially this is a written debate where you are using your skill at reasoning, backed up by carefully selected evidence to make a case for and against an argument, or point out the advantages and disadvantages of a given context. Remember to arrive at a conclusion.
Elaborate To give in more detail, provide more information on.
Evaluate See the explanation for 'critically evaluate'.
Examine Look in close detail and establish the key facts and important issues surrounding a topic. This should be a critical evaluation and you should try and offer reasons as to why the facts and issues you have identified are the most important, as well as explain the different ways they could be construed.
Explain Clarify a topic by giving a detailed account as to how and why it occurs, or what is meant by the use of this term in a particular context. Your writing should have clarity so that complex procedures or sequences of events can be understood, defining key terms where appropriate, and be substantiated with relevant research.
Explore Adopt a questioning approach and consider a variety of different viewpoints. Where possible reconcile opposing views by presenting a final line of argument.
Give an account of Means give a detailed description of something. Not to be confused with 'account for' which asks you not only what, but why something happened.
Identify Determine what are the key points to be addressed and implications thereof.
Illustrate A similar instruction to 'explain' whereby you are asked to show the workings of something, making use of definite examples and statistics if appropriate to add weight to your explanation.
Interpret Demonstrate your understanding of an issue or topic. This can be the use of particular terminology by an author, or what the findings from a piece of research suggest to you. In the latter instance, comment on any significant patterns and causal relationships.
Justify Make a case by providing a body of evidence to support your ideas and points of view. In order to present a balanced argument, consider opinions which may run contrary to your own before stating your conclusion.
Outline Convey the main points placing emphasis on global structures and interrelationships rather than minute detail.
Review Look thoroughly into a subject. This should be a critical assessment and not merely descriptive.
Show-how Present, in a logical order, and with reference to relevant evidence the stages and combination of factors that give rise to something
State To specify in clear terms the key aspects pertaining to a topic without being overly descriptive. Refer to evidence and examples where appropriate.
Summarise Give a condensed version drawing out the main facts and omit superfluous information. Brief or general examples will normally suffice for this kind of answer.
To what extent Evokes a similar response to questions containing 'How far...'. This type of question calls for a thorough assessment of the evidence in presenting your argument. Explore alternative explanations where they exist.