Writing effective assignments

The focus of this page is to help you understand that formal written text needs to be carefully structured. The hard work of research and writing an answer to a set question or topic is the first step, but there is also the need to learn how to produce a document which sets out the answer in a cohesive way.

  • Typical essay structure
  • Editing the text
  • Writing paragraphs
  • Understanding sentences
  • Apostrophes
  • Proof reading

Typical essay structure 

Introduction: Outlines the scope of the paper.

Body: (Content)

Theme One:

  • Main statement
  • Expansion of ideas
  • Evidence
  • Partial conclusion – concluding comments
  • Linking Statement Theme two:
  • Main statement
  • Expansion of ideas
  • Evidence
  • Partial conclusion – concluding comments
  • Linking Statement

Theme three:

  • Main statement
  • Expansion of ideas
  • Evidence
  • Partial conclusion – concluding comments
  • Linking Statement

(The themes are presented in sections made up of paragraphs. The text would continue in this way, depending on how many issues needed to be included.)

Conclusion: Reiterates main argument, confirms the answer to the question.

Editing the text

It is important not to leave sentences stranded. Anything you write needs to be part of a paragraph. Because a paragraph should have a clear theme, usually signalled by a topic sentence, it is unlikely that a paragraph could be only one sentence long. If your writing contains stranded text you need to check the best re-location for it, by determining which of the above functions it performs for a particular theme. If you cannot identify the function of any stranded text, it is best to remove it altogether.

It is natural when composing the draft to write roughly and to leave sentences on their own as you build up the answer to the question. At this stage you may not be constructing paragraphs. However when you have completed the research and the draft answer is finished you need to make a fundamental shift from composer to editor. You become the critical reader of the text and make the adjustments you need to ensure your text says exactly what you want it to say in a way that is connected and sequenced without any stranded text.

Reproduced from University of Tasmania 2007, Learning Resources: Stranded Text, University of Tasmania, http://www.learningsupport.utas.edu.au/Resources/stranded_text.htm, accessed 22 December 2008. Writing paragraphs

What is a paragraph?

The body of an essay is made up of a series of paragraphs in which you present your evidence for the position you have taken on an issue (your argument). Each paragraph is like a mini essay of one idea.  It should have:

  • A topic sentence, that is a statement of the key point that you will be discussing in the paragraph (which must relate to the assignment topic);
  • Expansion and elaboration of this key point
  • Supporting evidence to support the key idea in the topic sentence. The evidence can be:
    • personal evidence (if accepted in the course)
    • published evidence o               popular press (if accepted)
    • academic press (primary, secondary or tertiary sources);
  • Examples (where relevant/appropriate)
  • A final sentence which draws together the information gathered from various sources and relates it, in summary, back to the essay topic. Alternatively the final sentence may create a link with the following paragraph.

 

 

Topic sentences (University of Ottawa, 2006)

A topic sentence encapsulates or organises an entire paragraph, and you should be careful to include one in most of your major paragraphs. Although topic sentences may appear anywhere in a paragraph, in academic essays they often appear at the beginning. It might be helpful to think of a topic sentence as working in two directions simultaneously. It relates the paragraph to the essay’s thesis, and thereby acts as a signpost for the argument of the paper as a whole, but it also defines the scope of the paragraph itself. When the topic sentence makes a claim, the paragraph which follows must expand, describe, or prove it in some way. Topic sentences make a point and give reasons or examples to support it.

Two ways of using topic sentences

  • Write the topic sentence first, then add on the information which supports the topic sentence. This method is useful if you already have sufficient information to prepare a framework for the piece of writing, for example when the essay is under exam conditions, or when preparing a speech.
  • Write the information in the paragraph, then add on an appropriate topic sentence. This method is useful for research assignments and essays where you first have to collect information and do a rough draft of a piece of written work.

Writing paragraphs (from Cottrell 1999)

If you have difficulties with paragraphing, and ordering your sentences within a paragraph in a logical order, divide a page into three columns:

1. Arguments 2. Main information 3. Supporting detail

In column 1, write the ideas, theories, opinions, and line of reasoning that you will include in your writing. In column 2, write the main examples and types of evidence that support your line of reasoning. In column 3, write lesser details, facts, names, statistics, dates, and examples that support your main argument.  Each paragraph should have:

  • One item from column 1
  • One, two, or three items from column 2               Several items from column 3.

All items within one paragraph should help to make the same point.

Checking your paragraphs (adapted from Cottrell 1999)

After you have completed a draft of your essay, you can check your use of paragraphing and the sequence of your argument by working through the following exercise:

  1. Read each paragraph. Decide what is the main point being made in each.
  2. Sum up that topic. Use only one to four words.
  3. Give the topic a name. Write the topic in the margin.
  4. Identify the topic sentence. Find the sentence that sums up the point being made in the paragraph. Highlight it. If it is not at the beginning of the paragraph, consider if it would have more impact there.
  5. Check for relevance. Ensure that every sentence within a paragraph relates to the topic sentence. If it does not, and appears superfluous, cross it out or delete it.
  6. Determine the order of sentences. In each paragraph, ensure that sentences are in a logical order, and that the links from one sentence to the next are clear.
  7. Check the line of argument. Ensure that the relationships between paragraphs are clear, and that it is also clear how each paragraph leads on to the next.
  8. Check overall relevance. Ensure all paragraphs are relevant to the essay question/assignment topic that you must address.

Stranded text

Stranded text occurs where a writer has placed a single sentence as an isolated piece of text that is clearly not a paragraph although it is related to the general theme of the section.

References

Cottrell, S. 1999, The study skills handbook, Palgrave, New York.

University of Ottawa 2006, Hypergrammar: Writing topic sentences, University of Ottawa, http://www.uottawa.ca/academic/arts/writcent/hypergrammar/partopic.html, accessed 8th February 2007.

Adapted from University of Tasmania 2007, Learning Resources: Writing Paragraphs, University of Tasmania, http://www.learningsupport.utas.edu.au/Resources/writing_paragraphs.htm, accessed 22 December 2008.

 

Understanding sentences

The basic sentence pattern

The cat [subject] sat [verb] on the mat [object].

David [subject] is studying [verb] at university [object].

These sentences are made up of basic components and extra information that makes the sentence more detailed. The basic components are:

  • A subject – This refers to the topic about which the sentence is written. Sometimes this is called the theme of the sentence. In the first sample sentence we can see that the subject or theme of the sentence is The cat. The rest of the information in the sentence should relate to that subject.
  • The verb relates to the cat by explaining what the cat is doing
  • The object gives extra information about the cat – in this case, about its location.

A sentence could have just a subject and a verb, for example “I ran”. But this makes the sentence a very basic one indeed. Generally you need to write a combination of long and short sentences to get your points across. Although it is not necessary to have an object in every sentence, it is not advisable to write very short sentences all the time.

Sometimes a sentence may have only a verb and an object, for example: “Look at the following example”. The subject ‘You’ is implied and linked to the verb look. It is the reader who is being asked to look at something by the writer.

The more you get to know about how sentences work the more options you have as a writer. Test to ensure your sentences are complete by asking yourself these questions:

  • Who or what is the sentence about? (checking the subject)
  • What action do I need to state? (identifying the verb)
  • What extra or qualifying information about the subject or context would be helpful and appropriate? (locating the object)

Below are some sample sentences indicating the basic components of a sentence.

Subject/theme Verb/action Object/qualifying information.
Studying at university is difficult.
A sentence is a group of words that expresses an idea.
A quick search of the Internet can help you begin your project.
Examinations test students’ ability to remember information.
The library should be open later today.

It is helpful in formal writing to think of sentences as having basic patterns. These sentences all follow the rules of what makes a sentence but they use different patterns. When you are composing, think about what your key idea is (what you want the sentence to be about) and then the action required to support it. The more practice you have in composing sentences the more confident you will become and the more patterns you will learn. For a start, write sentences focusing on the subject first – and then add the action.

Reproduced from University of Tasmania 2007, Learning Resources: Understanding Sentences, University of Tasmania, http://www.learningsupport.utas.edu.au/Resources/understanding_sentences.htm, accessed 22 December 2008.

How to begin sentences

Deciding how to begin sentences involves two decisions:

  1. What is the sentence about (subject)
  2. What is the most direct way of saying it?

Example:

Reading the newspaper I found an article about East Timor. It stated that the situation was inevitable and that Australia should have been in East Timor before the vote on independence.

The opening sentence in this example is not particularly useful, as it does not assist the reader to know what the point is. The information in these two sentences could be more succinctly stated in a single sentence, as follows:

An article in the newspaper stated the situation in East Timor was inevitable, and that Australian peacekeepers should have been there before the vote on independence.

Roundabout openings (Nadell, McMeniman & Langan 1991, p. 100).

At the beginning of a sentence, you are formulating a new thought so you may explore the point before discovering exactly what you want to say. For this reason, the openings of sentences are especially vulnerable to unnecessary phrases. Common examples include phrases beginning with there and it (when it does not refer to a specific noun), and words like how and what (when they don’t actually ask a question). In the following examples, note that trimming away excess words highlights the subject and verb, thus clarifying meaning:

Original: It was their belief that the problem had been solved.

Revised: They believed the problem had been solved.

Original: There are now computer courses offered by many high schools.

Revised:  Many high schools now offer computer courses.

Original: What should be done in this crisis is to transport food to the victims’ homes.

Revised: Food must be transported to the victims’ homes.

Original: How to simplify the college’s registration process should be a priority.  Revised: Simplifying the college’s registration process should be a priority.

Of course, feel free to open with there or it when some other construction would be less clear or effective. For example, don’t write “Many reasons can be cited why students avoid art courses” when you can say, “There are many reasons why students avoid art courses.”

Excessive Prepositional Phrases

Since prepositional phrases (word groups beginning with at, on, and the like) tend to be wordy, strings of them weigh sentences down and hide main ideas. Note how eliminating such phrases (in bold in the following examples) makes writing more vigorous and helps to reveal the central meaning of the sentence:

Original: Growth in the greenhouse effect may result in increases in the intensity of hurricanes.

Revised: The growing greenhouse effect may intensify hurricanes.

Original: The reassurance of a neighbour who was the owner of a pit bull that his dog was incapable of harm would not be sufficient to prevent most people from calling the authorities if the dog ran loose.

Revised: Despite a neighbour’s reassurance that his pit bull was harmless, most people would call the authorities if the dog ran loose.

Sentences as units of meaning

Sentences are units of meaning. Therefore, each sentence needs to say something clearly. New sentences build on previous sentences. A group of well-structured sentences that accumulate meaning form a paragraph. The paragraph is a basic building block of linear and logical text. See Writing Paragraphs for more detail of this level of text.

Sentence structure

Sample non-sentence: Also that scientific evidence is safe, and complementary medicine as

a risk.’

This statement is not a sentence. The error is probably an editing issue. There is no clearly defined subject (what the sentence is about) and therefore no clearly defined main verb (action). It is easy for writers to make this kind of error – they understand what they mean and they don’t see a problem. The marker cannot add meaning to what is written because the role of the marker is to assess the demonstrated understanding of the student writer.

There are some things writers can do to improve their texts. Think carefully about the beginnings of sentences. Avoid starting sentences with connecting or referring words such as ‘also’, as they are not good initial words. ‘Also’ implies connection with a previous idea. The use of as instead of is in the last part of the sentence is probably a typing error. It is a real word but the spell checker does not pick up the incorrect usage.

There is also a content error. The sentence is comparing two things but the problem is that they are not in the same category. Scientific evidence does not belong to the same family of concepts as complementary medicine. To be able to compare two things we need to be sure that those objects, ideas, concepts are comparable.

For example, orthodox medicine and complementary medicine or scientific evidence and anecdotal evidence are two groups of items which could be compared. We could not however compare complementary medicine and anecdotal evidence.

Stages of writing

The main thing to remember about writing is that it happens in stages. The most appropriate sentence patterns do not just happen the first time you try to write. It is important to recognise that in writing down your thoughts you are doing two things.

  1. You are attempting to capture thoughts as they arise (Understanding)
  2. You are ensuring you have written what you meant and meant what you have written. Editing assists you maintain control over your text and helps reduce the “unclear expression” comments markers make when they do not understand what you mean (Communication)

If you are unclear about the issue or topic about which you are writing it will be harder for you to get the ideas down on paper. Taylor (1989) explains it this way:

If you find it extremely difficult to get words onto the page, then what is probably at fault is your understanding of what you are trying to say or an insufficiently worked-out argument to support it.  This can only be overcome by going back to your books or by forcing yourself to clarify your point of view by writing a short summary of it (p. 8).

Thinking of your reader

In your first attempts at writing you can expect rough patches in the quality of your work. Deliberately constructing the beginnings of sentences is one way of exercising control over the text you finally produce. As you work towards completing a final text the reader must be in your mind. As you edit your writing to transform it from private musings to public document, imagine the reader to be an interested, intelligent fellow-student – someone a bit like you – who needs to understand exactly what you mean.

References

Nadell, J., McMeniman, L. & Langan, J. 1991, The Macmillan writer rhetoric, reader handbook, Macmillan , New York.

Taylor, G. 1989, The student’s guide for the arts and sciences, Cambridge University Press, Melbourne.

Adapted from University of Tasmania 2007, Learning Resources: Beginning Sentences,

University of Tasmania, http://www.learningsupport.utas.edu.au/Resources/beginning_sentences.htm, accessed 22 December 2008.

 

Apostrophes

Many students are confused about the use of apostrophes in their writing. Apostrophes have two main uses: firstly, they can indicate where letters are left out of words (contractions); secondly, they indicate possession.

Contractions

The apostrophe can indicate where letters are left out of words (e.g. ‘can’t’ for ‘cannot’; ‘I’ll’ for ‘I will’; ‘they’re’ for ‘they are’). These contractions are from informal speech and are not common in academic writing except where speech is being quoted. Do not use apostrophes in contractions in academic writing.

Possession

The apostrophe is also used to show ownership. Sometimes it may be clear ownership of a thing by a thing (“the premier’s residence”). At other times it will ownership of an idea or words (“Sartre’s concept”, “Bob Hawke’s promise”), or the owner will be a concept (“Crime’s consequence”). All of these examples could be written differently with more words: “The residence of the premier”, “The concept of Sartre”, “The promise of Bob Hawke” and “The consequence of crime”. Using apostrophe s is a more direct way of writing.

Singular

Add an apostrophe and an s:

King’s expedition                    The defendant’s rights             Winter’s curse  Plural

If the plural is regular and already has an s then simply put an apostrophe:  The soldiers’ unit                     Students’ facilities

Irregular plurals

If the plural is irregular and has no s then add an apostrophe and an s:

The people’s choice                Children’s education               Women’s lives

Family names

In the past the final s after an apostrophe was dropped for family names of two or more syllables and ending in s (e.g. “Dickens’ books”, “R. M. Williams’ contribution”). This custom is now frequently applied to all family names ending in s  (e.g. “Tom Jones’ ballads”), but correct practice is to use an apostrophe s (e.g. “Philip Glass’s composition”).

Its and it’s

Its is a possessive word and does not need an apostrophe. It’s is a contraction of it is. It is better not to use contractions like it’s in academic writing.

Reproduced from University of Tasmania 2007, Learning Resources: Apostrophes, University of Tasmania, http://www.learningsupport.utas.edu.au/Resources/apostrophes.htm, accessed 22 December 2008. Proof reading

Reviewing your assignment

You have finished writing your assignment, but before you hand it in, it is worth rethinking the purpose of the assignment. Take another look at your unit outline and ask yourself:

  • Have you fulfilled all the requirements?
  • Have you answered every part of the question?
  • Does your introduction explain what your assignment is about?
  • Do the paragraphs in the body of the assignment flow in a logical sequence?
  • Is every paragraph clearly related to the topic?
  • Does your conclusion relate well to the overall theme of your assignment and to the main question?
  • Does your essay provide a reasoned argument, based on evidence?

Editing checklist for essays (Clanchy & Ballard 1997, p. 82)

Note: Many of these points are relevant to reports and case studies too.  a) Structure

  • Are the ideas presented in the most logical order?
  • Is there a clear thread of argument running through your essay?
  • Is the argument consistent (that is, you do not contradict yourself)?
  • Is there one idea per paragraph, summed up in the topic sentence?
  • Is the essay balanced (no section is too long compared with the others)? b) Evidence
  • Do you have evidence for your ideas?
  • Have you acknowledged all sources of ideas?

c) Expression

  • Are the sentences complete – do they make sense?
  • Are the sentences too long – have you varied the length of your sentences?
  • Have you used the active rather than passive voice as where appropriate? (watch your use of constructions such as: “have been”; “being”, “was concluded”) d) Length – too short
  • Is there an area of content that you have left out or which could be expanded?
  • Do you need further evidence or more detailed explanation? You may be assuming that your reader ‘already knows’ things that should be explained.
  • Do you need more detailed background information on which to base your analysis?
  • Should the links in your reasoning be more explicit?

e) Length – too long

  • Are there irrelevancies and/or repetitions? If so, prune them.
  • Are there lists of evidence and examples that could be replaced by a briefer explanation?
  • Could you reduce the length of an explanation by including a reference?
  • Use the active voice where appropriate – it is usually more succinct than the passive.

Proof reading for language use

Check for ‘habitual’ use of English errors. Everybody has a writing style and therefore will be likely to make and repeat certain kinds of errors in all their writing. You must get to know what errors you tend to make. Sometimes they can be as small as the spelling difference between their and there . Perhaps you have a habit of starting sentences with ‘Moreover’, ‘However’ or ‘Therefore’. Too many of these words make your text tedious. These connectors are only useful when you want to show a specific relationship between ideas.

Do you write using spoken English forms? This will result in lower marks because lecturers will expect you to structure your thinking into formal written text.

Successful writing at least in part requires the writer to separate the creative process from the critical one. You may want to allow yourself the freedom to get ideas down informally at first. However, it is important not to neglect the proofreading and editing stages, in which you remove the informal elements.

Reference

Clanchy, J. & Ballard, B. 1997, Essay writing for students, 3rd edn, Longman, Melbourne.

Adapted from University of Tasmania 2007, Learning Resources: Proof Reading, University of Tasmania, http://www.learningsupport.utas.edu.au/Resources/proof_reading.htm, accessed 22 December 2008.