There are two types of critical questions you should ask before you start planning your assignment, practical questions and focusing questions.
Step One: Understand your genre
Are you writing an essay? What kind of essay - critical, reflective or...? Are you writing a report? Is it a lab report or a business report or something else? Or are you writing an annotated bibliography, or perhaps a literature review?
Each genre (or format) is designed to do a particular job. For example, an essay is designed to prove a particular argument by taking it apart and showing how the evidence supports the essay's overall conclusion (the thesis). The format of an essay is very formulaic, and once you know how it's structured you can almost put one together like a jigsaw.
Different genres have particular expectations regarding the kind of language you will use and the way you will lay out your points. The best thing to do is find a guide for that genre. The Learning Centre has a list of assignment guides on their cite, and the library has several books specifically for writing in particular fields (for example, writing for the health sciences).
It can also help to find examples of the genres. Ask your lecturer if they have any examples from previous students (getting an HD standard example can be really useful), and check with the Learning Centre to see if they have any examples from other subjects.
Step Two: Work out your must haves/must dos
Take another look at your assignment question. You had to analyse it for the research part of the process, but now you need to go over it again to remind yourself of what you have to do and what you have to show.
Also take a look at the marking criteria/rubric for the assignment. This is what you are being marked on, so you need to understand exactly what you need to do to get a good mark.
The "student outcomes", "subject learning outcomes" or "objectives" listed in the subject outline can also give you an idea of what your lecturers want to see. Find the outcomes/objectives that seem to fit the assignment the best, and ask yourself "what can I put in my assignment that will show I have achieved this outcome?"
Create a list of everything you think needs to be in your assignment, and keep it handy.
Step Three: Create a map of your assignment
Keeping the format of the genre firmly in mind, work out how your information will flow logically through the course of your assignment so that you can fit in all of your must-haves in a way that makes sense. Create an overall plan for your assignment (how will you organise your paragraphs?), but also plan each paragraph so that you have everything you need: topic sentence, supporting statements with references and concluding/linking sentences.
You can use a mind-map to help you work out what information belongs in each paragraph, or perhaps linear dot-points help you order your thoughts clearly. You will be marked on how your thoughts have been organised, so make sure you pay attention to the progression of ideas and the way they link together.
This map forms the skeleton of your assignment, and if you have done enough research and brainstorming about your ideas beforehand, it will be relatively easy to flesh it out. If you find yourself struggling to come up with something to fill a particular spot (or you can't figure out how to make sure one of your must-haves is included), you may have to do some more research, or use a pre-writing strategy like the 100 questions technique to help you work through the gaps in your knowledge.
The pre-writing phase can be the most difficult. This is usually where "writer's block" comes into play - you have a lot to say, but you can't think of how to say it, or you stare at the blank page and can't think of way to get the ball rolling - every word you think of writing just doesn't seem "right", somehow.
This is when you might need to use a pre-writing strategy to help you convert your thoughts and knowledge into sentences.
Some examples of strategies you might want to try are the 100 Questions technique, talking it out, "word vomit" or "genre cross-dressing".
The 100 Question Technique can give you great direction for research and establish a position on your topic.
Basically, think up 100 questions (or as many as you can) around your assignment topic without providing any answers. The idea is not to work out what you do and don't know about your topic (although it can help with that), but to explore the angles of your topic and work out which questions are the ones you want to answer with your assignment.
The next step is to try to answer those questions in the form of a paragraph. The paragraphs you write to answer the questions can, with a bit of tweaking, become what you use in your assignment.
Just remember to keep track of where your information is coming from, so you can reference them correctly in your final draft.
The "Talking it out" pre-writing strategy is exactly what is says on the box.
Find a friend who isn't doing the same assignment topic you are and talk about everything you think you know that's relevant to the topic. Encourage them to ask you questions so you can keep thinking through different aspects or repercussions of what you want to say.
It's great to find someone in your class for this (if you can - sometimes you have a choice of topics for your assignment, so you can find someone in your class who isn't writing about the same topic as you), as they know the background and can ask pertinent questions, but you can also "talk it out" with a family member or friend who isn't in your class. If you get stuck, you can also talk to something that won't talk back (like a pet or a pot plant), because the act of explaining yourself still works, even if no one is really listening.
The "Word Vomit" (or "Word Dump") technique is similar to mind mapping, in that you dump as many words, sentences, thoughts or ideas about a theme you want to write about into a document as you can, without worrying about how they flow together or whether they are written well. Just get everything that's in your head onto the page and never mind how messy it is.
When you have it in front of you, you'll be able to see ways to connect some of what you have written in order to turn it into a paragraph.
This technique works particularly well when you've already got the bones of your assignment in place from writing a plan, but you can't think of how to get started on a particular paragraph.
The "Genre cross-dressing" technique involves creating a short piece of writing that discusses what you want to say in your assignment, but in a different genre. Essentially, you're "dressing" your information in a different writing style.
For example, instead of an analytical essay in academic writing, you might write a blog post in "normal" language. Or you might tackle it as a letter to a friend, or the kind of essay you would have written in Year 8 at school, or maybe a poem.
Sometimes, when you are experiencing writer's block, it can be because you are trying to process what you want to say and how you want to say it at the same time. By changing genres, you often free yourself up to think more clearly about the content you want to use.
Assignment genres are usually quite formulaic and easy to use once you a) have something to say, and b) understand the conventions of the genre. Using a different genre to work out what you want to say can be a useful step in the process. Then you just have to concentrate on getting the format of your assignment right.
The following tools can assist with planning your assignment. Take a look and pick one that works for you.
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