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National College of Ireland


Academic Writing Skills Guide: Planning Your Assignments

Why should you plan your assignments?

A well-planned assignment is going to be better organised than an assignment that is not planned at all - at least some planning is always a good idea and can only add to the quality of your final submission. While it is important not to overdo it, the longer you spend planning and thinking about your written assignment, the better your final draft will be.

The writing element is just one part of academic writing, planning should be a crucial part of your overall approach to doing an assignment. It is one of the most important parts of assignment writing which is ultimately led by your reading of relevant academic sources and an assignment will often look for you to present your point of view on a topic through the analysis and discussion of these sources.

Creating a good plan also makes the process of assignment writing easier - it can be difficult and confusing if you are trying to structure and write your assignment at the same time. By planning your assignments thoroughly, you ensure that your work has a consistent, balanced structure and your arguments follow a logical flow with respect to the assignment question – this can help you develop your argument even before you begin writing up the assignment.

There may be a temptation to skip the planning stage, especially when deadlines are approaching and you are keen to get on with researching but planning has multiple benefits.

Planning Helps You To:

Answer the question with clarity, this includes:

  • Getting your writing started - once you have a plan you can develop your points into sentences and paragraphs
  • Thinking about the question carefully before you begin more detailed research
  • Answering the assignment question set and avoiding the inclusion of irrelevant information
  • Committing to sticking to the point, keeping the assignment question central to your writing, ensuring you maintain focus on the central issue(s) and cutting out irrelevant points that distract from your main message
  • Deciding on what to include and what not to include - covering all aspects of the assignment and not leaving anything important out
  • Developing a coherent and well-structured argument
  • Developing your own evaluation and analysis of the main topic points
  • Writing more concisely and avoiding or spotting where there might be overlaps or repetition in your writing



Save time on unnecessary work, this includes:

  • Avoiding being overly distracted by the planning and structuring of your assignment while you are trying to write up the assignment
  • Managing and making efficient use of your time - effective planning speeds up all aspects of the writing process
  • Reading with more focus and taking notes that are more useful
  • Avoiding disorganised drafts of your assignment and having to spend a disproportionate amount of time reworking and reorganising the material



Organise and structure your assignment and research, this includes:

  • Organising your thoughts and ideas by themes and grouping similar ideas together to avoid repetition
  • Strengthening your assignment structure and line of argument including working out a logical order, overall structure and end point of your argument before you start writing
  • Avoiding ending up with lots of notes but not being sure what to do with them
  • Identifying the areas where you need to support your writing with additional reading and research and what other information you might need to back up and expand your points
  • Avoiding being over the word limit before you have finished writing the assignment


Avoid being overwhelmed, this includes:

  • Being less stressed
  • Breaking down the assignment into more manageable sections which makes it easier to deal with
  • Avoiding getting completely lost and not knowing where to start an assignment

Before you start planning for your assignment, think and take note of the following:

  • What type of writing task have you been given? An assignment, report, literature review, case study analysis, reflective journal, research proposal?
  • Compare the assignment brief to the module aims and learning outcomes
  • What is the word count and grading criteria for the assignment? How well you meet the grading criteria will directly influence the grade that you receive for your assignment.
  • When is the submission deadline?
  • Do you understand what your assignment is asking you to do? Think about the meaning of key words and phrases in the assignment title, including 'directive/instructional' terms (see Understanding Assignments).
  • What range and type of information is required?
  • Where can you find and access this information?
  • If not already done, generate some ideas through brainstorming (see Brainstorming Techniques). What is your instinctive response to the question? What do you already know about that is of relevance to the assignment question?

Once you have a clear idea of what is required for your assignment, you can start planning your research and gathering evidence. Before you start reading or writing, try to come up with an outline or plan based on your existing knowledge of the topic and understanding of the question. Your aim is to develop an argument through your assignment; this means planning in some detail how the assignment will flow from one idea to the next.

For your initial plan and outline, use material and slides posted by your lecturer on your Moodle page and match that with any brainstorming you have already done on the topic. While you might be able to make a rough plan at the beginning, this will change as you do more reading and research. 

During the writing process, you may realise some ideas need to be further developed, or others removed so be prepared to update and change your plan as you write. But once you have an initial plan, it is much easier to adapt it and see where new things fit if your thinking does change. This is a back and forth process – the research will inform your plan, and your plan will inform your research.

  • Make a rough outline plan - the plan begins with your own interpretation of the question; this initial plan helps you order your ideas and focus your reading
  • If you really know nothing at all about the topic, some initial skimming and browsing through recommended readings or your lecturer’s course material can provide a few ideas.
  • Once you have an initial plan, further familiarise yourself with all relevant module content and sources posted on your Moodle page. These resources have been specifically chosen by your lecturer to help you with your coursework so using these will help you refine your plan and make writing your assignment easier.
In planning your writing, it is helpful for you to think where you are heading before you set out, so that everything you write can have that end-point in mind, the main message that your assignment is working towards. What is the main point you want to argue or put across in this assignment? You need to work out what to include, and what can be left out. It is impossible to cover everything in an assignment, and your lecturers will be looking for evidence of your ability to choose material and put it in a logical order. It is better to discuss fewer things in more depth than try and cover too many things in brief. Always keep in mind the original assignment task. Keep referring back to it and check that your arguments/examples are relevant to it.



Before you start searching the library for resources or information, you need to have some idea of what you are looking for - note down all the questions you can think of that might relate to your assignment title and criteria and list some keywords around the topic you need to research. By taking time to properly understand the assignment title or question and brainstorming for initial ideas, it can help you make informed decisions about what you need to read for a particular assignment.

In this way, you can decide what information you need and then start gathering it. If left unplanned, the reading stage can swallow up huge amounts of time. Making intelligent decisions, based on your initial planning, about which sources to target, can help you to avoid spending time reading less relevant, inappropriate, or even completely irrelevant material. You will be much more efficient in your reading and your research if you have some idea of where your argument is headed. You can then search for evidence for the points in your tentative plan while you are reading and researching

Use the best sources available – a good place to begin are your lecture notes and module materials for initial references. Go to your Moodle page and look at the lecture notes and other resource material and note down any key points that would be useful for your assignment. At the same time, note down any resource material (recommendations from your reading list or webpages linked to from lecture slides) that would be worth further investigation – if sources are offered to you by your lecturer, make sure you read them, and try to use them, they will be valuable and relevant.

Download a copy here or click on the image above.

Assignment Planning - Guidelines

This template is designed to assist you with the collection and organisation of information into your notes and to plan the structure of your work before you start writing your first draft. The Assignment Planning - Guidelines has four stages:

Stage #1 - Collecting Information
Use the collecting information sheets to insert paraphrases from your sources and information you find for your assignment.
Stage #2 - Organising Your Research
Using the Theme/Subtheme labels from Stage #1, use the organising your research sheets to help you organise and connect the information you have paraphrased into separate sections that relate to the key aspects of your assignment.
Stage #3 - Assignment Framework
Take the information gathered in Stage #2 and organise it into the assignment framework chart to finalise your structure.
Stage #4 - Assignment Checklist
Go through the assignment checklist to check that you have included everything that is required for each section.

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