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National College of Ireland


Academic Writing Skills Guide: Structuring Your Assignment

Why is Structuring Your Assignment Important?

Organising and structuring your assignment can be as important as the content itself as it helps you present your arguments in a logical way. A good, logical structure to your assignment is key to ensuring your lecturer can follow your argument, making it easier to read and understand. You should take them on a journey to your conclusion, so that they can see how your case builds up through your assignment.

An effective structure not only improves the flow of your writing but also demonstrates that you thought about and planned your work before you started writing. This is important as it is obvious to any lecturer if you have not planned your work before you start. Not only does this demonstrate poor thinking, it makes your work harder to understand, which will inevitably harm your grades. 

If you work on the structure before you write your first draft, you will not have to do so much reorganisation and rewriting when it is completed. Time spent organising the structure of the main body of your assignment is valuable as it gives you the chance to link paragraphs together into a logical sequence.  It will also make the writing process easier as adopting a structured approach helps you break down each part of the process into manageable chunks.

Planning the structure of an assignment is important and will help you to feel more in control of your writing as it begins to take shape. Good planning is key for a well-structured assignment – you should not launch into writing with no idea of what you are going to write. Think carefully about how to structure your assignment before you start to write. 

Having a well-structured plan will help you considerably in producing a cohesive assignment and will also allow you to write your assignment in stages since it will clearly map out the direction you should proceed in. Before you begin writing, check the structure to make sure it matches the assignment requirements and repeat these checks as you draft and redraft your assignments.

Your structure should show:

  • the logical order in which you will address different aspects of the assignment question
  • the key point that you wish to make about each one
  • and the evidence you will include to support each one
Planning is an on-going process as you draft and edit your assignments so your structure will often change as you write the assignment. The initial plan helps you to put your ideas into a form which represents an early draft structure but also gives you a clear direction for further reading and research. Your plan will continue to be modified after you do more research.

Keep referring back to the question and assignment brief and make sure that your structure matches what you have been asked to do and check to see if you have appropriate and sufficient evidence to support all of your points. Plans can be structured/restructured at any time during the writing process.

Once you have decided on your key point(s), draw a line through any points that no longer seem to fit. This will mean you are eliminating some ideas and potentially letting go of one or two points that you wanted to make. However, this process is all about improving the relevance and coherence of your writing. Writing involves making choices, including the tough choice to sideline ideas that, however promising, do not fit into your main discussion.

Eventually, you will have a structure that is detailed enough for you to start writing. You will know which ideas go into each section and, ideally, each paragraph and in what order. You will also know which evidence for those ideas from your notes you will be using for each section and paragraph.

Once you have a map/framework of the proposed structure, this forms the skeleton of your assignment and if you have invested enough time and effort into researching and brainstorming your ideas beforehand, it should make it easier to flesh it out. Ultimately, you are aiming for a final draft where you can sum up each paragraph in a couple of words as each paragraph focuses on one main point or idea.

All written assignments have a required word count which generally does not include the bibliography or cover page – you will be expected to stay within 10% of the advised word count. Use the word count to develop your structure and plan - set approximate word limits for each of your sections so you stay within the overall word count target.

Also, look at the marking criteria for the sections of your assignment and break down your word count for each section accordingly - if there is no indication of different marks, treat each section equally. The breakdown of marks tells you how much time to spend on, and how much to write on, each part of the assignment.

The best time to outline an initial structure is usually after you have done your initial reading and research and decided what you are going to argue. At this stage, you should begin to have an idea of the key points you want to make. Try out different ways of organising your ideas and arguments into different themes (the Library Help Centre’s Assignment Planning Guidelines can help you with this).

Look through your notes. What are the common or recurring themes and ideas? What are the important issues? Establish connections between your points and synthesise ideas from a range of authors and sources; group together similar points and ideas from your sources under different themes. By writing thematically you can structure your writing much more clearly and create space for your own critical analysis and evaluation.

It is the argument, and how you decide to present and back up your argument, that will determine how you structure your assignment. Your argument should be based on the evidence that you have found in your reading and how convincing you think that evidence is. The key evidence and reasoning for your position form the main points that you try and develop in your assignment. 

Ideally, at the end of this process, you should know how your assignment will end before you start properly writing it up. Inevitably there will be ideas and information you will have to leave out - you may realise that some material is not credible or relevant enough for the assignment.

The argument in your assignment is basically a series of points so it is worth giving some thought to how you will arrange your ideas so that your sections and paragraphs follow a logical order. No need to be worried by the term logical order, it just means putting your points in a sensible order that takes your reader through your discussion step-by-step – what do they need to know first, and next, and then next? What will be the best order for your ideas? You need to be able to put things in a logical order, so that your reader can follow what you are saying throughout the whole assignment. 

Grouping your points together from your assignment planning will help you create a logical order. You can then put these groups into a sequence that the reader can follow to help them make sense of the topic or argument. This normally goes from general to specific but can vary depending on the assignment. When you start writing you should have a clear idea of what you want to say from the planning stage. Use a list of your main points and think about what the reader needs to know and in what order they need to know it.

Write each key point on a separate post-it note (you can get these from the Library Help Centre) or PowerPoint slide, with the evidence or references you have to support it listed in brief; shuffle the notes/slides around until you find a logical order. How does each point link to the one before it and the one after?
Each note/slide will develop into one of your paragraphs. If you decide you like the order you have put them in, then take a photo of the post-it notes or save the PowerPoint presentation. If you think it is not right, rearrange them until you get it how you like it. Do not be afraid to experiment with alternative structures, as this process may lead you to refine your argument further.

For any assignment always check with your lecturer if they require a specific structure. If your lecturer has given you specific instructions about how to organise your assignment, make sure you follow them. Academic assignments usually follow an established organisational structure that has, at a minimum, an introduction, main body and conclusion.

Each of these sections has a distinct purpose and is equally important:

The introduction is essentially a map for the reader; it sets out the path that your assignment will follow. Outline the main direction the writing will take and give any necessary background information and context.
Main Body
The purpose of the main body is to set out your argument. Here, you work through key points and support them with evidence. The main body is made up of paragraphs that develop each of the assignment’s main points. These points should be set out in a logical order, to make it easier for the reader to follow and understand.
The conclusion draws together the main threads of your argument as you summarise the most important points and then show that you have answered the assignment question/brief. Here, you highlight the key message or argument you want the reader to take away, clearly stating your point of view. You may also identify any gaps or weaknesses in the arguments or ideas presented and recommend further research or investigation where appropriate.

When you have completed your research you should be in a position to prepare an outline plan for the assignment. The outline plan is a more structured and detailed plan than the initial plan you created at the brainstorming stage. It should give you a step-by-step overview of the assignment.

Convert your initial plan into an outline plan listing:

  • the main themes
  • the focus point of each paragraph
  • supporting information and sources you will refer to
  • your own analysis of the information from your sources

Reorder your plan until you are satisfied that you have a logical, easy to follow structure.

Use the end of the introduction to outline the structure of the rest of the assignment
Use headings and sub-headings to clearly indicate the topic/subject of your sections
Use topic sentences at the beginning of each paragraph to make it clear what the paragraph is about (see Using Paragraphs guide)
Ensure all sentences expand upon or contribute to the main idea of the paragraph which was stated in the topic sentence
Use signposting language in your sentences, where appropriate, to guide your reader through your discussion (see Signposting guide)

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 sheet to list the sources and information you find for your assignment.
Stage #2 - Organising Your Research
Use the organising your research sheet to help you organise and combine the sources you found in Stage #1 into separate sections that relate to different themes in 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 check list to check that you have included everything that is required for each section.

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