Plan your writing

There are many ways of approaching writing tasks. The process outlined in this section will help you to think and plan before you write. Some people write without much obvious thinking and planning and produce successful essays, but most writers produce much better essays when they think and plan carefully before they start to write. Unplanned writing often results in a product that requires endless editing and reshaping. This can be frustrating and time consuming.

Tertiary essays tend to be complex because of the types of thinking that needs to be demonstrated. These types of thinking include analysis of key research, synthesising different sources (by comparing and contrasting) and evaluating ideas. It is difficult to demonstrate these skills without planning. Writing without planning is like trying to build a house without a plan. Neither a house nor an essay can be built without considering the features and how they fit together, nor can they be built without decisions being made about what features have to be built first and how subsequent features will relate to those that have already been laid down. Concept mapping can be a really helpful method here. The process of concept mapping will help you consider when the ideas will be introduced, how arguments will be built around core ideas, which ideas are similar or different to each other and how they are or are not linked. See the later sections on critical thinking and concept mapping for more about these important concepts.

Having a plan for an essay does not mean that the plan cannot be changed when you start to write. Indeed, the process of writing seems to make one’s creativity flow, so it is highly likely that you will want to make changes to your plan once you start to write. However, using the building analogy, being able to go back to the plan to check if the new idea will work with the others is critical if one is to write a clear and concise piece.

When you first look at the process outlined in this section, you may think that it will be more time consuming than the process you usually follow. Remember that whenever you learn something new, it is time consuming to apply it initially, but in the long run, you should have a smoother, easier technique that will require less editing. Additionally, there is a good chance that you will have a clearer idea of what you want to say before you write which should result in clearer communication. This means your reader is more likely to understand where you are ‘taking him or her’ or how you are developing your ideas or argument. When your reader (also your marker!) understands the track down which s/he is being taken, you should also achieve higher marks!

10 steps to follow when tackling assignments

Read the question carefully

• Circle the task words (verbs) or the words that tell you what to do, for example, discuss, analyse, compare, contrast, review and so on. Refer to the list of these words and their meanings at the end of this chapter.
• Underline the nouns, names or particular issues you are asked to address.
• Bracket the limiting words which direct you to focus or limit your discussion to certain periods of time, populations (or groups) and places. You can remember these by recalling 3 P’s – period, population and place. Here are some examples of each:

Period Population Place
‘since the Whitlam era’ ‘children with Hyperactivity Disorder’ ‘in developing countries’
‘between 1901 and the beginning of World War 11’ ‘patients with high blood pressure’ ‘in urban re-development zones’

It is possible that not all of these “three P’s” will be present in a topic, but it is important to look out for them, because if you ignore them and write a general essay, it is unlikely to be well received. Additionally and importantly, it may be necessary at times to specify or refine your own topic. You can do this by ensuring that you have task, topic and limiting words as you define a specific topic for yourself within a more general one.

Here is an example of a general essay topic:

Discuss drug abuse and its implications for society.

As this topic stands there are many different essays that could be written or you could specify the topic in a number of ways for example:
1. Discuss who is most at risk of drug abuse and outline the effects that drug use has on the legal system and financial resources in society.
2. Define and discuss drug abuse and explain how at least three different theories would explain its effect on society.
3. Discuss drug abuse as a social issue in Australia and compare and contrast it to at least one developing country of your choice.

Sometimes topics are deliberately broad so that you can research an area of particular interest. If you decide to specify a topic beyond the topic you are given, always check with your lecturer or tutor that you have not refined it too much. Here is the third topic above with underlines, bolding and brackets included:

Discuss drug abuse as a social issue {in Australia} and compare and contrast it to at least one {developing country} of your choice.


As you can see, the bold words indicate what you are trying to do with your writing: you will provide an overview of the drug use as a social issue (discuss) and then look at the similarities and differences between Australia and another developing country (compare and contrast). The bracketed words direct your focus to one of the 3P’s (population, place or period): in this case Australia and a developing country. The underlined words are the issues you will discuss: ‘developing country’ is an issue as well as a place as it focuses your research on that particular context.

Note the specific requirements of the unit or subject

Read the unit learning objectives or course learning outcomes to determine what you are supposed to learn in the subject. (Objectives or outcomes are used to specify exactly what you are supposed to learn as a result of taking that subject). If you can demonstrate these objectives in your essay, you are likely to do better than if you touch on material that is not really the business of that course or subject. Some topics will clearly state which objectives of the course are being examined through the topic. In this case, be very sure that your essay does focus on the learning objectives that have been outlined. Here is an example of an essay topic that has learning objectives linked to it:

Discuss and evaluate Long’s theory of thermometiculosis and explain which elements of it would be applicable to metropolitan disaster planning. Consider learning objectives 1 and 2.


When the student checks the learning guide or course outline, these learning objectives are:
1. To research widely and in depth to develop a thorough understanding of planning issues.
2. To show an understanding of the wide range of issues that affect urban contingency planning.
The essay needs to show that the student has demonstrated these objectives.

Decide what the ‘real life’ purpose of the essay is

There are different styles and purposes for different types of tertiary writing. Audiences (or the people who are likely to read that essay in real life) may differ as well. This will be covered in more detail in the section on genre, but a brief example here should clarify this concept. A case study is an example of a genre or style of writing that is sometimes used in tertiary study. The main purpose of a case study is for a professional in a field to examine a person or a site (for example a business) to evaluate strengths and weaknesses and make recommendations usually to another professional about changes that need to be made or a program that needs to be developed. The ‘real life’ purpose for a case study is to provide advice, therefore it should analyse the situation, outline strengths and weaknesses and make recommendations. Because it is usually written for business people (often with limited time to read), it is important that it is easy to read and clearly set out with headings and sub-headings. However, headings and sub-headings are not usually required in more traditional tertiary essays. So clearly purpose and audience affect the way you structure and present a piece of writing.

There are a number of ways of doing this. One is simply to write down each of the 10 stages in the writing process and next to each one, write a date or time by which you want to have that stage completed. Another way is to use a planner over the whole semester for all of your subjects and to allocate stages of the assignment writing process that you will focus on each week. Obviously there is enormous variation between assignments in terms of length, difficulty and availability of resources and these will affect your time allocations. For a 1000 to 1500 word assignment you can expect to do about 15 hours of work. This includes every stage of the process. As a rough guide for a short (1000 to 1500 word assignment), the following time allocations may be considered:

Stage Task Time
1 Analyse the question one or possibly two hours
2 Assign time thirty minutes
3 Brainstorm and map Thirty minutes to one hour
4 Develop focus questions Thirty minutes to one hour
5 Browse Two to three hours
6 Refine questions Thirty minutes to one hour
7 Analyse the readings Five to six hours
8 Plan One to two hours
9 Write Five to six hours
10 Edit and proof-read One to two hours

Please realize how difficult it is to set limits on times because people have different abilities, motivation and skills. Use this as a very rough guide. Adapt it so that it suits you. Try to stay within a total of about 15 hours for a 1000 to 1500 word assignment. You may find you need more time initially, but hopefully you will get more efficient as you gain more experience. Here is an example of what a semester assignment planner might look like, concentrating on planning for the first two subjects:

Filled week table fixed

Notice that the plan is to work on assignments for different subjects in the same week and to start early, at least three weeks before the assignment is due. This is important, because students often spend a lot of time on the earlier assignments and then find that there is not enough time left to work on the later ones. If these assignments are worth more marks than the earlier ones, this is an especially unwise approach.

This involves simply writing the key words from your topic in the middle of the page in a circle or a box and then writing all your ideas around the topic on legs or branches that stick out from the circle. Write down everything you know even if you think it may be ‘wrong’. Do not censor your ideas, just write down everything you can think of from the most basic concept to ‘wild’ ideas you may have. Do not worry about putting your ideas down in order, just get them down. If you have a total ‘mental blank’ try asking yourself the 5w’s + H (who, what, when, where, why and how). If you still have no idea at all, it may help to look through some basic texts to get a general idea of the topic. Concept mapping is an ideal tool for brainstorming and will be covered in more detail in Chapter12. Here is what a brainstorming concept map might look like for the following topic:

Discuss the qualities necessary for effective nurses. Which qualities and/or skills do you believe are most important?

Qualities of Effective Nurses png

These questions are really important. They will guide your research and also help you later to structure your essay. They help you to focus your research and should be developed in conjunction with your brainstorming concept map. Look at your map and ask yourself:

• What more do I need to find out to answer the question?
• Do the ‘experts’ agree with the views that I have in my map?
• Are there statistics or other data that will be helpful?
• How valid are my ideas?

If you are having trouble developing questions, turn each idea on your brainstorm map into a question, by using the 5 W’s + H or who, what, when, where, why and how. For example, the word ‘leadership’on the brainstorm map could be changed into any one or all of the following questions:

• Is leadership necessary to be an efficient nurse?
• Why is leadership important?
• How do nurses need to display leadership?
• How much education is necessary for nurses to be effective practitioners?
• How important are personality traits such as empathy and compassion?
• How important is the role of quick thinking and decision making in nurse effectiveness?

As you develop questions make sure they are related to the key ideas in the topic.

Use keywords from you focus questions to get started with your search. Start with indexes and contents pages in text books in the library to get a general introduction to your topic. As you become more familiar with the topic, move to searching for journals and online data bases which will usually give you more specific information than books. Be careful not to rely on the internet alone. There is plenty of useful information there, but your lecturers usually want to see that you can use a variety of sources and that the ones you choose are reputable and refereed. In other words, they are written by people in academic circles whose work has been read and checked by other ‘experts’ in the field. These sources are also called peer reviewed journals. Many library databases will specify which sources are peer reviewed and it is nearly always wise to use library data bases rather than Google or even Google Scholar.

Using peer reviewed and ‘academic sources’ does not mean that you cannot ever use non-academic sources, but you need to be aware that some books and internet sites may lack objectivity. It is wise in most academic assignments to steer away from popular texts, self help books and magazines and newspapers, however, there are some areas of study where it is acceptable to use and possibly critique these sources, for example journalism and media studies. Check with your lecturer or tutor. In general, academics aim to be non-biased and objective and this should be your aim as well.

As far as finding information in the library goes, remember that you may need to think of synonyms (words with similar meanings) to find what you are looking for, for example ‘behaviour’ could also be found under ‘conduct’. Use the words that are specific to the subject you are studying. It is important that while you are working in this stage of the assignment writing process that you do not take detailed notes yet! Of course you should take note of call numbers and names of books and journals and addresses of internet sites, but writing notes at this stage can often be counter-productive because without a good understanding of the topic and what you might need, one tends to write down much more information than necessary, and this can waste a lot of valuable time. The purpose of browsing is simply to gain a general understanding of your topic area.

Now that you have had a good look in the library and you understand the area a little more clearly, think about whether your research questions need to be refined. Ask yourself:

• Are some of my questions too broad?
• Should I include additional questions in my focus questions?
• Are my questions well related to the topic and the subject or unit objectives?
• Are there some questions that I should remove from my list of questions?

Approximately five to ten questions should be sufficient for a 1000 to 2000 word essay. However you will need to use your discretion here.

Now that you have a reasonable set of questions and an understanding of the material that is available for your research, you will be able to start reading in earnest. This is the time to start taking notes from your readings. The following strategy is useful here:

• Set up a folder in your computer (or physically if you prefer) for the essay you are working on.
• Use separate cards for a physical folder or separate documents on your computer for each one of your research questions and store these in the essay folder.
• At the top of each card or document write the research question as a title.
• Take notes under each question as you find information that answers that particular question.
• Be sure to include the author, page and date as you record information in your notes.
• Always try to write the idea in your own words when you are taking notes. This ensures that you fully understand what you are writing and also helps you to avoid plagiarism when you write the essay from your notes later.

Here is an example of some notes taken under a heading or research question (this is an essay on the factors that contribute to social inequality). The document below is one of the research questions on this topic. Notice that the notes are brief.

What effect does gender have on social inequality?
• Williams (2009): lowest pay for women for similar work: see Stats pg 34
• Smith (2008): single parents and child caring responsibilities (pg 51)
• Richards (2010): ethnicity and gender issues compound poverty statistics (pg 68).

This map is the plan of your essay. It usually has about four to six major branches that are the main issues that you want to address in your essay. Each major branch will have sub-branches or ideas that you will develop in more detail. It can and probably should include your references so that you have planned which sources you will use at different points in your essay. Remember that as you work along a branch, the ideas are usually organized from general to specific concepts. This tends to be (although it is not always) how essays are structured – start with a general principle, then detail or explain the principle further.

Once you have the main legs or branches (the major issues you want to address in answer to the question) and you have decided what you want to say about them (the sub-branches on your map) you should then think about the order that you will use to introduce those ideas to your reader. Some common plans to determine the order in which you discuss ideas are:

• General concepts early in the essay and specific concepts later
• Time or chronological order
• Logic: one principle is explained first and other concepts that relate to it are built one on another
• Most important concepts early and less important later

‘General to specific’ and ‘logic’ seem to be the major plans used in most academic writing. Here is an example of a concept map which serves as a plan for the essay: ‘Is HIV-AIDS the twenty-first century plague?’

AIDS. 21st Century Plague? png

You will notice on the map that there are references to authors without much more information. These references are there to remind you to go back to your research questions and use the information you recorded there, for example under “Effects” and “physical” you will see Smith 2006 with the word “organs”. You would need to refer back to your research question to be sure to include some details about organs. Additionally, it is often wise to plan the introduction and conclusion after you have decided what will be discussed in the body. Remember, the introduction always needs a general orientation or background context about the topic, a general overview of the information you will cover and most often a thesis statement which is your answer to the question. The conclusion should not include any new information, instead it should sum up or clarify the relationships between the main points you made in the essay.

As you use your map to help you write, you will have to make decisions about how you structure the work. For example, referring to the map above, ‘Morbidity/mortality’ could be a heading in your essay with a new paragraph for each sub-heading of the map, for example, a paragraph about ‘rate of spread’ and one about ‘death rate’ and so on. Shorter tertiary essays do not usually have headings, but check with your lecturer as to what is required. If you are not going to write a heading, remember to link each paragraph to the heading on your map. For example, the paragraph about ‘rate of spread’ (above) should make links to the heading above it on the map which is ‘morbidity/mortality. Remember that if you do write headings in your essay, it is important not to overuse them. Too many headings break the work up and it can seem disjointed. Remember too, that if you use headings, you still need to have links between paragraphs to ensure flow of ideas. This will be discussed in more detail in Chapter 7.

This final stage is a very important part of the process. Be sure to allow time to do this – not a quick glance at it just before you take your essay to hand it in or submit it electronically! It is usually best to leave at least a day between writing and editing. Of course some editing and proof reading will happen as you write. If you can come back to your work after some time away, you will usually find that you see it with fresh eyes and if you have trouble understanding your work, so will your marker! If this is the case, you need to make changes to clarify the ideas for your reader. There should be no doubt or ambiguity in your work.

There is much more that could be said about editing and proof reading. Editing means that you may cut out or add sentences or parts of your work so that it makes more sense. Editing is usually to improve the meaning, sense or ‘flow’ of the work. Proof reading means that you will need to check for spelling and typographical errors as well as checking the layout, grammar and punctuation. The following strategy may be helpful:

• Read once for sense, flow and meaning. Ask yourself if it makes sense and is easy to understand.
• Read again looking for typographical errors and spelling mistakes. Read slowly.
• Read again for grammar and punctuation. This time read aloud. When you hear it you can sometimes pick up errors that you overlook when you read silently. This is particularly important with punctuation. When you read aloud and take a breath, you will usually find you need a punctuation mark – a comma for a short break and a full stop for a longer break.

Never underestimate the importance of this stage. Marks can be improved substantially by effective editing and proof reading.

Reflection and Conclusion

Have a series of steps

Following a series of sequential steps will help make the writing process more manageable.
Do you think you will use the process as it is or will you personalize it?
What is your assignment writing process likely to look like?

Allow yourself time

Whatever process you follow, be sure you allow enough time to think about and plan your response.

Leave yourself plenty time to research and write, as it may take longer than you think.

What do you think is the most useful piece of advice for you in this chapter and how do you believe it will help you to write more effectively?

Task words and their meanings

Task word Meaning
Analyse Find the essential elements or component parts. How is the whole made up?
Argue Present a case in response to a question. It could be a case for one side of an argument or a case where you argue that different aspects of different arguments are useful. This then becomes your new argument.
Comment on Point out the important features and critique or make relevant comments on them.
Compare Point out the similarities between ideas.
Contrast Show the differences between ideas.
Criticize or critique Discuss the strengths and weaknesses of ideas by identifying the key arguments and commenting on them.
Define Give clear meanings for words and ideas and show how they are different from other similar concepts.
Describe Explain in detail the features, characteristics or stages of something.
Discuss Point out the positive and negative features as well as the usefulness and application of ideas. Usually conclude with an evaluation of the ideas.
Evaluate Judge or appraise ideas by considering advantages, disadvantages and usefulness, sometimes by referring to a standard.
Examine Investigate closely and critically.
Explain Clarify, interpret and give reasons.
Justify Give reasons for conclusions or advice.
Outline Identify the central and subordinate features without going into minor details. Show how the ideas are organized or classified.
Review Examine critically, identify and analyse the important features and comment on strengths and weaknesses.
State Identify the main points, usually without giving examples.
Summarise Give the main points or facts without detail.