Assignment Guide

University work involves writing. Writing is important not only because it is one of the main methods by which you will be assessed but also because writing is an excellent way of promoting active learning.

Most of the writing tasks you will be given will be designed to make you think carefully about the material you are dealing with and will not usually allow you to regurgitate your knowledge in exactly the form in which you acquired it.

You are expected to demonstrate your mastery of the material by re-formulating it or by applying it in different contexts. So, writing should not be seen as a chore which is important only for assessment purposes: it is a vital part of learning at university.

What follows is not all you need to know in order to write well but it is a good start.

Many problems in presenting assignments are related to the misuse of quotations from secondary sources (that is material presenting critical interpretations of primary texts). It is acceptable to refer to secondary material to gain knowledge or find different interpretations that may stimulate your own thinking and, sometimes, confirm ideas you already hold.

Whether you quote your source directly or simply paraphrase the idea, you must always acknowledge the source you used. Keep in mind that the total word count in an assignment refers not only to your own words but usually includes direct quotations and paraphrasing.

Therefore, don't overuse quotations, use them only to support your argument or thesis.

Plagiarism is taking and using someone else's thoughts, writings or inventions and representing them as your own; for example downloading an essay from a cheat site, copying another student's work or using an author's words or ideas without citing the source.

Plagiarism is a form of cheating. It is a University offence punishable by a range of penalties including a fine or deduction/cancellation of marks and, in the most serious of cases, exclusion from a unit, a course, or the University. When in doubt consult your lecturer or tutor.

Details of penalties that can be imposed are available in the Ordinance of Student Discipline or from Academic Integrity for Students.

If a quotation is short, from a couple of words to approximately three lines, it should be marked by single quotation marks and incorporated as part of the sentence. For example:

Dennis Lawton (1994, p. 90) argues that these proposals 'have much in common with John White's idea of a friendly interface'.

When you need to show a quote within a quote, use double quotation marks inside the single ones.

A quotation of 30 or more words should be separated from the sentence that supports it by indenting the quoted passage. Indent quotations about 3 cm from the margin, and make the font 1 point smaller than the surrounding text. Do not enclose the quote in quotation marks. Introduce indented quotes so that they follow on from the preceding sentences, for example:

Developments have been rapid or as Ed Krol (1992, p. xix) says:

the information resources that visionaries talked about in the early 80s are not just "research realities" that a few advanced thinkers can play with in some lab-they're "real life" realities that you can tap into from your home. Once you're connected to the Internet, you have instant access to an almost indescribable wealth of information

If you leave out a word or words from a quote you must ensure that the meaning of the quoted passage stays the same. You should always indicate that a word or words have been left out by inserting three trailing dots instead of the omitted words.

If you leave out words at the end of the quote remember to put a full-stop after the three trailing dots and close with single quote marks. Trailing dots at the end of a quoted passage should look like this:

that 'such assumptions have long been accepted by most universities...'.

If you leave out a whole sentence or more within your quotation, you should indicate this by using four trailing dots instead of three. If you change a quote or adjust it to make it read sensibly in the context of your sentence you should use square brackets, [ ], to designate the alteration.

Use formal language. Avoid the use of personal and colloquial language; conventions of essay writing require that your language is impersonal and formal. Avoid first person pronouns (e.g. I and me).

If you can cut out words without losing meaning, cut them.

Do not use long words if a short one will do.

Avoid clichés. Popular management writing is full of them - for example "walking the talk". Use of them does not indicate command over theory, it actually hides any command you do have.

Each paragraph should cover only one set of closely connected ideas.
There is no perfect writing style. Ideally yours should be fluent, precise, elegant, and informed. Practice is, as we have said, the only way to develop this sort of style. In the meantime some useful observations:

Make sure your spelling and punctuation are correct. Do not rely solely on a spell checker which is unable to distinguish the context in which you might be using the words principal (le), their (there), advice (advise) etc.

Do not use long sentences. Anything more than two lines is hard to control. One idea per sentence is a good guide.

Answer the question.

Remain relevant to the question.

Produce evidence to back up your generalisation/opinions. This could be:

  • statistical
  • from other authorities.

Be logical. Make sure the plan flows.

Assignments must exhibit minimum presentation standards. Students are informed that technical and presentation deficiencies can inhibit understanding and make it difficult for assessors to award marks for analyses and discussions. If text cannot be readily understood because of poor presentation or technical deficiencies, that text is unlikely to be well-rewarded.

Word Limit -- The word limit includes such items as headings, in-text references, quotes and executive summaries. It does not included the reference list at the end of the assignment.

Referencing -- Assignments must follow the Harvard referencing style.

Note that poor referencing and inappropriate word count will be reflected in the mark awarded.

In general, coursework must:

  • not exceed the specified number of words.
  • contain a list of references, cited correctly with a consistent format.

Coursework must be word processed in a 12 point font, use double-line spacing and should avoid using inferior-quality dot-matrix printing. You should provide generous margins in your assignment to allow for comments; use one side only of quality A4 paper; number every page; and staple the pages in the top left hand corner. Please do not use folders or plastic pockets for your assignment. These will not add to your marks, they will be discarded, and it would be a waste of your money to use them.

Finally, always keep a copy of the assignment. This covers you in the event of your submitted assignment going astray.

Like all skilled activities, essay writing requires much practice, much thinking and much hard work if you are to master the art. It is probably not surprising, then, that many people have developed some common reasons for failure to excuse themselves from the work involved. Among the most widespread are the following.

"Good writers are especially talented people."
If you believe this, then you have the perfect excuse for not trying to improve your writing. You can say to others (and yourself), "It's not my fault that I can't write an essay. I can't help it if I wasn't born a genius". But you would be deluding yourself. The most important assets are determination and perseverance.
"Good writers are born, not made."
If you believe this, then it is easy to persuade yourself that there is no point in trying to develop your writing skills. It is not your fault - you were just born that way. The fact is, as every professional writer knows, that writing is a skill that can be developed, and must be worked at if ever you are to be successful at it. Most people who write for a living can tell you of the years they spent perfecting their skill. There is no way to obtain proficiency as a writer except through practice and hard work. The great French writer Stendhal wrote:
As late as 1806, I was waiting for genius to set upon me so that I might write... If I had spoken around 1795 of my plans to write, some sensible man would have told me to write every day for an hour or so. Genius or no genius. That advice would have made me use profitably ten years of my life that I wasted stupidly waiting for genius to descend.
Now that you are thoroughly depressed about writing we will offer a few important points before you put this handbook down and never open it again!
  • While learning to write requires effort it does get easier with practice.
  • Writing well will improve your examination results.
  • Good writers are highly sought after by employers.
  • Senior executives are often chosen for their communication skills and good writing is a vital part of communication.
  • Writing is a good way to learn.

Before getting into the stages involved in writing an essay a couple of remarks about the effort involved should be made.

You will not produce a good essay by sitting down and just writing it. Mozart allegedly produced great music by simply writing it, no revisions, no second thoughts. Unless you are his equivalent in essay writing, you will need to re-write, redraft and re-order before you produce a good product.

The importance of re-writing and drafting to good writing can not be understated. Several drafts of an essay are usually necessary to achieve a polished final version. Another excellent reason for drafting is that the drafting process breaks the writing into separate stages, allowing you to concentrate on one activity at a time.

If the writing is left to the night before the essay is due you will have to do many things at once. You must clarify your thoughts, organise the necessary materials (particularly when reserved books are unavailable and the library is about to close) and find a structure to address the question. You must then write the essay, making sure that your ideas are clearly expressed and have a degree of continuity as well as conforming to the conventions of the department and being grammatically correct.

There are simply too many things to do them all well and so it is far better to divide them up and concentrate on one or two tasks at a time. It is painfully obvious to the reader when an essay has been whipped up at the last minute. If you submit a last minute essay, expect an equivalent mark! The converse is that a well planned and carefully considered essay is usually a pleasure to read and will receive an appropriate grade.

Another reason to avoid the "night before, all at once" performance is that it is one of the best ways to cause writer's block. The more pressure there is to write presentable copy the worse the blank page panic can be. Breaking the writing down into a series of tasks over time relieves the

Writing and revising drafts requires time. To allow for this prepare a schedule which breaks the process into stages. For example:

StageCompletion Date
1) Read the question, define the key terms
2) Paraphrase the question
3) Research
4) Brainstorming
5) Plan a structure
6) First draft
7) First revision
8) Second draft
9) Second revision and proofreading
10) Submission copy

When you schedule your essay make sure that you allow plenty of time for the writing phase (parts 6-10). Most students appear to spend 90% of their time and effort on the planning and research stages where they gather the material for the content of the essay, leaving only 10% for the writing.

Generally this is not enough time to write a convincing essay. Remember that the way the essay is written is just as important as the content. Academics place a high value on the way you structure your writing and express your ideas. You should allocate at least 30% of the total time available to the writing phase. This will give you enough time for at least one major revision and re-write to concentrate on structure and expression.

We now discuss each step in turn.

The Essay Writing Process

For the purpose of discussion we will use the following question as an example:

Evaluate the role of creativity in decision making. What techniques can be used to improve the level of this decision making?

At first glance the key words may appear to be "creativity", "decision" and "techniques". Some definition here is certainly important. For example, what is creativity? What is a decision and what types of decision are there? Beyond this we also need to be aware of key phrases such as "evaluate the role of creativity" and "improve the level (of creativity in) decision making". There are some key terms that occur regularly in essay questions which direct you in the kind of answer expected of you:

Compare. Discuss both the similarities and the differences between two sets of material. Sometimes expressed as Compare and Contrast. Contrast. Similar to the above, except that you are now required to concentrate on the differences between the two sets. Define. Give the precise meaning of a word or a phrase. Show how the term is used in a given area of activity. Discuss. Look at all aspects of an issue; debate an issue, giving reasons and evidence for and against an argument being proposed.

Evaluate. Consider the worth of something, in the light of its truth and/or its usefulness.
Illustrate. Use a figure or diagram to explain or clarify something; make an idea or argument clearer by using concrete examples.
Outline. Give the main feature or general principles of a topic. Concentrate on the essential elements to bring out the structure.

The real point of defining your terms is to ensure that you know what they mean. After looking carefully at the definitions involved in the topic, you need to put it together in your mind in a way that will ensure that you understand what the question is asking you to do.

One of the best techniques for ensuring that you have control of the topic is to write a simplified paraphrase of it to write it out in such a way that an eight-year-old child would understand what the question means, and would know what would have to be done to answer it adequately. For example: Creativity can play an important role in some forms of decision making. When a decision requires an innovative solution then a creative decision maker can be extremely useful.

A range of techniques is available to enhance creativity when innovative solutions are required. The question asks "How useful is creativity in decision making" and "what techniques are available to improve creative decision making".

Paraphrasing may seem a clumsy and time consuming operation at first. But it is one of those techniques which, if practised regularly, has a great deal to offer the student. Once you can do it quickly and efficiently, you will be able to confidently and precisely answer a question, even under exam conditions. The most "deadly sin" of essay writing is not answering the question. There is nothing more disheartening than having your well written essay failed because you did not answer the question. Competent paraphrasing and essay planning will help you avoid this potential tragedy.

When you are paraphrasing try to think "why" the lecturer/tutor has set the essay topic. What is he/she looking for? Listen for clues in lectures and tutorials and if you are not sure then ask the lecturer for clarification.

Thorough research of an essay topic is probably the biggest difference between Secondary School writing and writing at University level. Researching information for your essays may involve using various encyclopedias, reference books, course textbooks, yearbooks and searching for serial articles in journals or abstracts.

These various sources provide different types of information. The previous stages "read the question, define" and "paraphrase" will indicate to you what types of information you will need. Figure 1 shows the different steps in researching your topic and will help you identify the type of information you need.

The key to successful research lies in:

  • Understanding what the question is really about.
  • Knowing what resources are best suited to provide the answers.
  • Knowing how to find them.
  • Knowing how to use them.
Figure 1 - Where to Find Information
(Courtesy of University of Tasmania Library)

The University library is an excellent resource for students. The staff is friendly and helpful so if you have problems do not hesitate to ask the information desk for help. The library also has resource guides that are specific for each school. The Management resource guide can be found at:

Electronic database searches can be a very useful way to find recent journal articles on the topic you are interested in. The library provides access to a number of indexing databases -- the Management resource guide provides information on which ones will be most useful. You can access the databases from any computer lab on campus, and in some cases from home or work. See the library for details.

The library provides training sessions for class groups and individuals in using the library catalogue and the indexing databases. These are a worthy investment of time and an excellent introduction to the cutting edge of electronic information.

It is important to be disciplined in the way that you research your essay topic. Many students use information collecting as a form of procrastination. These people can often be seen standing for hours in front of a photocopier, hypnotised by the reassuring flash of the copier, collecting armfuls of photocopied books and articles.

In most cases very little of this material is actually used. If you have organised your time properly very little photocopying is necessary. If you make notes thoughtfully, in the light of the purpose of the essay, you will find that a structure to the essay will begin to appear and suggest itself. This is the real value of good research!

Try to organise your notes systematically (e.g. having noted the main points from each of your sources, you might re-arrange them by topic in folders, on cards, or in separate files on your computer).

The purpose of brainstorming at this stage is to bring all of your research to mind so you can arrange it into a logical order later. Let your mind run free, don't worry if connections are not immediately obvious, just write it all down as quickly as you can. Brainstorming is an excellent bridge between researching and writing the essay. This bridge is probably the most difficult step in writing an essay.

Having scribbled down all that you can think of, try to find a way to link and organise your material. Often other ideas will occur to you as you do this so include them as well.

Your essay should have a logical structure, including:

  • an introduction,
  • a body-a series of main points in logical order,
  • a conclusion, and
  • a list of references.

The introduction says what the essay is about. It describes the purpose of the essay, and what it will or will not include. The argument or thesis of the essay can be explained in the introduction. It is probably wise to leave writing the introduction until you have finished the body of the essay.

The body of the essay consists of a series of main points in logical order. Write up each point in a paragraph. The order in which you write up the points does not matter at first, but as you write you will decide that one point flows naturally from another. As the essay develops you can move the paragraphs about to connect the points more logically.

If you have established a plan you may prefer to write up your points in order. However, it is important to be flexible. As you get more deeply into the topic you may discover that an alternative arrangement seems better. A good paragraph will have a key sentence, which is supported by other sentences in the paragraph. Various writers talk about "key" sentences, "control" sentences or "topic" sentences. In each case this is the major and possibly the first sentence of a paragraph. The key sentence can provide a link to the main theme and to the previous or following paragraphs.

The conclusion summarises what you have said in the essay. For example, main points, the argument or thesis, and the conclusions you have drawn from the evidence. It is not a place to introduce new points. Rather, it is your final word. It reiterates your main points and provides impact for your essay.

When writing the first draft remember that it is exactly that, a first attempt which need never be seen by anyone else. Although you need to have a feel for the ultimate audience of your essay (the lecturer or tutor), the first draft is for your eyes only. The sole objective of the first draft is to get your ideas flowing and on to paper. Do not worry about anything else at this stage. Neither grammar, nor spelling, nor topic sentences matter at this point: mistakes can be attended to later on.

Be prepared for the fact that no matter how carefully you might have thought out your ideas before writing, they may well change during the drafting stages. Leaving plenty of time for drafting will give you the opportunity to accommodate changes and refinements to improve your final version.

Reviewing and editing your work is an essential part of writing. You need to reflect on what you have written and see whether there might be a better way of expressing your ideas. Even the best writers have to do this. If your paragraphs do not seem to follow logically, move them around until you find a better sequence.

If you find that a paragraph does not fit anywhere at all then consider deleting it. You may have to reject parts of your first draft. If a problem paragraph contains a phrase or sentence you would like to keep then consider moving it into another paragraph.

This is an irritating stage for the impatient writer but one which can reward the careful writer. Nothing destroys the interest of the reader more quickly than the irritant of bad grammar, spelling mistakes and poor punctuation.

Remember that an assignment is a critical part of the assessment process and in real life an assignment might be equated to a submission or tender upon which your business depends for its future prosperity.