Most research in academic English writing tends to focus on aspects of an assignment that are easy for the researcher to analyse. Typically, introductions and conclusions have been considered in much more detail than the main body of an assignment. What comes between the introduction and conclusion (known as the main body) is often left up to the individual student, and less is known about the typical structures of the main body. On this page, you will find some helpful suggestions and practice activities for developing the body of your assignment, which we hope will 'de-mystify' the process of assignment writing somewhat.
The structure of the main body of an assignment is dictated by at least two factors:
a) The title and wording of the assignment (whether it is your own, negotiated with the tutor- or one that has been given to you).
b) The statement of intent that you write in the introduction, based on the title.
Once you have dealt with the above two elements, the main body of the assignment probably then serves to do at least two things:
a) Demonstrate/show your knowledge of the topic, by including relevant evidence;
b) Analyse/evaluate the evidence you have gathered.
The material you use will usually be grouped into broad categories (assignment sections). That is to say, it is strategically organised. Sometimes the broad categories are indicated by sub titles (as in published research). However, in some disciplines, particularly Arts and Humanities and Social Studies undergraduate courses, this is not always desirable or recommended. Scientists and Engineers, on the other hand, will often make their writing more 'user-friendly' by clearly indicating the different sections. Always check with your department to see exactly what the requirements are, and if possible, have a look at some assignments that have been written previously to get a feel for what is required.
From the above, writing the main body of an assignment probably sounds remarkably simple! But in fact, it is a major challenge, for a number of reasons:
- It is very easy to wander off the point and to add anecdotal or irrelevant information (one of the biggest causes of examination failure in essay subjects);
Longer assignments can often become shapeless, drifting on with no apparent purpose or aim.
It is easy to end up by doing something completely different from what you said at the beginning of the assignment. Make sure that you stay 'on track'.
- Too much time is often spent discussing one piece of literature, or one example, and the reader does not get any real sense of academic debate.
- There may be no immediate sense of how one piece of research or writing discussed in an assignment leads on to another. Links between different theories are not always apparent.
The correct items of literature may not be prioritised. Lots of time can be wasted discussing general textbooks instead of primary texts.
It is tempting to 'waffle' in order to 'use up' as many words as you can. This is unwise practice and can also lead to a reduction in marks.
The body of the essay can sometimes become a bit 'mechanical'; following predictable formats can be a reliable and safe, but rather boring way of writing.
Due attention needs to be given to referencing - by no means an easy task.
Use of quotations is often a problem; students often use quotations either because they think it is clever to do so, or because they do not understand the concepts very well. Make sure that your quotations do not simply serve as a decorative ornament, but that you introduce them and comment on them.
It goes without saying that you must always avoid lifting words and phrases from your reading and including them without due acknowledgement (plagiarism). Penalties are usually very severe for this kind of practice and you could even end up by failing your assignment.
One of the most important requirements when writing many assignments (depending on the title) is to be analytical, rather than just descriptive. If your assignment title begins with words like these: 'How far do you agree that...?', 'To what extent do you consider that..., or 'Evaluate the success of..., etc, this means that you will need to analyse the topic, as well as describe it. There will obviously be some description: an essay without some descriptive detail would quickly become unreadable! However, the reader will usually be looking for more than description, and if you are looking to cut down on word length, reducing some of the more lengthy descriptions and examples is a useful strategy to adopt.
A key point to remember, then, is that very few assignment titles at university level will require pure description, and most will test your skills of analysis in some capacity. So try to look for the critical point in the essay title.
Unfortunately, it is not very easy to explain exactly what 'being analytical' means. Many tutors say that students need to be more analytical, but saying precisely how to be more analytical (and by implication, more critical) is tricky! The following list is a starting point in helping to build up a picture of what is required in 'analysis'.
- Bringing out the importance of a given aspect of your reading (not just saying again what the writer says).
- Getting the overview/bigger picture, rather than describing an example or case in lots of detail.
- Picking out the key or central aspect of a piece of literature you are reading, rather than describing it from start to finish and 'telling the story'.
Evaluating (that is, indicating the strengths and weaknesses of) what you are discussing. This is the highest order skill in Bloom's taxonomy of learning (1976), which continues to influence much assessment practice in universities. It requires you to 'stand back' and observe the topic at greater length.
Comparing different theories to show what they have in common and how they differ (not just saying what the theories are).
Showing a range of different interpretations of a given fact, detail, opinion or item of literature.
Adopting the approach that no single theory is the correct one and that there are aspects of all theories that are worth retaining.
Looking for new questions, as well as answering old ones.
Avoiding simplistic and passive agreement with the assignment title.
Adopting a challenging approach to what you read - that is, not just accepting other people's word for it.
Showing how theories fit in with each other;
- Indicating different schools of thought, and developing your own perspective based on these.
- Recognising the limitations of your own perspective as a writer, and the inevitable impact that your own values and beliefs will have on how you express your opinions
Here is some useful general advice for writing the main body of an assignment.
Plan your work properly before you write. Use brainstorming, mind maps or just a list of points you want to include; whatever works best for you.
Know your audience. Having a good idea of who will be reading your essay or assignment is helpful.
Know what the requirements are. Like any game of skill, in order to write an effective assignment, you have to know what is required. You can't play tennis without knowing the rules of the game. The same is true of writing assignments. The rules of the game are very subtle, of course, and vary from department to department. And unfortunately, even within departments, there may be differences of opinion as to how things should be done. If in doubt, ask your tutor.
Don't expect your tutor to tell you what to say. In some cultures, critical thinking is not strongly encouraged and many assessments are simply a case of reproducing what the lecturer has told you in the lecture. This is not true of the British academic system. In Britain, you are expected to think critically and to react to (as well as simply describe) what you have learned. This is not an easy skill to develop but it usually gets easier over time. You are expected to formulate your own perspective with regard to the material you study. In some ways, it does not really matter so much what you say as how you say it. Whatever your point of view, it needs to be backed up with adequate evidence and material.
Keep the assignment title firmly in mind as you write. Keep looking back at your assignment title in order to remind yourself of what you are supposed to be doing. Keep referring to key words in the title; this is especially useful in examinations, to remind the reader that you are writing relevantly.
Don't 'rewrite' the question in your own words to make it more answerable. In strict terms, you must answer the question set, not the question that you want to answer. Titles will often be worded very specifically and it is your job to rise to the challenge of answering the question. If you rephrase the question and write your own essay, you may fail the assignment or examination.
Keep your essay balanced. Paragraphs should be more or less the same length. Don't write very lengthy paragraphs. If there are two parts to a question, spend about the same time on each (unless of course the marks awarded, or your tutor, indicate differently). The main body should account for at least two thirds of the essay as a whole. If it is less than this, consider shortening the introduction and conclusion and lengthening the main body.
Avoid waffle. Try to write concisely and try to avoid being over-wordy in your style. It is easy to spend 3,000 words saying little or nothing at all. Get your point across as quickly and precisely as you can.
Think about the writing process: Your writing will go through several stages so make sure that you don't agonise too much about your early draft. It is much easier to revise something that is on paper than to revise something that is in your head.
Check your language: If you are worried about your English ask a friend or a writing tutor to help you. Remember, you never get a second chance to make a first impression. Try to get some distance from your work by completing it a few days before submission. Go back to it a day or so before you submit and you will probably be able to adjust aspects of the language.
Use 'hinges' to structure your work: A door has a hinge to help it to open and close. The hinge cannot be seen when you look at the door but without it the door would not function. Similarly, an assignment needs to have hinges (sometimes referred to more commonly as 'signposts' to help the reader through the argument). Another way to think about this is the brake lights of a car. You can't see them when you are driving, but without them, no-one else on the road knows that you are stopping the car. This would be a nightmare for any driver!
Use feedback effectively: Don't just look at your marks when your assignment is returned. Read any comments carefully and act on them. You will not be able to produce a perfect essay first time round.