Now, for those practical tips – a sort of “clip-notes” abbreviation of an oft-repeated sermon that became known as:
“The Director's Address on Writing Assignments”
Step 1: Start early – don't wait until the night before your submission is due and then panic to get something submitted on time. Whilst it is not always true that “anything is better than nothing”, it is always true that preparation is key to success.
Step 2: Do not simply skim the question or topic posed, but analyse it. Consider the exact phrasing of the question and design your answer plan so that it is framed to that phrasing. Part of this planning or mapping process is to determine a set of sub-questions that will help you build a complete and clear answer to the parent question. For example: are you required to explain, describe, or compare/contrast? Is it a formal report, a straightforward essay, a direct question-and-answer sequence, or a poster type of submission? How can you break the parent question down into manageable parts that can be addressed appropriately within the selected format?
Step 3: Next, you must seek out legitimate (and multiple) sources of information. Use both general and specific domains from textbooks, course notes, peer-reviewed papers, personal communications, first person research and experience; but always keep records of where you gathered the information. Discuss with your mentors, teachers and classmates, go to the library, but, please, don’t use Wikipedia. Ok, if you insist, use Wikipedia as a first touchstone in cases where you are really lost for a place to start. This should, of course, be very rare and you must not fall into the common trap of relying upon the materials in Wikipedia (or any source without formal peer-review) as “gospel truth”, nor as your only source of information. Above all, Wikipedia should never become your starting point, pathway and finishing line for an assignment.
Step 4: Take HANDWRITTEN bullet notes from the sources you have identified and assign these notes to address the relevant sub-questions you’ve compiled in your answer plan. Cross-reference and highlight them as necessary to ensure you do not duplicate points, or miss anything important.
Step 5: Close all original references (and computer files) and begin to put together a first draft of your assignment based upon your handwritten notes and memory alone. Use this phase to figure out what will make the difference between “just passing” and passing really, really well; create a framework or scaffold upon which to build your submission. The struts of such a scaffold will be based upon your school’s standard practices, but the general design is likely to be something along the lines of:
- Introduction or opening statements (sometimes, this is a rephrasing of the question with appropriate elaborations).
- Body of the essay (“the answer”). This needs to show a suitable structure by ordering the sequence in which each sub-question is addressed; it might be chronological, consequential, source-related or designed according to numerous other logical rationalizations.
- A conclusion and/or discussion – wherein you return to the original question and demonstrate how “the answer” you have provided addresses it fully and with references.
- References, citations, et cetera. In general, every work referred to in your text must be included in a references section at the end of your assignment. No work may be included in this references section, however, if it has not been properly cited in the text being submitted (such additional readings would, instead, form part of a separate “Bibliography”). But, again, follow your school’s specific guidelines on how to cite your references – those guidelines should include explanations regarding citations, references, bibliographies, quotations and other sourcing.
Step 6: Once you have bashed out something, double-check this first draft against your notes, then against the original sources; correct any errors and fill in any gaps you feel remain to address the full question in your next draft. Ensure that everything is consistent with the question, as well as with your introduction and conclusion. Revamp things as necessary to make the story you are telling complete, non-repetitive, without internal conflict or contradiction (unless that is your justified intent) and clear. Then, repeat this process until you have addressed the full question and each of the sub-questions.
Step 7: Polish your final draft: check spelling, syntax and grammar, double-check against copied phrases (or minimally rephrased passages). Don't be tempted to pad your answer in the hopes of gaining scattergun hits/points. Be bold enough to cut superfluous material that does not benefit the answer. As a rule-of-thumb: if it clouds the issue or adds little to the reader's understanding of the specific points you need to address, or if it is simply filling space to show-off extraneous knowledge, delete it. Ensure that you have provided all relevant references/citations, and that any quotes are indicated as such − but do keep quotations to a minimum (use them as a delicate seasoning, not to form the dish itself).
Step 8: Finally give yourself a day away from the assignment to “breathe” and refresh yourself, then read the question again. This is one of many reasons why Step 1 above is so important. Next, re-read your assignment. Does this “pre-submission” accurately, clearly and completely address the question? Is it framed appropriately, and written in your own words? Have you utilised up-to-date sources of information – and justified and verified them? Does it read well? If you can honestly answer “yes” to each of these QC checkpoints, you are ready to submit. But, if you are uncertain of your work, go back through all of the above, and seek further guidance from your tutors.
Something NOT to do: You are strongly advised against asking for help on a specific assignment from your peers – unless, of course, it is group work. Other than for such a group assignment, involving a classmate in your submission risks both of you being caught in that “accidental plagiarism” problem again.
And, no, this is not a selfish directive. On the contrary, the outcomes of even the most innocent of unauthorised “team-work” will be unpleasant both academically (disciplinary hearings, academic penalties, failed assignments/modules, expulsion, et cetera) and socially. This is because, having seen your efforts, your friend might inadvertently use some of it in their own submission, or they might yield up some of their own words in an attempt to aid your understanding. In either case, your teacher will not be able to differentiate the copier from the copied, and it won't matter that it was unintentional. Perhaps worst of all, the blame-game that is ultimately likely to ensue − with one word against the other − will not stop the punishment, but may cost you a friendship.
Just share sources, and discuss ideas, but never your work.
By routinely (or, better, ubiquitously) using the above steps for your work, a few things will happen:
Outcome 1: “Accidental plagiarism” is prevented – and this includes those somewhat nebulous concepts of “academic poor practice” (cut and paste, eye-to-hand-bypassing-brain-type stuff, citation/referencing negligence, or proclamations of innocence through ignorance). Hence, you mitigate your chances of failing the assignment through academic penalty, or of being called to a disciplinary hearing for possible expulsion.
Outcome 2: The information you gather passes through your brain several times, via several memory loops (writing things out by hand is believed to improve both retention and comprehension by a considerable margin) and will not only, thereby, improve your performance in the specific assignment, but in subsequent ones and in the exams (as well as in your future careers).
Outcome 3: You will develop an invaluable habit that can be applied again and again throughout your life, gaining considerable advantages for your future self.
In the end, and above all else, remember these three things:
- There is no such thing as a stupid question. So, don't be afraid to ask your teacher/lecturer for help.
- Never become disillusioned – not even the most published author is perfect every time (not even much of the time, actually)!
- Like any new type of exercise regime, this process will seem a little arduous and perhaps even painful at the start. Certainly, it will require consistent and sustained effort to ingrain. But, it will all pay dividends, and the practice will soon become as simple and spontaneous as habit.
Finally, I will share the motto of my alma mater, which is: “Do Different”.
Thus, in encouraging you all to embrace your weirdness (as well as the weirdness of others), I hope the concepts touched upon in this article will also enable you to break from an increasingly common practice of rehashing the work of others and representing it unfairly as your own. Instead, seek your own excellence, revel in the unique “you” and be recognised in the light of the attributes and attainments you have earned.
Strive to honour your ancestors, your descendants and your peers and mentors – but, most importantly, to honour yourself. Bolster yourself with the knowledge that learning is a lifelong journey, and the ride is best when your skills are tested – as only then are you rewarded with a surge of pride in what you have achieved.
Never stop trying, never stop learning, and never, ever cheat.
Andrew P. Lucy obtained his PhD in molecular biology at the John Innes Centre (University of East Anglia) in the UK and has supplementary qualifications in natural medicines and psychotherapy. Dr Lucy has published peer-reviewed articles and opinion pieces across a number of disciplines – from communications and change to education and career management to biological sciences, and even the odd bit of poetry. His experience spans bench research, laboratory and business partnership and development, education and professional coaching.