Beginnings, middles and ends
Two popular types of assignment
As with an effective talk, lecture or other kind of presentation, a written assignment normally has a clear beginning (introduction), middle (body) and end (conclusion). The introduction sets out for the reader the context of what is to follow, the body delivers it, and the conclusion summarises it in a punchy manner.
The beginning (introduction)
Some common features of beginnings (introductions) are:
•Answering the ’Why bother?’ or ’Who cares?’ question. This applies to many kinds of written communications, but not all. Why is the topic of the assignment important? Often such questions are pre-empted (or answered) using one or more sentences that set out the background to the assignment and, ideally, grab the reader’s attention. This can be done in a variety of ways, such as: giving a real- life example that is relevant to the topic and has wide implications; giving statistics that reveal how important the topic is; revealing some features of the topic that show how important it is to the discipline; perhaps using a quotation that captures the essence of the topic.
•Moving from wider to narrower context. This situates the assignment within the context of the discipline or sub-discipline and then moves on to the specific focus of the topic. In moving from the general to the specific, key terms that aren’t self-explanatory, are ambiguous or do not have generally agreed meanings may need to be defined as well as explained. For example, even well-used expressions such as ’climate change’ or ’global warming’ do not have standard definitions. Different international organisations, such as the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) and the United Nations Environmental Programme (UNEP), have differing definitions. In writing an essay on such themes, you might wish to give your reasons for using certain definitions and rejecting others.
•What you are setting out to do. This states the intention of the assignment, which could be framed as questions to be answered, aims and objectives to be met, or even hypotheses to be tested. You might wish to introduce how you are going to meet your intention. If a thesis statement is to be included (a summary of the writer’s argument and point of view on the topic), it is situated here. In larger documents, such as dissertations or a major report, the end of the introduction often sets out the structure of the rest of the document, chapter by chapter or section by section.
In many kinds of assignment, the introduction makes up 5-15% of the whole. An example of a plan for the introduction to an essay is given in Section 3.4.
An introduction need not be written first
Although an introduction comes at or near the beginning of a written assignment, that does not mean it has to be written first, before other parts of the document. Often, it is sensible to write the introduction first, to set your direction, knowing that you will probably change its detail after writing the rest of the account. At other times, you may want to leave writing the introduction to the end, until you have fully explored the topic of your assignment. By leaving the introduction ’open’ you may be giving yourself more freedom in the way you conduct your research and develop your argument.
The middle (body)
In the body of the assignment, you use evidence and reasoning to convince the reader of the strength of your argument. This involves selecting relevant evidence and deciding how to present it, evaluating alternatives and weighing up conflicting evidence, and making judgements on the basis of evidence and reasoning.
In scholarly writing, key words and phrases are used to convey to the reader the direction of the argument, location within the argument, or both. Such words or phrases are sometimes called signposts, transitions, connectives or connectors. They connect parts of an argument, linking one part to another and setting each in the context of the whole. These connectors often appear at or near the beginning of sentences and paragraphs, but not always. Connectors or transitions play at least six roles:
✵They may introduce a line of reasoning. These are words and phrases, such as: at the outset, first, first and foremost, initially, it is apparent, the first point, to begin ... In practice, a line of reasoning is quite often begun without resorting to using a connector.
✵Conncctosr reinforce a line of reasoning. Suitable words and phrases include: again, also, as well as, besides, equally, furthermore, in addition, in the same manner, likewise, moreover, similarly, such as, what is more ...
✵They qualify a previous line of argument, e.g. There are exceptions, or this situation does not always apply ...
✵Thhey introduce alternatives. Signposts include: alternatively, although, by contrast, conversely, however, nonetheless, notwithstanding, on the one hand, on the other hand, others argue ...
✵They signpost consequences or an evaluation. Possible words and phrases are: as a result, on balance, consequently, hence, therefore, this indicates, this suggests, thus ...
✵They signpost the drawing of conclusions. Connectors include: concluding, in conclusion, in summary, it is apparent, therefore, thus ...
In most kinds of assignment, the body makes up 70-80% of the whole. Section 3.4 includes an example of a plan for the body of an essay.
The end (conclusion)
A conclusion brings your written assignment to a close. It usually has the following features:
✵It is short and summarises the most important points argued in the body of the assignment, but not in a boring and repetitive way.
✵It weighs up the evidence and reasoning presented in the body of the assignment and makes a concluding statement. In doing so, it does not simply repeat, word for word, what has been presented earlier. It normally uses different forms of words and highlights the main points of evidence and reasoning. The degree to which it does so depends on the nature of the assignment. In a scientific report, a conclusion could be one or two sentences. In a humanities or social science essay, it could be two or more paragraphs. In a dissertation, the conclusion could be several pages.
Normally, a conclusion does not introduce new material that has not been discussed earlier (but see Section 3.4 for an example of an exception).
✵In some kinds of essay or report, a conclusion will include implications and make recommendations. In many kinds of assignment, the conclusion makes up 5-15% of the whole document.
✵Usually, the conclusion refers back to the introduction and demonstrates that any aims have been met, questions set up at the beginning have been answered, or hypotheses have been tested. If not, the conclusion will explain why.
The conclusion is usually the last part of the assignment your assessor reads. As such, it needs to be well written and not rushed. You do not want your parting statements to leave a poor impression. If you can make a parting pithy statement, then do so.
A stimulus, not a straitjacket
The guidance that follows about structures for different types of assignment is just that - guidance. It is not definitive. Wherever you can, check by studying previously completed assignments in your degree programme, or by asking your teaching staff whether the structures they are expecting to see are the same as, or similar to, the ones shown here.
Now we are ready to consider two specific kinds of assignment. Essays are common assignments and exam answers in many disciplines, whereas practical reports have more specialised requirements and tighter guidelines.