Planning: from large- to small-scale - Planning and structuring more assignments

Success in Academic Writing - Trevor Day 2018

Planning: from large- to small-scale
Planning and structuring more assignments

Planning, always helpful whatever size the communication, becomes even more important when dealing with a large document such as a dissertation. In the case of a dissertation, you can begin creating a plan of your document at an early stage, suggesting likely chapters and their provisional titles and contents. The same approach applies when dealing with a smaller document, such as an essay or practical report, but then you are not dealing with chapters but with sections and parts of them. However, the same general principles apply. The description that follows is for a dissertation, but can be readily scaled down for a smaller assignment.

The overall approach, which draws some parallels with that of Orna and Stevens (2009), is to plan in steps from whole document, to chapter, to section, to subsection, to paragraph. The planning does not all need to be done in one go. Indeed, it is likely that the plan will be built up over time. For a smaller document, such as a practical report, the likely steps are: from report, to section, (perhaps to subsection), and then to paragraph. The process can be conceptualised as planning in steps or layers (see Figure 6.4).


Figure 6.4 Planning a dissertation as a series of steps


Figure 6.5 An early plan for a dissertation entitled ’Sleep deprivation and its effect on wellbeing and work-related performance among shift workers in a residential home’. Target length: 15,000 words. Estimated running total: 15,300 words

The outline plan is very fluid, in that the details become filled in as the background research and thinking develop. The outline performs several functions, including:

✵keeping you on track, insofar as you know the word limits you are writing to

✵allowing you to shape the document as your thoughts emerge

✵boosting your confidence insofar as you can see that you are making progress

✵providing a ’map’ onto which to hang your thoughts as they develop

✵helping you to plan so that you achieve all parts of the writing process in good time.

Figure 6.5 shows an early plan for a 15,000-word dissertation on an investigation of sleep deprivation and its effect on shift workers. At this early stage, each chapter has estimated word lengths. Detail is shown for Chapter 2, revealing how the chapter is split into four numbered sections, two of which have subsections. In turn, one of the sections is shown in detail, with the topic of each paragraph indicated. Each part of a dissertation, or a smaller assignment such as an essay or practical report, can be planned down to the paragraph level.

In this chapter, we have considered several kinds of document and modes of communication. Following the approach developed in Chapters 1-3, each kind of writing is situated within a particular disciplinary context. It adopts certain conventions, which are shaped to the particular kind of assignment, its purpose and audience.

Key points in the chapter

1Business-style report writing usually involves analysing a situation and giving recommendations.

Such reports normally have front and end matter, between which the report begins with an executive summary and finishes with conclusions and recommendations. The bulk of the report may have sections such as an introduction, methods, findings and discussion, or variations on these.

2Business-style analytical reports usually have a no-nonsense, direct writing style, with concise text, bullet points or numbered lists, and with visual elements such as tables or charts. Sections have clear headings and subheadings, which, like the visual elements, are usually numbered for ease of navigation and comment.

3Critical reflective writing is a powerful approach to support systematic learning from experience. The writing often reflects stages of an experiential learning cycle: engaging in an activity; reflecting on and interpreting the experience; generalising and learning from the experience; and then planning further action.

4A key challenge in critical reflective writing is combining a personal voice with academic rigour.

5Slide presentations and posters seek to engage a group audience. They combine strong visual elements with minimal text. In presentations, spoken words complement rather than repeat displayed text.

6Dissertations are the most extended forms of writing on undergraduate or Master’s programmes. Given their size and complexity, they require detailed planning in order to meet a wide range of assessment criteria.

7Planning a document can be done as a series of steps, from large- to small-scale, from whole document to paragraph.

Cited references

Boud, K., Keogh, R. and Walker, D. (1985). Reflection: Turning Experience into Learning. London: Kogan Page.

Bullock, K. and Wikeley, F. (1999). ’Improving Learning in Year 9: Making Use of Personal Learning Plans’. Educational Studies, 25(1), pp. 19-33.

Dewey, J. (1938). Experience and Education. New York: Collier.

Kolb, D. A. (1984). Experiential Learning: Experience as a Source of Learning and Development. Englewood Cliffs: Prentice Hall.

Levin, P. (2011). Excellent Dissertations! 2nd edn. Maidenhead: Open University Press. Lewin, K. (1946). ’Action Research and Minority Problems’. Journal of Social Issues, 2(4), pp. 34-46.

Orna, E. and Stevens, G. (2009). Managing Information for Research: Practical Help in Researching, Writing and Designing Dissertations. 2nd edn. Maidenhead: Open University Press. Schon, D.

(1983). The Reflective Practitioner: How Professionals Think in Action. London: Temple Smith.

Schon, D. (1987). Educating the Reflective Practitioner. San Francisco: Josey-Bass.

University of New South Wales (2016). Reflective Writing. New South Wales: University of New South Wales. Available from: and links [accessed 16 August 2017].

Walliman, N. (2014). Your Undergraduate Dissertation: The Essential Guide for Success. 2nd edn.

London: Sage.

Further reading

Chivers, B. and Shoolbred, M. (2007). A Student’s Guide to Presentations: Making Your Presentations Count. London: Sage.

Forsyth, P. (2016). How to Write Reports and Proposals. 4th edn. London: Kogan Page. LearnHigher. (-). Report Writing. LearnHigher/Association for Learning Development in Higher Education.

Available from: [accessed 16 August 2017].

LearnHigher. (2007). Oral Communication. Liverpool: Liverpool Hope University/ London: Brunel University. Available at: presentation.shtml [accessed 16 August 2017].

Levin, P. and Topping, G. (2006). Perfect Presentations! Maidenhead: Open University Press.

Marsen, S. (2013). Professional Writing. 3rd edn. Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan. McMillan, K. and Weyers, J. (2011). How to Write Dissertations and Project Reports. 2nd edn. Harlow: Prentice Hall.

Morley, J. (2017). Academic Phrasebank. Manchester: University of Manchester Press. Available from: [accessed 29 August 2017].

Reid, M. (2012). Report Writing. Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan.

Williams, K., Woolliams, M. and Spiro, J. (2012). Reflective Writing. Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan.

Answers for Chapter 6

Activity 6.1: Keep it short and simple (KISS)

A possible solution:

Rules for clay in class

Make sure children do:

✵wear protective aprons

✵wedge (knead) the clay to make it pliable and to remove air

✵make objects that are thin or hollow (no part thicker than a thumb)

✵cover clay in plastic for storing join modelled, moist pieces of clay by scoring and slipping

✵clean all work surfaces thoroughly with water.

Make sure children do not:

✵throw or eat clay

✵get clay in hair

✵make offensive objects

✵handle other people’s clay objects

✵glaze the underside of objects to be fired. (100 words)

Activity 6.2: Putting the pieces together

A possible solution: The project teams found the new remote server and its management system was an improvement on the old. Firstly, they could now routinely access the latest version of the software. Secondly, they could see who had changed which features. And thirdly, they could track people’s comments about the software. We intend to implement most aspects of the new system but will consider how comments can be targeted at selected viewers only. (71)

Activity 6.3: Putting the ’I’ in reflective

A possible solution: When I worked with the Year 11 Biology Class, and later interviewed four of the students, it was apparent that three of my weaknesses still applied:

✵Failing to adequately adjust teaching content and process to the students’ starting levels.

✵Not always setting out clearly the aims for each session.

✵Not providing enough opportunities to accommodate the range of ability within the class.

These three items will form the major focus of my next review with the university course tutor. ...

Activity 6.4: What makes a good presenter?

(a), (b) and (e) are characteristics of an effective presenter. The presenter should avoid: reading from notes or a script, speaking quickly or quietly, and looking mainly at the screen.