W: Planning


Planning involves engaging with the assignment description until you understand what’s expected of you, and it’s an important step when you’re writing for a work or school assignment. The assignment requirements will affect how you engage with the rest of the writing process, so it’s a good idea to plan before you explore the other writing stages. Many writers also find it useful to refer back to the planning stage throughout their writing to keep them on track.

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Understanding your assignment

First, find and make sure you understand all assignment requirements. These requirements are probably outlined in your course syllabus or a separate assignment sheet/page, but you might need to talk to your instructor (tutor, learning strategist, etc.) to find or clarify requirements. Outside of school, an itemized list of expectations is rarely provided and the planning stage is completed mainly through conversation.

Sources to consult during the planning stage

For school assignments, your sources for planning might include:

  • your course syllabus
  • an assignment description
  • other course content (for example, the course you’re taking has a module on essay-writing)
  • your instructor and other learning specialists, such as tutors and strategists
  • other students, although we recommend not acting on any advice given by another student that you can’t verify in course content or with your instructor

Use your sources to find more information

Using your available sources, find out the following:

  • What is the purpose of the assignment? (What are you proving you can do?)
  • Who is your audience? (Who are you writing for? Your instructor?)
  • What tone should you write in? (Informative? Reflective? Persuasive? Formal? Casual?)
  • Are you required to reference sources? If yes,
    • what kinds of sources? Peer-reviewed only, or can you use news articles, podcasts, and websites?
    • what citation style should you use? (APA, MLA, Chicago, other?)
  • Are images required/allowed? If you do include images, are you expected to cite them? If so, which guidelines should you follow?
  • What are the formatting expectations? (For example, title page, required headings/sections)
  • How are you expected to submit your assignment?
  • When are you expected to submit your assignment?
  • How will you be graded? (A rubric? What’s included in the rubric? Is grammar/mechanics included? Is citation included?)
  • Are there ways to get feedback on your writing before you hand in your paper? (Tutors, a writing centre, peer-feedback platforms?) How much time does that feedback take?

It might help to underline or highlight important parts of your assignment, or to make your own assignment checklist.

You can follow along with the student in this example as she talks through the steps in understanding an assignment:

Additional resources for course-specific advice

Assignment expectations can be different for different subject areas. Your institution’s writing centre can likely help you with course-specific advice. However, always prioritize instructions given by your instructor over advice you get elsewhere. Here are a few resources you can consult:

Estimating time

Writers tend to be more successful when they not only give themselves enough time to engage in each writing stage, but also plan that time in advance. Try not to leave everything to the last minute, if you can help it. To ensure that you have enough time for the entire process, consider the ¼ time plan outlined in the following illustration:

Try an assignment calculator

Assignment calculators can be helpful, especially if you struggle with assignment planning or are new to the type of assignment you’re expected to complete. Most assignment calculators ask for some basic information (like the type of assignment and the due date) and will then provide spaced-out steps to complete your assignment. Here are some resources you can try:

  • The University of British Columbia has a highly detailed assignment calculator, with an option to get email reminders for your deadlines.
  • The University of Toronto also has an assignment planner that provides less detail but more options.
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