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Writing Centre Resource Guide


Understanding the Assignment

Anyone can feel challenged by a new assignment. It may be the first time you’ve had to write a long research paper, do a literature review, access peer-reviewed literature, or you just might have a million other things on the go. As with any challenge, your best tool is to be prepared. In order to be prepared, you’ll have to know exactly what the assignment is for (beyond that it is worth 35% of your final mark!). 

As soon as you get your assignment, read it. Thoroughly. When you skip this step, you run the risk of wasting time or handing in something that does not meet the professor’s expectations. Take 10 minutes to read, then re-read your assignment. Read it out loud if you can! Use a pencil to underline the most important information and make notes on what you’ll need to do to make sure you’re doing it right. While you’re reading, pay attention to the following questions: WHO, WHAT, WHEN, HOW, WHERE, and WHY.

1. WHO is this for?

Keep your audience in mind. Is it your professor or your TA? Is it an imaginary client or your summer employer? Is it a peer-reviewed journal focused on modelling groundwater flows? Organizing your assignment and writing it in a manner that makes sense to your particular audience is the first step in getting your message across.

2. WHAT is it?

Every assignment has a final product– is it a 20 page original report, a two page summary, or a literature review? Are there any expected outcomes noted, such as a clear thesis statement, the use of diagrams or tables, a certain number of pages or a word count? Are there suggestions for headings? What is the referencing style (IEEE, Chicago, APA)? Circle these and make note of them.

3. WHEN is it due?

One of the biggest challenges in a university program is time management. Understanding your assignment will help you budget your limited time effectively. Look carefully to see if there is more than one due date for the assignment (Some assignments require that you submit work in stages; for example, submitting a project outline or proposal for approval before starting the full assignment). If it is a longer assignment, you’ll need to budget time for planning, researching and reading (and understanding!) the literature, writing and editing.  Try the Assignment Calculator available on the Dalhousie Library website. 

4. HOW will you do this?

In most cases, your assignment will require you to look at outside sources, such as peer-reviewed journal articles, online sources, technical documents, government documents, books, etc. Identify what the expectations are for the assignment: how many different articles, webpages or books will you need: 1? 3? 10+? Remember, ‘peer-reviewed’ means a specific type of document, and is quite different from a ‘newsletter’ or ‘industry mail out.’ Learning to identify these differences will not only help you find the right materials, it will help you when it comes to citing your sources too!

5. WHERE will you find this information?

Finding information can be a challenge, especially if you leave it to the last minute. Once you’ve identified what kind of information you’ll need, it’s time to start looking. Documents that are not currently within the library system can usually be brought in (for free!) if there is enough time (this includes peer-reviewed journal articles and books, which can take between a few hours and a few weeks to arrive). If you are having trouble finding information on your area of interest you’ll want to visit the library and speak with someone in your discipline who can help you navigate what is out there and track down the right information in an efficient way. For information on your subject librarian visit the Library website under ‘Subject Guides’ 

6. WHY are you doing this?

Understanding why you’ve been assigned a specific assignment can help maintain focus over the days, weeks or months that it will take to complete. What skills will you develop? What new knowledge will you have learned?

IMPORTANT: If you still have questions after you have read your assignment, or if you become confused while you are in the middle of completing your assignment, you should approach your TA or your professor. You can do this in person during office hours, or by email if this is a possibility. If you email the TA or the professor, be very clear about the problem that you are facing. Explain where in the assignment you are having issues, and provide examples (if you can) of what you think the outcome is (or what it is not). This will help them HELP YOU more efficiently!

Don’t forget!! The Dalhousie Writing Centre is available to help you in early and in later-writing stages. Come in to discuss your paper outline, an early draft, or to polish a section of your final submission! You can make an appointment by email ( or by calling (902) 494-1963.

Choosing a Topic

It can often be difficult to choose a topic for your paper.  You want to make sure that the topic is broad enough that you can find previous research on the topic.   You also want to ensure that the topic is specific enough that you can form a thesis statement or hypothesis and present relevant evidence.  You also want to consider your interests.  You will be much more successful if you choose a topic that motivates you to want to learn more.

Before You Write: Reading with a Purpose

Before you can begin to write a report, essay, thesis, etc., an important first step is to gather information, primarily by reading.  Throughout your university career you will do a lot of reading, and you will interact with many different types of documents (textbooks, articles, policies, novels, lab reports etc.) in order to inform your writing.  Yet, often times we find ourselves at the bottom of a page not really understanding or even remembering what we just read.  In order to get more out of your reading, it is important to be actively engaged in the reading process. To make the most of your reading, check out the tips in the Reading with a Purpose handout.