It happens. Nobody aims to write their assignment on the last day, and yet it happens. Some of us find we can only work well under the pressure of an immediate deadline, and succumb to procrastination up to that point.
If you are going to write your essay at the last possible moment, then at least you can come equipped with the means for producing a half-decent final product. Last minute assignments will never be as highly-graded or as thorough as those written over the full amount of time, but a pass is better than a null grade, so from one procrastinator to another, I sincerely hope this guide can help you avoid disaster.
Become one with the brief
Read the brief. Read it several times and understand exactly what they are asking you to do. Pay close attention to the specific keywords which are used. If you are asked to analyze, then pick apart your topic and talk about its constituent themes or ideas. If you are asked to discuss, then compare two or more opposing opinions on a subject. If you need to critically evaluate, then look for weaknesses which can be used to judge if the subject is accurate, etc. This is also the perfect time to make a note of the technical aspects of your assignment: such as word count and spacing requirements.
Choose your topic
Many assignments will give you the topic to write about, but some give you freedom to choose your own. Don’t make life difficult for yourself; choose something popular with a lot of associated literature. Some ways of finding this kind of topic is by using one studied in your course, skimming through a textbook, and searching the web for [your subject + news] to find contemporary topics which are under discussion.
When you think you have located a good topic, spend a few minutes searching on Google Scholar or your institution’s library website to see if there is sufficient information around this topic. “Sleeping and dreaming habits of clinical psychopaths” might seem like an interesting topic to write about, but if you only find two barely relevant papers then you will spend a disproportionate amount of time searching for more sources which would be better spent writing and polishing your essay.
For example, a quick search on a science news website just netted the article “How melatonin promotes sleep”. A search on google scholar found at least five pages of relevant papers on the interaction between melatonin and sleep disorders, including several systematic reviews written in the last four years. In two minutes I have a usable topic, the effects of melatonin on sleep disorders. Apply this method to your subject.
Find clear debates. Are there different schools of thought on the subject? Are the details of each easy to understand? Some of these questions will be answered as you delve into the source materials, and popular topics will tend to have plenty of debate.
Finding your reference material
Finding reference material can be one of the most time-consuming parts of writing an assignment, especially at higher levels of academia which expect a thorough knowledge of the literature.
Systematic Reviews and Meta-Analyses. These types of paper are the holy grail to someone short on time, as they let you skip over finding appropriate papers for your assignment from scratch. Systematic reviews and meta-analyses comb over the findings from many different papers to look for overall trends within a topic, and contain a huge number of references which you can use in your assignment, as well as the reference for the systematic review itself. Furthermore, there are often criticisms of the papers within the review which can be expanded for your uses.
Snowballing is another way to generate a lot of reference material for your assignment. Take a modern research paper which fits your purpose and select the most useful references. Then do it again to those papers, and keep going until you feel you have a broad scope of papers.
Fit it together. A crucial tip with both of these methods is to notice how the newer papers use the references you have found. One paper may be referenced when talking about previous ideas which have been superseded, another paper might be referenced when talking about the inspiration for the current paper. Understanding how all of these references fit together is key to developing your own assignment on the subject. Always keep an eye out for key words or phrases which show the relationships between research. A mind-map can be a useful way to organise these relationships.
Planning the structure
All essays and assignments follow the general structure of Intro, Main Body, and Conclusion. Often there will be a Reference section at the end, and sometimes other sections will need to be used, such as Abstract or Methods in a research report. Plan out these sections and what information you want to include in each.
Intro. Usually around 10-15% of the total word count, the Intro is used to set out the scope of your assignment, and explain what questions it hopes to address. Be overt with these details in the Intro. Write that “This essay is on the subject of [subject], and hopes to address issues such as [issues/debates]. Give some background information on the research which your paper relies on, but keep descriptions brief and efficient. It’s possible to be more creative with your introductions, and do so if you have the time. If not, keep it simple and effective.
Main body. Usually around 70-80% of the word count, this is where all of your information will be presented and evaluated. This is probably the most daunting section to write, but there are ways to make it easier. Don’t spend a lot of time planning the order that you will be presenting information and arguments, instead find a textbook and mimic the order in which they present it. (Note. Do not copy text directly, but to use the ‘skeleton’ from someone else’s work to save time.) Once that framework is in place, you can build on to it later with different references and outcomes, but give yourself a strong start. Always remember to link it back to the brief.
Conclusion: Usually around 10-15% of the word count, your conclusion is used to summarise the main points of your essay and evaluate which ‘side’ had a stronger argument or evidence. Don’t just repeat lines from your main body, offer some ‘meta’ insight which can be taken away from the work as a whole. Also never introduce new information into the conclusion.
References: Usually these are not included in the word count. It is crucial to compile your reference list as you go, rather than frantically backtracking to find where you got certain information. There is software which can automate a lot of this, but be sure that the citations and references follow your institutions guidelines to the letter.
Putting the words in
By now you should have a skeleton of an assignment which you can flesh out with information and ideas from your references.
Begin writing. The intro and conclusion are usually best left to the end so that they can accurately reflect your main body, so for now just start writing about whatever you are most confident with. Focus on the most important debates, and detail the assumptions of each side.
PEE. If you get stuck use Point, Evidence, Explain to flesh out a paragraph. You can always come back later to tie it into the main text better, so don’t worry about having ‘floating’ paragraphs which you keep moving around.
Remember to use the correct tone for the assignment. Avoid slang or colloquial words, and write in third person if required. After plenty of exposure to your source material, you should begin to get a sense for what is appropriate or not, so assume you are writing for the same audience.
A quick polish and submission
With all the hard work done, it’s important to read the whole assignment in full to check for errors or fragments which were missed the first time around. Don’t ignore autocorrect prompts unless you are certain they are inaccurate, and get a friend to read it through too. A fresh pair of eyes can pick up on obvious problems which are hard to see after spending several hours on a project. Another great trick is to get your word processor to read the text aloud, so that you can hear mistakes that you might not see.
When you are ready to submit, don’t wait until close to the deadline. Allow for an hour if possible in case of technical problems. When you submit, double check that your work has been uploaded and that you have a ‘receipt’ if your institution uses these.
Finally, take a deep breath, a quick cry if you need to, and promise yourself that this will never happen again.