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Academic Writing: Structuring your assignment

Assignment Structure

The precise structure of written work at university may vary depending on the nature of different writing tasks (e.g., report, essay, dissertation, reflective account) and specific disciplinary requirements. For more information about different assignment types click here. It is therefore important to understand the type of task you are undertaking and to find out as much as you can about it.  

This may involve reading assignment-specific guidance, familiarising yourself with the marking criteria and if necessary, seeking clarification from your tutor/lecturer before you begin planning and writing. That said, essays often share a similar introduction-main body-conclusion basic structure and this section explains the typical functions and features of these three elements.  

Structure Elements

Things to note...

  • In many kinds of assignment, the introduction makes up 5—15% of the whole essay. 
  • Although an introduction is the first thing readers see, it may not be the first thing you write. 
  • Sometimes it may be helpful to leave the introduction until the end, after you have explored your topic more fully. 
What information does the introduction contain?  

Typically, the introduction…

  • Begins by identifying broad topic / subject area, e.g., ‘Leadership styles have a significant impact on employee performance.’ 
  • Focuses attention on the specific theme or problem, e.g., ‘Autocratic leadership is often characterised as...’
  • Indicates the main issues and areas of controversy, e.g., ‘The strengths and limitations of autocratic leadership styles are often debated.’
  • States your argument or thesis statement, outlining the main ideas you intend to cover, e.g., ‘This essay argues that autocratic leadership is essential in high-volume production environments because...’
  • Indicates how your essay will be organised, e.g., ‘This essay will begin by considering...and will then explore...’

We can see in the diagram below how the introduction tends to move from general to specific, in other words from the overall context of the subject to the specifics of the topic itself. 

Image of introduction

The main body of your essay 
  • The middle section of your essay usually consists of 70—80% of your whole essay.  
  • It contains a series of paragraphs exploring key ideas and theories relating to the subject matter. 
Paragraph structure

Properly constructed paragraphs are the foundations of a good essay because they help you to focus and clarify your argument as you write, and they help the reader to understand the topic by dividing it logically into sections.  Paragraphs typically develop one main idea and tend to follow this pattern: 

  1. They often begin with a Topic Sentence – this is a sentence that expresses the main idea of the paragraph.
  2. Sentences in the middle of the paragraph develop the topic sentences and may give definitions, examples, explanations, reasons, opposing views, references to literature, interpretations and summaries.
  3. Sometimes paragraphs have a concluding sentence which may consider how the topic sentence has been developed and/or provides a link to the next paragraph. 

Paragraphs can vary significantly in length depending on the type and purpose of the text and may be between 150 and 250/300 words long.  A useful way to remember the features of an effective paragraph is to memorise the PEEL acronym below. 

P: Point (main point/topic)
E: Evidence (examples and sources)
E: Explanation (explain how evidence supports your argument)
L: Link back to question and/or summarise key points       

There are numerous, overlapping definitions of business ethics.   Topic sentence
Shaw and Barry (2007, p.25) define it as ‘the study of what constitutes right and wrong (or good and bad) human conduct in a business context’.  Another definition describes business ethics as the ‘the principles and standards that guide behaviour in the world of business’ (Ferrell et al. 2002 p.6). It is important to emphasise here that business ethics is not synonymous with legality. There is some overlap between law and ethics, but legislation usually only regulates the lowest level of acceptable behaviour (Crane and Matten 2010). In addition, as Trevino and Nelson (2010) point out, the law is limited in what it can do to prevent unacceptable actions, because legislation follows rather than precedes trends in behaviour. Evidence + explanations
Business ethics then, as Crane and Matten state, is mainly concerned with areas of conflict that are not specifically covered by law and that are therefore open to different interpretations, a fact that means a particular behaviour may be legal albeit viewed as unethical. Concluding sentence linking back to the question

(Adapted from Godfrey, J (2013) How to Use Your Reading in your Essays. Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan)

Once you reach the end of your essay, it is important to sum up your conclusions. In many kinds of essays, the conclusion makes up 5—10% of the whole piece of work and it tends to contain some (if not all) of the following features. It…

  • Links back to the question and the thesis statement, e.g. ‘This paper has argued that...’
  • Summarises the discussion (reminds the reader what you have demonstrated/proven), e.g., ‘This study has found that generally...’
  • Discusses implications and indicates why your argument matters…how it affects the world/the discipline…and what needs to change, e.g., ‘An implication of this study is that...’ 
  • Suggests where things might go next—e.g., perhaps more research needs to be done, e.g., ‘Further research could explore...’

It might also….

  • State the limitations of the analysis of evidence, e.g., ‘In spite of its limitations, the study suggests that...’  
  • Give recommendations, e.g., ‘There is, therefore a definite need for...’ 

We can see from the diagram (below) how the conclusion tends to move from the specific conclusions of your essay back to the bigger picture or more general application of your ideas. 


Writing at university needs to be clear and easy to understand, with all ideas presented logically and carefully tied together.  When writing flows well, every element is connected and seems to move naturally from one item to the next. 

Without these connections, writing can sometimes feel choppy or disconnected. Certain phrases help to establish the connections between ideas, and these are called transitional phrases, signposting or connecting words.

There are many ways of linking ideas and information—sometimes you might want to highlight a causal relationship between ideas or simply add new information. Here are some examples of linking phrases: 

Linking phrases Function Example 
Furthermore, in addition, moreover  To add on

The drug was safe and had no side effects. Moreover, it could be made cheaply. 

However, despite this, nevertheless To show exception The drug was safe and had no side effects. Nevertheless, it would have to be licensed by the government. 
As a result, therefore, consequently To show cause and effect The drug was safe and had no side effects. Consequently, it was decided to mass produce it. 
In other words, that is     To clarify The drug was safe and had no side effects. In other words, it could be used by people allergic to aspirin. 
However, on the other hand, meanwhile, in contrast To contrast  The drug was safe and had no side effects. On the other hand, it was rather unpalatable. 
For instance, for example, as a case in point To exemplify  On the other hand, it was rather unpalatable. For instance, some patients who took it were violently sick.

Source: adapted from: Shields, 2010, p.174

As well as establishing clear links between ideas in separate paragraphs, it is also important to show the reader how all your paragraphs fit together and form part of your overall argument. Here are some ways you could highlight links across your whole essay: 

  • At the end of a paragraph, you could link back to the question to make sure you have demonstrated the relevance of your paragraph to the topic
  • You can also link forward and refer the reader to something you will talk about in the next paragraph or later in your essay, e.g. ‘The next section will explore the significance of…’, ‘This is a subject that will be explored later in the essay.’ 
  • Other linking phrases might refer the reader back to something you have already mentioned e.g. ‘As seen in the previous section…’ or ‘Earlier in the essay this theory was explored…’ 
  • You can also link to specific arguments by using phrases like ‘Despite the previous arguments, there are many reasons…’ 

Further Reading