Writing an Assignment [2,610 words]
Most assignments have to be written within a range of from 3,000 to 5,000 words apart from appendices, which must be restricted to a maximum of about a dozen sheets. Don’t bulk-up a lightweight assignment with an impressive array of references and appendices; they may look pretty but, if not vital to the assignment, increase length or weight not effectiveness. This restriction on length is an exercise in itself requiring you to select the material you consider essential to deal with the subject. It is similar to the distinction between management and good management! You often read that good management is achieving the aim with the economic use of the available resources. But, you may not need all the resources that are available. Good management is determining how few resources and people you need to get the job done, and use only those. Select only the material you consider necessary to complete the assignment and leave the padding in the box.
Make a friend of the reader
Tutors are understandably influenced by the appearance of an assignment and, as with all human interactions, first impressions are important. Neatly typed, well-laid out assignments will win friends. Poorly constructed scripts will irritate the reader and provoke ill feelings even though they may be unconsciously registered. If the substance of a lengthy assignment is only of average quality, it is likely to attract an initial mark of around 50%, which the tutor might increase or decrease on subsequent reflection. Over-length may not necessarily be penalised but over-length does not increase the grade. Under-length is a more important failing and if, say, 80% of the minimum expected, this will affect the grading.
If asked to make a report, write a report not an essay. In real life, reports typically contain an initial page stating:
To whom the report is addressed.
Who prepared it.
Summary of contents.
Recommendations or suggestions.
This is followed by the bulk of the report with directly relevant tables, graphs, and illustrations set near to the appropriate text. Avoid requiring the reader to ‘fan’ pages backwards and forwards by inserting “see appendix” in the main text. If you prepare tables in Excel, transpose them into the main word document without page breaks in the middle of tables. Substantial tables, statistical analyses and specimen questionnaires should be put at the end of the report, which should cover five sections:
What is being considered.
Who will do it.
When it will be done.
How much it will it cost.
The cash and non-cash benefits.
If making a verbal presentation of the report, this could be reduced to: What you are proposing. How much it will cost. When we get our money back and what we get out of it.
Reports should be easy to understand and clearly set out for the reader who has to make a decision. The higher up the management structure to which the report is directed, the more concise should be the presentation. Functional operatives lower down in the organisation carry out complex analyses and explanations.
Get to the point
Assignments written as reports should follow the same pattern. Get to the point without waffling. No ‘clearing the throat’ before writing. Omit ‘running-up-and-down-on-the-spot’ introductions before setting off with the message. Do not take two or three pages to get to grips with the subject; this is poor practice. Introduce the subject quickly, especially if in report form.
Answer the question posed
Read the question quietly to yourself (bad practice in normal reading but excellent advice for ‘interrogative reading’). Recast it in your words paying particular attention to the phrasing. Examiners and question-setters are not always known for simplicity and clarity of language, have a penchant for expanding questions into what is considered academic respectability, and frequently use such phrases as ‘compare and contrast’, ‘critically appraise’, ‘value and importance’. These may not all be clichés and should be regarded as unintentional traps. If you do not interpret them correctly, you could go in the wrong direction.
‘Compare and contrast’ is tautological and does not require compare because you cannot contrast things if you don’t compare them. On the other hand, you can compare things without necessarily contrasting them and explaining their differences and similarities.
‘Critically appraise’ needs particular attention. If you were to ‘critically appraise someone’s structural configuration and co-ordinating mechanisms’ you would need far more space than an assignment and more time than is available if it were in the examination room. To critically appraise a writer’s research, strictly means that a reasoned analysis and maybe a challenge of the work have to be argued in the light of acceptable standards chosen to test it. If the researcher has taken a year or more in the investigation and synthesis of the work, you have scant opportunity of rebutting it in a 3,000-word evaluation. To appraise something means to assess it or estimate its value. You could therefore appraise any of the world’s leaders without having to pass approval or declare your opinion of them. I have specific uses for assess and evaluate; I use assess before operations and evaluate after operations have taken place. So one can assess potential effects and evaluate results.
‘Critically’ is the adverb of the verb to criticise, which is on a spectrum of negative judgements or attitudes towards something: disapproval, aspersion, blame, criticism, and reprehension. ‘Disapproval’ is the most general of these and may refer to a fixed, irrational dislike of a person or to a specific instance of reasoned, analytic rejection of an idea or a way of behaving. Criticism is more restricted to the latter of these and is a reasoned rebuttal of something because of the failure to meet certain principles.
Obviously such a question would have been better without the ‘critically’ but if you rephrase it in your own words you could conclude that you are being asked to assess it, pass comments and opinions rather than just to discuss it.
‘Value and importance’ of things is not a cliché. If you applied these two attributes to something, you would have two ranking lists: one in order of value and the other in order of importance, the two lists do not necessarily correlate. The lists may be in absolute or relative terms. Relative listing gives you more opportunity of discussing the differences than merely listing in rank order. If you are asked to refer to your own experience or relate it to a particular case, ‘relative’ becomes pivotal in your answer.
Make sure you understand the question. Put it in your words so that you answer the question posed rather than the one you would have preferred to be asked!
To construct good, understandable modern prose you have to ‘write tight’, that is, it must not be loose, verbose, or circumlocutory. Never use the following phrases unless they are essential for your meaning:
It is important to remember that …
In my view …
To be able to …
It is clear that …
In the case of …(only if literally a case of wine, commodity, mistaken identity, etc.)
Style plays its part in influencing the reader of the report. One of my students, using first person plural, wrote as though we were all going on an investigatory academic tour of a business situation.
‘We will now review the XYZ company’s recovery possibilities in the light of Slatter’s eleven points but take into consideration the observations of Mintzberg’s model, conditioned as they have been by Janis’s groupthink. It will be a task involving logical incrementalism.’
A difficulty when writing assignments in report form is that the supposedly real-life narrative has to be couched in business language yet combined with academic references. To link relevant parts of course material with the substance of the question or organisation, needs practice. No business report is strewn with textual references; there is no need to write that a particular recommendation is based on the work of Accles, Pollock, Tiddles and Widdleypoo. Also, there is a danger of alienating the reader by including too many references in a business report. Ensure that your references are accurate:
the Gettysburg address was not where Lincoln lived;
Aristotle was not Belgian;
the central theme of Buddhism is not ‘every man for himself’;
the London underground is not a terrorist organization.
Write each paragraph around an important point or main theme. This will guide you in structuring a report. Plan the sections, preferably not more than five, break these down into the main paragraphs; expand the major topic in each paragraph. Paragraph headings help if they crystallise the topic of each paragraph in a maximum of about five words.
Paragraphs should follow each other logically progressing the main theme. For example, a discussion of a company’s performance should first explain how performance is to be measured. If you use a quantitative theme in money terms, the logical sequence could be about fixed costs, variable and semi-variable costs, difference between cost and costing, price setting, absolute and relative profits, profits expressed as ratios of other measures. It would be poor practice to include say, discussions on capital investment, currency exchanges, or alternative returns on different projects in the middle of this sequence. Prepare a rough structure similar to the Elko example (see later section on ‘Structure’) to keep the whole effort as a unified, easy-to-follow piece of writing.
This last paragraph of 118 words can be analysed. It may be too long and could be split into two, but at what point? Its main topic is that paragraph construction should contain one topic and follow the plan for the whole. An example from the financial view is given. It ends by suggesting topics, which, if included in the paragraph, would disturb the logical flow.
Making links with course material
Do not regurgitate passages from course material in assignments; this only proves that you can replicate text. When using course material, as distinct from quoting from it, recast it in your words to show that you understand it. Rephrasing and rewriting is a useful exercise in learning the essence of course ideas.
Good assignment practice is to describe the situation (which sometimes has to be from your own experience) and then contrast or support it with theories, ideas, or observations from the course material. If you rewrite references and extracts from the course, it shows that you understand how the situation relates to theory and hypothesis. Because course material is usually studied over several weeks, logical flow in an assignment may be impeded and result in a disjointed report. Maintain consistency in the treatment adopted in the report by following your outline structure.An example will explain.
Suppose you wrote that ‘a conceptual framework is a vital prerequisite to any discussion of organisational culture in an international environment’, then quoted authorities from the course and researched material that said that ‘culture’ was not easily defined or understood. How can a conceptual framework be vital if there is disagreement on what is culture? If you proposed that a framework was desirable so that we all know what we are talking about, fine. You could then approach it from the opposite direction: a description of the case or real life incidents and the important issues related to references in the course to support or challenge the issues.
Start with facts and descriptive matter, examine and analyse them, then support or question them with references from course material and other sources. Inconsistency in an assignment or examination answer is often the result of little or no structure.
Let’s illustrate this by further discussion of culture. Assume that you have to prepare a report for your MD on an organisation’s culture. You start your report by lining up Peters & Waterman against say, Bryman & Legge, concerning the contention that a strong culture may or may not be essential to corporate success. You report that research has been conducted that suggests that hard empirical evidence does not support the views of Peters & Waterman.
Then you include observations from Hofstede, suggesting the possibility of a company paradigm, refer to Quinn’s logical incrementalism (adding, to demonstrate the extent of your research, “described by Pondy as unfolding rationality”), and introduce the concept of ‘strategic drift’. While this would show that you could use the words and have a vague idea of their connections, it would be superficial and would not be getting to grips with company policy, structure, philosophy, or its culture. The MD, reading your report, would be confused with all this talk about a weak or strong culture that is apparently based on shaky foundations because there is little agreement on what it is, and authorities cannot agree whether it is essential, desirable, or not.
Some assignments start by discussing concepts from the course material and then introduce specific case or company problems. This is like taking a torch into a dark cave; it may be bright enough for shallow hollows but utterly inadequate to penetrate deep crevices.
It is better to have a good idea of the cave’s layout and be well equipped before you enter. You may need several freestanding floodlights in addition to a torch, protective clothing, portable ladders, communication equipment, and certainly first-aid items. Similarly, with a real life investigation, it is better to describe the organisation, state its aims, outline its operations and performance, and where necessary crystallise any problems. Link these with the ideas and writings in the course and explain how the incidents are typified, supported or challenged by theory. To repeat, linking an actual situation with academic research requires practice. A useful procedure is to maintain an alphabetical index of the main writers and researchers with brief outlines of their observations, theories, and models. Keep an alphabetical list of theories, concepts, and examples with a note of writers, and where the reference may be found. By constant reference to these, you will become familiar with the main researchers on subjects and this will help to fix the important ideas and applications in your memory.
Criticise theories and hypotheses, especially if you can base your arguments on course material. An assignment that contains little or no course material will be too descriptive and could have been written without studying the course. In contrast, an assignment using mainly course material will not prove that the writer can link concepts, theories, and ideas with real life situations and would be called ‘course dumping’.
Use a structure
You might have come across a case similar to Elko, an international holding company with an ailing subsidiary. A report had to be written from two viewpoints―from the holding company (which would attract up to 25% of the mark) and from the subsidiary (which would attract up to 75% of the mark). Appendix I is a structure for a 1,000-word report on the case.
State the subject of the report.
State the period covered by it.
If geographical areas are important, state those covered.
Because this is a report to a person or committee, write as you would talk in a meeting with them. This means direct speech, active and not passive voice.
Use short sentences.
Direct speech means tight writing.