Break your assignment into steps
Use the Assignment Calculator to break down your writing assignments into a series of manageable steps -- each with a separate due date.
All you need to know is the date you will start working on the assignment (be realistic!) and your due date.
Read through your assignment guidelines and note requirements such as citation style and page limits.
If your topic is broad (e.g. "write an essay about healthcare") then narrow or focus your topic before you start researching. .
For more about narrowing your topic, try:
- Developing a Topic for a Research Paper: Narrowing Your Topic, a quick video (3 minutes) plus tips, from University of Regina's Archer Library.
- University of Nevada Las Vegas's Topic Narrowing tool, for a mind mapping approach.
Gather research from credible sources to develop your topic. There are many places to search for credible information, including the SFU Library or Google Scholar.
Review the information you find to understand your topic. You will want to pay attention to relevant beliefs, trends, thoughts, and facts, giving more emphasis to the kinds of information your assignment asks you to focus on.
For more on finding and evaluating sources, see:
- What is a scholarly journal?: For how to identify and evaluate scholarly journals, magazines, and trade publications -- both print and online.
- Finding and evaluating resources: Tips for finding and evaluating the reliability of publications, whether you find them on the open web, in the Library Catalogue, using Google Scholar, or elsewhere.
- Search the SFU Library for tips for books, and journal articles, and tips from subject expert librarians.
Create an overall statement that both summarizes your research and indicates the significance of your main claim or argument.
Not every research paper needs an argumentative thesis statement, but if you’re asked to take a position on a topic, then your thesis statement should also be debatable.
Remember that an effective thesis statement presents both your main claim and your central reasons for making that claim.
You can always adjust your thesis statement as you draft your paper.
Looking for more?
- Try these tips on constructing a thesis statement from Walden University.
- You can also review these templates for argumentation, from the SFU Student Learning Commons.
Outline the main sections and/or paragraphs you plan to write about in your paper.
Each section or paragraph should tie in with your thesis statement. In your outline, make notes about how each section of your paper relates to your thesis statement.
Also note which facts, articles, and/or evidence you will use to support your claims.
- Try these suggestions for the essential sections of an outline from Walden University
- The University of Toronto's guide to organizing an essay has some good outlining examples
Refer to your outline and expand your ideas into complete sentences and paragraphs.
The writing doesn't need to be perfect -- just focus on getting your ideas written and solidifying the key points of your paper.
Note the research sources you think you will write about and/or use as evidence in your paper in your outline. Be sure to include where you found the information, who the author is, and when the source was published.
- Review these tips for writing a first draft from Berkeley
- Stuck? See these tips for overcoming writer's block: Writers Block (from Walden University) and Symptoms and Cures for Writer's Block (from Purdue University)
Revision takes time.
In this step, look again at your thesis and make sure your paper advances your argument. At this point you might need to make structural changes.
Where revision asks you to look at the structure, organization, and overall argument in your paper, editing is about taking a close look at your sentence structures, transitions, and the concision of your writing.
For more detailed tips and examples:
- Check out Revising the Draft from the Harvard College Writing Center
- To ensure your paper meets the assignment guidelines, and to check for cohesion, try Reverse Outlines: A Writer's Technique for Examining Organization (University of Wisconsin - Madison).
Make sure that all your sources are properly integrated and cited. This step is important for ensuring academic integrity.
- Review the guidelines of the citation style you have been asked to use (e.g. APA, MLA, Chicago).
- When do you need to cite? Test your knowledge with the SFU plagiarism tutorial.
- Need more help? Ask a Librarian your citation question.
Review the style, clarity and flow of your writing. Focus on individual sentences and look for common errors in sentence structure, punctuation, grammar, or usage. Read your work out loud to help you catch mistakes. Printing out and checking a hard copy can also help you to notice typos that you might miss on the screen.
Finally, format your paper to fit all your assignment guidelines.
- Try these techniques for sentence clarity from Purdue University.
- Review these Top 10 Self-Help Editing Tips from the Student Learning Commons
Submit your assignment, and you're done!
Remember that your instructor will provide you with helpful feedback on your assignment that can help you to improve both your writing and your writing process for future work.
If you ever get feedback that is unclear to you, you can bring it into the Student Learning Commons for discussion with one of our Peers or Graduate Writing Facilitators.
Book a consultation with the Student Learning Commons at any of these stages to get more support.
About this tool
These general steps will guide you through the process of writing most research-based essay assignments.
However every assignment is a little different -- so always refer to the your specific assignment guidelines, check with your TA or instructor if you have questions, and use your best judgement about which steps are necessary for you!
Further resources and more information
Looking for more types of assignments?
The University of Toronto Scarborough's Assignment Calculator includes steps for literature reviews, annotated bibliographies, lab reports, poster presentations, and more.
- Our Assignment Calculator is based on the Assignment Calculator by the University of Minnesota Libraries.
- The image at the top of this page is a cropped version of one created by Morten Oddvik (CC BY 2.0).