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Improving the structure of your work - Scroll down -

Dealing with feedback

Typical feedback you may receive from a lecturer or supervisor about the structure of your work:

“Your assignment doesn’t flow – you need to improve your structure...”

A perceived lack of structure happens for three main reasons:

  • Your writing is a loosely connected "stream of consciousness"
  • The structure you have used is confusing or simply doesn’t work very well
  • There is a carefully planned structure, but the reader just isn’t seeing it

How did this happen?

A lack of structure in written work is a common problem. Reasons it can happen include:

  • Skipping the important planning and editing stages
  • Not leaving enough time to complete your work
  • Losing sight of your original plan
  • Feeling swamped by the amount of source material available
  • Feeling unable to concisely say what you want to say

What can you do about it?

Although a lack of structure is a common problem in student writing, it's fairly easy to avoid. Try the following simple tips:

  • Leave more time to plan and complete your work
  • Factor in time to review and edit your work at the end
  • Signpost important information in your document's introduction
  • Only include information that supports your argument or conclusion
  • If you find planning doesn't work for you, try retro-planning

Keep scrolling to find out more...

"I just find that planning before I write isn’t a helpful activity; it's too rigid, constraining, and hard to plan what I am going to say before I’ve said it."

Retro-planning

If you dislike planning your writing, or find it just doesn't work for you, there's a quick solution. Retro-planning involves checking a text for structure after, not before, you have created your first draft.

Getting started

Create a new document for your plan and follow these simple steps:

  • Reread your draft text and pick out your main arguments – what do you keep circling round and coming back to?
  • Pick out all of the points in your text that help support these arguments
  • If any points do not support your arguments, get rid of them!
  • Decide the best order for each point – which points link to or build upon each other?
  • Get those points into your plan in that order

That's all there is to it! The points you have should now become the basis for each paragraph in the body of your text. Go back and rework your draft so that it fits this new, clearer structure. Just remember to signpost the structure clearly in the introduction and summarise your main arguments in the conclusion.

"I've got so much to read and say I don't know where to start – websites, conference proceedings, journal articles – I can’t see the wood for the trees."

Focusing on what's important

A lot of the academic work you read will be very persuasive, but try not to be led astray. Just because other scholars think something is important, you need to critically assess the information you find, have your own agenda, and learn to distinguish what's relevant to you.

One way to do this is to return to your assignment question and the conclusion you want to reach, and use that to decide if something's important. If the information isn't essential, or including it may muddy and confuse your main argument, it might be a good idea to forget about it and move on.

"I've created a detailed plan for my work, but it's just not working! Nothing seems to fit, and I don't know what to do!"

Choosing the right structure

Once you've worked out what you want to say, you then have to work out how to say it. Choosing the best structure for your work is an important decision, and one you will get better at with time.

If you find that you're repeating yourself a lot, or moving material back and forth to different sections, then this is a good sign you are using the wrong structure. Have another look at the question and see of there's another, better way to organise your work.

I've spent ages carefully planning my assignment, and I can't work out why I'm getting the feedback that my work isn’t structured and doesn’t flow?

Speaking to the reader

For any piece of work you write, you may feel it’s obvious what your main points are and how they link together. However, the reader has to figure this our for themselves! It's therefore your responsibility to may it easy for them and articulate your structure quickly and clearly.

"When I am marking work, I need to understand its structure straight away! I have enough to do trying to work out if a piece of work meets the marking criteria and what grade to give!"

So how do you do this? A good trick is to signpost your structure right at the start of your work in an introduction. Include a sentence or two indicating the main points you’ll be covering, and in what order. This is your promise to the reader, so make sure you stick to it.

Maintaining flow

A piece of writing flows when the reader has been primed to anticipate what is to come, and recognises it when they encounter it, with a sense of familiarity and expectations met. So try to make sure all of the points you promised to cover in your introduction are clearly signposted in the main body of your text.

To do this, make sure the terms used in your introduction appear prominently at the start of each paragraph in which they first appear. Ask yourself: could the reader get a sense of my document's structure by simply reading the introduction and the first line of each paragraph? If so, you can be pretty confident that your writing flows and reads well.

Good luck with your next assignment or project...

Need more help? Just ASK!

Visit the ASK Academic Skills Kit and check out our online resources at www.ncl.ac.uk/ask

Created By
Terry Charlton
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