Beyond “How Many Pages Is It?”: Four Questions to Ask Assignments

assignment prompt

Despite being a writer, senior English major, and a Bellarmine writing consultant, I am also a normal human being who sometimes dreads the inevitable writing assignments handed out every semester by the willfully cruel taskmasters that some refer to as “professors.” That being the case, I’ll be the first to confess that upon being handed a prompt for any paper, my immediate reaction is to check the length requirements. This way I can attempt to make a quick estimate of how much time I will have to divert from my usual routine of pondering my woefully under-stocked fridge to complete the given assignment. However, in order to more quickly return to my “fridge fantasies,” it will be necessary for me look more closely at the prompt. Typically, some of the things I might look for include:

1. What is the prompt asking me to do? For example, the many assignments are really asking me to “make a claim and support it,” but some professors call this “having a thesis statement,” “arguing a point,” or “analyzing.” They all mean basically the same thing. Other assignments might ask me to “inform about a topic,” in other words, explain a concept. Many times I’m asked to do both. Figuring out exactly what a professor wants from me is a very important step in the writing process (I know, who would have thought?) and is usually the first thing I determine before I begin writing a paper.

2. What kind of language does the prompt use? I’ve found that there are certain clue words professors use. Decoding these clues can be helpful when determining how I approach my paper. Does the prompt mention a “critical analysis?” This clues me in that my writing should be in-depth and use many quotes from the text to support my analysis. Does it discuss writing a narrative? Many Expository Writing and Freshmen Seminar include a “personal narrative” assignment; these allow the writer to tell a story using personal details, but many other academic writing assignments do not typically include personal experience or even “I.” Or, does the prompt mention something more along the lines of a “reflection” or “response?” In my experience, reflection and response papers are more informal; professors want to see that I have read the text (or participated in an experience) and have begun thinking about it. Terms like “critical analysis,” “narrative,” and “reflection” can be clues for what kind of paper professors are expecting and the style in which they expect them to be written.

3. What sources does the prompt expect me to draw on? Some assignments refer to one source– the assigned class reading or readings. Others  give me free rein to find my own. Sometimes I‘m supposed to refer to class discussion. Sometimes the only source is me and my knowledge. This is very important in determining what I need to base my paper from and how I will be supporting the points that I will (hopefully) be making.

4. What are the criteria on which my paper will be judged? Paying attention to how my writing will be graded helps me decide on the areas of my paper that particularly need my attention. For example, will my paper be expected to include a lead in the first paragraph that “hooks” my reader? Will I be expected to organize my paper a certain way? Is there one question I need to answer directly? Several questions? Does my essay have to be error-free? Being aware of all the required components is the first step to fulfilling the grading criteria.

These are a few starting points I have found helpful when faced with the often intimidating writing prompt. They are also ones I start with when meeting with students in the Writing Center If anyone else can think of any more, please share them with us and anyone else you meet in the streets! Until next time, I’ll be staying busy dreaming of a full refrigerator.



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