Five Tips for Interpreting Writing Prompts
Cheyenne Franklin, consultant
The writing prompt. This piece of paper is your ultimate guide through what can feel like endless avenues of ideas or a desolate blank page. But sometimes these precious few words from instructors can seem like an encoded script. Well like any code, there is a key. Here are some secrets I’ve learned to interpret assignment sheets.
Secret #1: When you don’t know where to begin…
Look for keywords. Certain words go with particular writing genres. If you see words like argue or defend, then your instructor is likely looking for an argumentative essay, so be sure to take a clear stance and use evidence to support your claims. Rhetoric(al) refers to the intentional strategies that people use to make an argument. So if this keyword appears in your assignment, your instructor either wants to see you making strategic moves in making your argument or wants you to discuss the strategies used by the author of a text you’re studying. In the second case, you’ll want to write an analysis, so DO NOT just summarize the text.
For more key writing prompt words, see the key terms section of the UNC Writing Center handout on Understanding Assignments. You also might enjoy this blog post on “Deciphering Common Keywords in Assignment Prompts,” written by one of our previous consultants.
Secret #2: When you’re unfamiliar with the genre…
Determine what the purpose of the assignment is. Assignments have two types of purpose: an academic purpose and a real-life purpose.
To determine the first purpose, think about what skills your class has discussed. Instructors make assignments to give you a chance to show what you’ve learned. Consider what has been emphasized in class recently. Can you put this knowledge to practice in the assignment?
The second purpose requires you to use your imagination. Remember that college writing is to prepare you for real world writing. Imagine your audience extends beyond your instructor. What goal might you have other than a grade? Now how should you approach the assignment to accomplish that goal?
See Duke University’s list of college essay genres for a description of each genre and its characteristics.
Secret #3: When you’re told not to have a thesis…
Think again. What about the assignments that forbid “personal opinion?” Isn’t a thesis an opinion? Well not in an academic sense.
What instructors mean when they warn against personal opinion is that you should not make claims based on personal feelings. You should make claims based on statistical or textual evidence, reliable resources, and clearly drawn logic. Your instructor will almost always look for a main point in your essay (aka a thesis). Just make sure the thesis is your analysis NOT your opinion.
Secret #4: When your assignment includes a quote…
You cannot ignore it. Some assignment sheets include a passage from a text you’ve studied in class. Although the instructions might not directly ask for you to address this quote, you should reference it somewhere in your essay unless otherwise instructed.
Secret #5: When you still have no idea…
It’s time to talk to your instructor. Remember that your instructor wants you to understand the assignment and wants to know if it’s unclear. Most instructors revise their assignments based on the responses they receive, and if you’re confused, there’s a good chance others are too. Just be sure to discuss your confusion respectfully. You’ll save yourself a lot of time and worry.
In the end, your instructors don’t mean for their assignments to confuse you. Still, we all encounter certain prompts that confuse the inspiration right out of us. As you gain more experience with the lingo and genres it will get easier.