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Section2.4How to Read Writing Prompts

One of things that makes Puget Sound such a vibrant intellectual space is the diversity of pedagogical styles represented on campus; as students, we can attest that this diversity makes for more flexible and creative thinkers. That said, we know that it can be difficult to develop a consistent way to interpret and approach writing assignments when those assignments vary by professor and even by course. In this section, you'll find some tips on reading, understanding, and responding to writing assignments. You may also find it helpful to read Chapter 5 on Discipline-Specific Writing.

It's important to get started on your essay as early as you can to allow yourself the most time to develop and revise your ideas. To this effect, read through your assignment as soon as you receive it and identify the following:

The Purpose

When approaching an assignment, it's useful to identify the purpose of the assignment. Asking yourself, “Why did Professor assign this essay?” can help you understand what your professor wants you to get out of this assignment. Often, professors assign written work to clarify your thinking on a topic or concept, sharpen some relevant academic skill, or both. Thus, your English professor might ask you to write an essay about Gertrude Stein to give you practice deciphering ambiguous poetry, or your sociology professor might ask you to write an autoethnography to personalize the connection between, for instance, dorm life and capitalism. Knowing why you're writing a paper—that is, knowing that your professor is not sadistically assigning work—actually makes writing the paper easier.

The Work to be Done

Now that you've figured out the purpose of the assignment, it's time to identify what the assignment is asking you to do. To do so, pay attention to the active verbs of the prompt. If your prompt asks you to “Analyze Lewis Carroll's Alice's Adventures in Wonderland,” make sure your essay is founded on textual analysis. If your prompt asks you to “Compare the timelines of the Korean War and the Vietnam War,” make sure your paper compares. Identifying these active verbs can can give you a basic sense of how your professor will evaluate your essay—Does it analyze the novel? Does it compare the wars?—and can guide your writing to meet those expectations.

Also, identify what type of evidence that you'll need to substantiate your argument: If your professor explicitly asks for a “statistical analysis of American automobile consumption in the past decade,” make sure you draw on statistics. (Often, this information is implied in the language of the prompt: When a prompt asks you to analyze Alice's Adventures in Wonderland, you know you'll be working with the novel.) If you don't know what type of evidence your professor expects you to use, ask.

Once you know what your professor is looking for, make a list of things to keep in mind as you write: Having this list for easy reference will keep your paper on topic and help you to foreground the skills under evaluation.

Any Suggestions

There are things you must do for an assignment, and there are also things you might do. Professors, especially those at Puget Sound, sincerely want you to succeed. Because they're so benevolent, your professors might provide some suggestions for writing or constructing an argument in response to the prompt. These suggestions can be helpful points of departure, especially if you're having difficulty formulating a response. They're also good examples of responses that your professor would accept. If it seems like there are a lot of questions, chances are, you aren't required to answer all of them (professors don't want to read essays full of a bunch of disjointed ideas). If you're not sure whether something is required or just suggested, ask your professor.

Key Information

Once you know the why and the how of your assignment, identify any stipulations regarding length, citation format, the number of required sources (both primary and secondary), and, of course, the due date. Knowing this information will help you to plan your approach and allocate your time: You probably shouldn't wait until Thursday night to begin outlining the six-page paper due in class on Friday. Having this information will also give you a sense of the extent and scope of your response: If you're limited to three pages, you probably won't be able to argue about the evolution of Los Angeles's urban landscape from 1980 to the present; perhaps you could focus on a single aspect—building height—and hold off on the rest until your 25-page final. Identifying key information can also help you to plan your essay: The tone you adopt (Is it professional or conversational?) and the background that you provide are largely determined by your audience: Are you writing for your professor, your peers, or the general population? Your grasp of key information can help you to contour your approach.

Your Approach

It goes without saying that assignments vary! Some professors will give you a detailed question to respond to, while others will ask you to come up with and respond to your own question. This variation can be perplexing. However, knowing how to approach either type of assignment can save you some anxiety.

Students often feel that a specific prompt requires a specific answer. This can be frustrating, especially if you feel that you don't know that answer or that you're being stifled into agreeing with your professor. While it may be the case that your prompt requires a particular answer, it is more likely that your professor will accept a variety of responses. Not only is it more interesting for your professors to evaluate 20 different responses (as opposed to 20 responses making the same point), but we also have it on good word that the joy of assigning essays comes from the variety of responses that such assignments elicit. Thus, while you should ask if you're unsure whether your assignment wants a particular answer, take comfort in the fact that what matters most to most professors is often not the answer you give but how well you argue it.

When faced with a bare prompt, students often have the opposite frustration: They don't know where to start! It can seem impossible to start on a paper when all that you're given is: “Write an essay on a topic related to the concerns of the course” (or something to this effect). Though prompts like this one can seem daunting, they also give you the most intellectual and creative freedom. Your only constraint is your ability to shape an idea of yours into an argument of relevance to the course. Adopting this frame of mind can transform what seems daunting into a liberating opportunity to demonstrate your argumentative facility. If you find yourself stuck, think about what interests you most about your course topic and make some word or concept webs (see Chapter 4); you're likely to find something worth writing about. If you're still stuck, schedule a meeting with your professor, talk with a friend, or see a writing advisor at the CWLT!


It's normal to have questions about your assignments. After you read through your prompt, note any questions that you have and ask your professor for clarification. When your professor realizes that they accidentally wrote “single-spaced” instead of “double-spaced,” your classmates will thank you.

Here are some examples of real prompts that we've marked up with regard to the above information:

Example2.4.1Short Paper (Short Prompt)

This is a seven-page autobiographical essay in which you explore the framing of your identity as an individual within the context of diversity in the United States. Here you may explore any aspect of your upbringing, socialization, and family ties etc., to discuss the formation of your identity. As part of the process of developing this essay you are required to engage readings from the class that explore issues of identity.

―Courtesy of Dexter Gordon

Here we have a very short prompt for an essay of considerable length. As readers, we'll begin by identifying the important aspects of the assignment: it must be seven pages; it must be autobiographical with respect to identity; it must engage readings from the class; and it must be situated in the context of diversity in the United States. The assignment is unique because it is autobiographical; because we don't have much experience writing autobiographical essays, we might ask some of the following questions: How much detail should we provide? How personal can we be? What is the desired balance of autobiographical and scholarly writing? What does scholarly autobiographical writing look like? The benefit of prompts like this one is that they tend to be open-ended. We wouldn't be surprised if the answer to the questions above are of the do-what-is-most-appropriate-to-the-point-you're-making type. This type of freedom may be scary, but take advantage of the opportunity: write the essay that you want to write! There are, of course, some important details omitted; we would definitely need more information about the assignment's due date, citation style, and audience. That kind of information is often offered in class when that assignment is made. Make sure to take good notes!

Example2.4.2Engagement Papers (Medium Prompt)

Middlemarch is a long novel that will take us several weeks to read (and more to digest); in addition, the bulk of the course is directed toward the seminar paper you will submit in May. To ensure that you are continually writing and processing ideas, each of you will write five Engagement Papers. The papers should be approximately 1000 words (~3 standard pages) and are due on Fridays (see schedule). At the end of each class, I will suggest possible topics to write on; I suggest you reserve a separate section of your notebook to jot these down. The general guidelines for each of the Engagement Papers are: (1) they should not simply regurgitate class discussion; instead, use our discussions as a jumping off point to delve deeper into an issue, topic, passage, chapter/section of the novel; (2) they should primarily be focused on that week's reading, not on the readings of weeks ago. While you might certainly link developments in the week's reading to previous sections of the novel, the focus should be on the current sections. Your papers will be graded foremost for their depth of analysis, but also for their clarity and style (these are formal papers).

―Courtesy of Priti Joshi

This prompt is helpful because it is explicit about its aims. The professor specifies, at the beginning, that the assignment is designed to “ensure that you [the student] are continually writing and processing ideas” in anticipation of the final, seminar paper. This information is useful, because it tells us that these essays are, for all intents and purposes, practice for the big one. The prompt is also explicit about what it expects: a paper of 1000 words, due every Friday, on the reading for that week, that engages with the novel in ways that go beyond class discussion. Finally, the assignment is transparent about its evaluative logic, with primary emphasis given to argument and secondary emphasis given to expression. There are, as always, some lingering questions, regarding, for instance, citation style and the use of secondary sources. These questions, however, are easily answered in class or during office hours.

Example2.4.3Long Paper (Long Prompt)

The mission-market tension in NGOs.

NGOs often face a tension between their charitable mission and purely pragmatic/financial imperatives. In class, we discuss several examples of these tensions, including:

  • The implications of pressures from contracts with donors and governments,
  • The problems due to competitive behavior between emergency relief NGOs
  • The debate over how NGOs are best selected and evaluated.
  • Can we cut or minimize intermediaries between charitable donors and the recipients of aid?

For this assignment, you must select one of these broad areas of investigation, and explore a specific and concrete question to expand on the class material. You can use one course reading as a starting point. Or you can go a different route, depending on your interests.

Sections: Please break your essay down into at least 3 or 4 sections (each with an informative title, starting with an introduction and a conclusion). This will make your paper much easier to follow than a single block of text.

Length: about 2,000 words, excluding bibliography.

Citations: As in any research paper, you must cite your sources properly and provide a formatted bibliography at the end. In IPE courses, students use the Chicago Style, Author-Date system, but you are free to follow the standard format (Chicago, APA, etc.) that you are used to in your major. Just be consistent.

Grading Criteria

Presentation of argument: Your thesis should be clear and the essay should be organized to defend it.

Presentation of evidence: The concrete examples you choose must be informative and illustrate your point.

Writing: Your writing should be clear and well organized.

Quality and breadth of sources: Pay close attention to the quality and relevance of your sources. You need to have enough substantial academic (i.e., books and full-length academic articles) as well as short or long pieces you will find on good popular magazines, blogs. A general rule to follow may be a minimum of 8 academic sources PLUS as many relevant popular (blog/magazines/news) pieces you can find. There is a huge supply of popular writing on NGOs and philanthropy all over the internet, make sure you assess your sources appropriately. As far as academic materials go, there is a LOT of academic research (both in journal and book form) on NGOs, nonprofits and philanthropy.

―Courtesy of Pierre Ly

This essay prompt takes up a lot of space on the page, but it is actually shorter and less text-heavy than its length suggests. The prompt begins with an introductory statement summarizing some of the topics discussed in class and then asks you, the writer, to focus on one, formulate a question related to it, and to respond to that question by conducting research in both academic and popular sources. The prompt is open-ended and gives the writer the creative and scholarly license to pursue a project that interests them. This hands-off approach, we have noted, can be both liberating and, paradoxically, stifling. If you think that you'll have trouble getting started, try one of the brainstorming strategies that we suggested in Section 4.1. As with all assignments, you'll want to get started early. The prompt is comprehensive about the technical requirements of the paper. You may need to ask when the assignment is due and in what form (hard copy or electronic) if that information is not on the syllabus. Jot down these questions and any other questions you may have so that you do not forget to ask them. Finally, pay particular attention to the grading criteria. The professor has likely included this information to help you, the writer, to write a clear (not to mention high-scoring) essay. Because the prompt mentions four areas of assessment, be sure to make those areas as strong as possible.

Example2.4.4Another Potential Prompt (with lots of list-y questions)

Writing Assignment: Transformations

  1. After reading Tobias Wolff's memoir, This Boy's Life, and viewing the film of the same name, write an essay in which you focus on one or more significant differences between scenes, characters, or other elements that appear in both the book and the screenplay. Does this change enhance or detract from the viewing experience of this memoir? In what ways? What meaning is meant to be conveyed? Be as specific as possible, using examples of language, imagery, music, etc.

  2. Or you may wish to write about an obvious omission from the memoir, something important in the book which the filmmaker decided to leave out. What is gained, and what is lost? Which version tells the greater emotional truth in your opinion, and what is that truth(s)?

  3. Or you may write about an original element of the film that is not part of the book's narrative. Does it add to or fit within the “dramatic arc” of the story? In what ways? What meaning is meant to be emphasized? Can you speculate about the filmmaker's artistic choice?

Consider the nature of memory and what “fictional” license may be granted to an author? What parts of Wolff's narrative might be invented and what do they add? Or do they? Use examples to make your points. What might be readers' feelings toward a coming-of-age story? What is the role of catharsis in reading? How do we come out on the other side of loss or disappointment or even abuse?

This 3-page, double-spaced essay is a study in comparing and contrasting. The questions/suggestions above are largely to get you thinking about memoir. You may write in first person or third. You may include the effect of the book and/or movie on yourself. Whatever subject(s) you choose, keep your focus narrow, your exploration deep (rather than writing with a wide net). Remember that you are making a case (argument) for your opinion. Use examples from the text and film to back up your thesis or motive (which I hope will be the last sentence of the first paragraph).

Be sure to create an original title.

―Courtesy of Beverly Conner

This essay prompt poses a wealth of questions intended to give the writer a sense of what lines of inquiry would be intellectually rewarding. The prompt is generous in its suggestions and is deeply committed to the author's creative agency, allowing the writer to choose, for instance, between adopting a first or third person voice. This commitment to authorial agency suggests that the essay is intended, at least in part, to be exploratory; it is intended to help the writer to further develop a sense of their scholarly voice and, perhaps, to experiment with a mode of rhetorical presentation not previously employed. Of course, the prompt pairs this commitment to freedom with a number of pointed argumentative and technical suggestions (“Keep your focus narrow, your exploration deep” and “I hope [the thesis] will be the last sentence of the first paragraph”) included to highlight the important and, in the former instance, less negotiable hallmarks of successful academic writing. The prompt also foregrounds the comparative aspect of the essay, cueing the reader, in so doing, to possible organizational schemes. Overall, this prompt is exceptionally supportive of the writer; it is clear about its expectations and respectful of the writer's intellectual maturity and creative agency. It also differentiates, politely, between the creative options available to the writer and the more well-established expectations of academic writing.