II. Getting Started

2.3 Understanding the Writing Assignment: Quick Reference

Robin Jeffrey; Emilie Zickel; Kathy Anders; and Terri Pantuso

Before you begin working on an essay or a writing assignment, don’t forget to spend some quality time analyzing the assignment sheet. By closely reading and breaking down the assignment sheet, you are setting yourself up for an easier time of planning and composing the assignment. You might find it helpful to use the following steps:

  • First, determine the genre of the assignment;
  • Second, identify the core assignment questions that you need to answer;
  • Third, note what types of secondary sources are required as well as how many;
  • Fourth, locate the evaluation and grading criteria; carefully read the assignment sheet and search for the required page length, due dates, and other submission-based information;
  • Finally, identify the disciplinary conventions with which you are expected to write.

Writing Genre

Loosely speaking, genre refers to a category of work that generally shares similar characteristics. When determining the genre in which you are being asked to write, if it is not explicitly stated ask yourself what, in the broadest sense, are you being asked to do?

How to Answer the Assignment Question(s)

Sometimes, a list of prompts or questions may appear with an assignment given to you by your instructor. It is likely that your instructor will not expect you to answer all of the questions listed. They are simply offering you some ideas so that you can think of your own questions to ask. When this occurs, it can be useful to:

  • Circle all assignment questions that you see on the assignment sheet;
  • Put a star next to the question that is either the most important OR that you will pursue in creating the assignment;
  • Underline the topic about which you feel most passionate. If you are interested in the topic, you will produce a better paper.

Recognizing Implied Questions

A prompt may not include a clear ‘how’ or ‘why’ question, though one is always implied by the language of the prompt. For example, “Discuss the effects of the No Child Left Behind Act on special education programs” is asking you to write how the act has affected special education programs, while “Consider the recent rise of autism diagnoses” is asking you to write why the diagnoses of autism are on the rise. If it is not relatively clear what is implied in the question or prompt, check with your instructor or a writing center tutor.

Identifying Writing Requirements

Some instructors offer indications of what certain parts of the essay/composition should contain. As you read the assignment sheet, look for an indication of elements to be included. Does the assignment sheet offer suggestions or requirements for the introductory paragraph? For the thesis statement? For the structure or content of the body paragraphs or conclusion paragraphs? If not, check with your instructor or visit your university writing center for suggestions and guidance.

Identifying Source Information Requirements

When you receive an assignment, note what types of information you will need in order to respond to the questions in the prompt. Your instructor may indicate that you need to use a certain number of secondary sources in your assignment and may even tell you what types of sources, e.g. newspaper stories, magazine articles, interviews, or scholarly journal articles. It may also be the case that apart from the requirements for the writing assignment, you need to find background information on the topic so that you can begin to formulate your own ideas or your claim. For example, say you are in a nutrition class and you receive the following prompt:

“Evaluate the benefits and drawbacks of a ketogenic diet for a population with a health issue of your choosing, i.e., epilepsy, liver disease, kidney disease, obesity, etc. Use at least four scholarly sources in your paper.”

If you are not already familiar with what a ketogenic diet is, you will have to do some background research on the concept itself as you begin to address the topic of your essay. You might also need to do some research about the health issue upon which you focus. As you write, you will also need to find and incorporate four scholarly sources into your paper likely addressing the specific question about the ketogenic diet and the population group you chose. You might choose to include even more sources depending upon how you want to address the topic. However, remember that when you are using secondary sources you keep your voice and claim prominent in the essay, and not the voices of your secondary sources.

Identifying Evaluation Criteria

Many assignment sheets contain a grading rubric or some other indication of evaluation criteria for the assignment. You can use these criteria to both begin the writing process and to guide your revision and editing process. If you do not see any rubric or evaluation criteria on the assignment sheet — ask!

Recognizing Disciplinary Expectations

Depending on the discipline in which you are writing, different features and formats of your writing may be expected. Always look closely at key terms and vocabulary in the writing assignment, and be sure to note what type of evidence and citations style your instructor expects.

  • Does the essay need to be in MLA, APA, Chicago or another style?
  • Does the instructor require any specific submission elements or formats?

Practice Activity

This section contains material from:Jeffrey, Robin, and Emilie Zickel. “Understanding the Writing Assignment.” In A Guide to Rhetoric, Genre, and Success in First-Year Writing, by Melanie Gagich and Emilie Zickel. Cleveland: MSL Academic Endeavors. Accessed July 2019. https://pressbooks.ulib.csuohio.edu/csu-fyw-rhetoric/chapter/understanding-assignments/. Licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License. Archival link: https://web.archive.org/web/20230205013719/https://pressbooks.ulib.csuohio.edu/csu-fyw-rhetoric/chapter/understanding-assignments/ 



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2.3 Understanding the Writing Assignment: Quick Reference Copyright © 2023 by Robin Jeffrey; Emilie Zickel; Kathy Anders; and Terri Pantuso is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.