Understanding Writing Assignments and What Questions to Ask

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Regardless of the writing assignment, topic or class, understanding the assignment and knowing what questions to ask affects your ability to meet expectations and write an effective paper or essay. Keep in mind that most academic assignments are asking you to make an argument, even when the argument is not specifically asked for in the instructions. Making a convincing argument is the goal of most academic writing assignments.

The first step in understanding is reading instructions or prompts carefully and asking questions about anything you do not understand. Next, there are several questions to ask to know what is required or expected in several areas. Throughout the entire process of reading, understanding and asking questions, make notes of important aspects of the assignment.

Reading writing assignments carefully

Any time you are given a writing assignment, the very first thing you should do is read through the instructions. This should be done immediately; the sooner you know and understand what is expected, the sooner you can begin writing. A majority of writing assignments given to you by an instructor follow a general format:

  • An overview: The overview generally consists of a basic explanation of or discussion on the subject of the assignment. It might introduce the topic in basic terms or bring up related class material or lectures to help guide you.
  • The task of the overall assignment: This part of instructions is important, so read extra carefully. The task of the assignment often includes strong actions verbs. These verbs let you know how to think about your topic and specify the tasks of the assignment – the who, what, when, where and how.
  • Questions or areas to contemplate: This part of instructions is meant to start your thinking process, to help you decide what questions to ask as you formulate your topic and ideas. While any questions or things to think about might not be requirements, they are usually suggestions that put you on the right path.
  • Style tips and formatting requirements: Instructions for writing assignments are also likely to include tips on the style and tone you should take and any specific formatting requirements. Instructions might include phrases like “stay concise,” “use descriptive language” or “argue effectively.” If research is required, what citation and style method (APA, MLA, Chicago Manual of Style, AP, etc.) you are expected to follow is made clear. In addition, specific spacing, margins, paper or word length and other stylistic and formatting guidelines might appear in this section.

While all writing assignment instructions do not follow this format exactly or do not present the information in the same order, most sets of instructions include this information. Reading carefully and understanding expectations helps you write effectively.

Questions to ask yourself

There are a few additional questions to ask that help shed light on what is expected of you. Asking these questions makes forming your approach, generating ideas and focusing your writing assignment much easier.

Why are you being asked to do this particular writing assignment?

While any assignment, in part, is to show your understanding and provide a way in which to give you a grade, there is also an additional purpose behind the it as well: to facilitate a learning experience. If you can identify what your instructor expects you to learn—the purpose, plan or approach—your understanding of what is expected is much greater. Questions you might ask include the following:

  • What is the purpose of this writing assignment?
  • Are you researching a topic to give an overview? Discuss research results? Argue a point?
  • Are you being asked to take something you learned in class or reading and look at it differently? To apply what you learned?
  • Are you being asked to prove a point? Take one side of an argument?
  • What lessons, topics and things your instructor does in class help clue you into the purpose?

Identifying action verbs can help you answer these questions. Common words you may encounter are listed below along with what is probably expected.

  • Providing information: define, explain, illustrate, summarize, trace, research
  • Showing relationships: apply, cause, compare, contrast, relate
  • Interpreting information: analyze, argue, access, evaluate, justify, prove, respond, support, synthesize

Who is the audience of the writing assignment?

While it is easy to view your instructor as the audience, this is not the best way to approach an assignment. Your instruction is going to read what you write, but the way in which it is read focuses on your understanding of the assignment or material and your ability to write coherently and effectively about it. In most cases, you want to think of your audience as someone who can follow and understand a logical argument but does not possess expert knowledge on the topic and scope of your writing assignment.

Writing a paper to a specific audience involves determining your tone and the level of information you provide. When choosing the tone, decide if a conversational or more formal tone is appropriate . From there, focus on using the right words without forcing bigger words into the content simply because you think they sound more intellectual. For the level of information, think about what your audience already knows and what it does not know. From this, you can focus on the details you need to make your argument or point.

Do you need to do any research?

Some writing assignments might have clear instructions about what is expected of you when it comes to research – how many sources, types of sources, documentation style to follow—but sometimes this is not expressly stated. The focus and scope of the assignment helps you determine if research is necessary. If it is, make a plan for conducting research, and determine how you intend to find valuable sources of information.

Steps to take before writing

Once you have a pretty good understanding of a writing assignment, you can start preparing to write it. Make sure to follow the steps below to make writing your paper or essay a smoother process.

  1. Ask your instructor questions about anything you do not understand
  2. Mark down the due date of the writing assignment
  3. Make a plan for completing each step of the assignment, including goal dates
  4. Conduct research to focus in on your topic if research is necessary or required
  5. Make an outline

In addition to asking your instructor questions and the five steps listed above, know where you can go for additional help with meeting assignment requirements or with your writing in general. For example, if your school has a writing lab, you should know when and how to utilize it.

When you can break down an assignment to understand what is expected of you through knowing which questions to ask, your final paper is much better. It also allows you to formulate a plan to tackle each step in the writing process in a timely manner to assure you meet deadlines for turning in your assignments.