How to Analyze a Writing Prompt

Lauren Short, Consultant

Before you can start with that snappy opener that draws your reader in, you must first learn to decode the writing prompt. While this may seem like an ordinary task, I’ve seen many students who are overwhelmed by the amount of information included in a given writing prompt. They all seem to ask a similar question: How do I know that I’m including everything the professor wants? Luckily, there are a few questions you can ask yourself to aid in the process of understanding your professor’s expectations.

What type of paper am I being asked to write?

Narrative: A narrative essay asks you describe a personal experience.
Persuasive: A persuasive essay asks you to make an argument, or to persuade your reader. In addition to providing examples and support about your own argument, you’ll want to consider the opposing viewpoint’s relevance and explain why your argument makes a stronger case.
Expository: An expository essay typically asks you to compare/contrast two things or explain a cause/effect.

What sort of information do I need to include?

More than likely, your paper is going to call for research. How many sources does your professor ask you to include? Do the sources need to be varied? Peer-reviewed? One of the best places to start brainstorming is through research. Once you read an academic opinion on the topic you are writing, you’ll begin to understand the viewpoints in which you agree and disagree. You probably have a good idea of what you want to say, you just need to find sources that support your argument and examples that illustrate your point.

Who is my intended audience?

Considering your audience will help set the tone of your paper. If you are to assume a common reader, you will probably need to take a bit more time introducing your topic and explaining its significance. If your professor would like you to write ‘to the academy’ then you can probably omit redundant summary and spend more time talking about why your argument is significant instead of what your argument is.

Decoding a writing prompt can be a bit like translating a foreign language. You might feel like you have the gist of the assignment but there’s always that feeling that something might be missing. I encourage all writers to go back to the writing prompt once they have finished with their drafts. Make a list of the professor’s expectations and see if you can find them within your paper. If you’re missing something, go back and revise. With a little effort, you’ll get to make a satisfying check mark next to each expectation.

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