Tag: revision

“Tomorrow is the day”: Thoughts on Writer’s Block and Procrastination

Derrick Neese, Writing Consultant

I am going to write tomorrow. I mean it. Tomorrow is the day I’m starting my next big story and there is nothing that can stop me. And it will be the best story I’ve written—knock your socks off good—but, you know, tomorrow. Why not today? Because I’m a little tired right now, and there is a baseball game starting in an hour, and, well, tomorrow is the day I said I’d start. Tomorrow it is.

            My personal best streak of “tomorrow is the day” was a year. A year of guilt, anxiety, and frustration renewed each afternoon, starting the moment I told myself tomorrow is the day, a cycle of hopelessness that paralyzed my fingertips. Right before my monumental run, I’d set the goal of writing 2,000 words a day—even achieving it once or twice. Then I failed a few times and moved the goal post when stress replaced joy, shifting down to 1k, then a page, and finally, after all the satisfaction was sucked out, a year of nothing. But here I am today, writing in my office on a bit of a hot streak. So what changed?

All it took was writing one minute a day. This isn’t a gotcha moment. I’ve talked to a lot of writers, from teens who write fanfic on internet forums to famous authors with seven-figure book deals. The one thing I’ve noticed that we all share is anxiety for the next draft. This feeling is insidious, stomping out creativity for sport, chasing down the characters and storylines we have imagined and hiding them from our creative selves. We stop ourselves before we even start. To be a writer, you have to write, it’s as simple as that. Each morning I make my coffee, sit down at my desk with my phone far away in a distant land, and write for one minute. What happens is this: I never write for one minute, it’s the biggest lie I’ve ever told myself. Sometimes I end up with a few pages, others, a few sentences. The real magic comes from a lack. Lack of guilt, lack of fear, lack of writer’s block. All (mostly) gone. I am free to tell my stories now, to write my research papers, and above all, to just write.

            But the war for creativity doesn’t simply stop when I sit down, because the next clash starts during the drafting process. My creative and editorial brains are mortal enemies in my head, each fighting to have the lead role in my next story until tomorrow comes. So, I make a deal with my internal editor. Let me write today until all the words are down, I beg them. And then it’s all yours. I grant my creative self the opportunity to write freely in this moment, without judgment or fear, allowing the draft to be as bad as it can be. Often, it is really, really bad. And that’s okay. When I finish, I put it away until the characters call my name again, and then I hand over control to my editorial brain. They have been patiently waiting for this moment after all. I give them permission to revise critically (as opposed to judgmentally, which lends itself to a finality that does not exist in our drafts) until each sentence, word, and comma are where they want them to be. This is where craft meets creative. In this way, I stifle the battle between creator and editor, giving each the freedom they crave.

As writers, we must fight the good fight against tomorrow. We do this in the name of creativity and craft. Without them, we are lost before we begin, and therefore defending them is our primary focus. This is an unseen battle that permeates through the deepest crevices of our writerly minds. We must protect both creator and editor at all costs. Otherwise, we are doomed to repeat the mistakes of tomorrow.

So, write for one minute a day, today.

Good Enough is a Shot in the Dark or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Revision.

Christopher Stuck, Assistant Director of the Virtual Writing Center

Every once in a while, I stumble upon an article Christopher Stuckabout writing that really sparks with my own experience and struggles in getting words on the page and then turning them into something worthwhile. A lot of my writing time is spent worrying about that first reader and how they will react. As such, I struggle with getting the first draft out, caught up in making it finished on the first go. From teaching here at the University of Louisville and at the University of South Carolina before that, plus working with writers in the University Writing Center, I know I’m not alone in this thought process.

We know it’s bad for us to get into the editing while we’re writing. We know nothing is finished on the first try. But we don’t want to show that we don’t quite have it down right to start, either because we don’t want to be embarrassed or because we don’t want to edit. Good enough isn’t good enough, but we want it to be.

Last week, the University Writing Center posted a link to “The Book He Wasn’t Supposed to Write,” an article published in The Atlantic, to our Facebook page and Twitter feed. Written by author and journalist Thomas E. Ricks, the article details his hidden struggles in writing his latest book and the dismay he felt in the editing process.

He worked on the book for three years and when he finally submitted it to his editor, his editor hated it. Ricks says “Partly, I was crushed. But even more, I was puzzled. How could I have been so off in my perception of my manuscript?” Ricks’s book wasn’t a true first draft, but this was the first time he had sent it out for reading. He was sure of the way he had written the manuscript, but “What [Ricks] had sent [his editor] was exactly the book he had told [Ricks] not to write.” Ricks rethought and revised the book heavily, transforming what he already had, the work he had already done, and added a lot of things he had initially discarded. Through revision, it fell into place, and he ended up with a much better book, even in his own opinion.

Ricks concludes his article, “Most art has a public face—music is played, paintings are displayed, plays are enacted, movies are filmed and often watched by groups. Books tend to be more private, from one person’s act of writing to another’s act of reading. Most mysterious of all is the hidden middle stage, the offstage act of editing. Yet sometimes it can make all the difference.” For me, this is much like the work we do here, as students and academics. Even with an audience in mind, whether it’s an editor, a professor, or a specific group of people out there in the world, there feels like mystery in the writing process. No matter how many times we go through it, no matter how practiced and sure of ourselves we get, the private acts of writing and revising tend to stay private.

Even the few of us who truly love to write fret and worry and make writing hard for ourselves. Rethinking and revising your work after getting the raw materials down on the page in a rough or first draft can counteract some of the mystery, making the whole process easier. Be willing to cut, scrap, rethink, reshape, rearrange, and rewrite. It may seem like more writing, but it’s easier writing.

Find that trusted friend or trusted professor and have them help you by reading and commenting on your work (most of us are willing) or come to the University Writing Center and work on it with us (all of us are willing). But most of all, trust yourself to get words on the page and shape it up later. Learn to stop worrying and love the revision.

How to Get into the “Flow” of Things: Writing a Well-Structured Essay

Lindsey Gilbert, consultantlindseygilbert

Many writers come into the Writing Center with concerns about the “flow” of their ideas in their papers. Occasionally, this concern comes up late in the writing process, allowing for little or no time to review the final piece with a writing consultant. A good way to resolve this issue is by simply examining the organization of the paper on your own. This answer may seem like a no-brainer, but many approaches exist that can help you reexamine and strengthen the structure of your paper, allowing for smooth transitions between ideas.


While this is not a new approach by any means, creating an outline before writing can greatly help you structure your paper. Seeing how the ideas shift into each other allows for an easy edit to the structure of your essay if necessary. Even though prewriting strategies such as an outline may seem tedious, they can greatly help and even speed up your overall writing process, meaning you spend less time crafting the structure during or after writing.

Identifying Key Ideas: Reverse Outlining

Structure is a key component to keep in mind while writing an essay, but you may not know how to structure your paper until you begin writing. After completing a draft, you can read through and mark down the main idea in each paragraph. Compiling all of the main ideas will provide you with the groundwork for shifting paragraphs around to illustrate a logical progression throughout your paper.

Thesis Statements and Topic Sentences

If you decide to rearrange your paragraphs, you will want to read through and reorganize your thesis statement. Remember, the thesis statement is the spoiler of your paper and outlines what topics you are covering and in what order. If your thesis statement reads, “Dogs are soft, fluffy, and cute,” the body paragraphs should be in the description order of “soft” first, “fluffy” second, and “cute” third. In turn, the topic sentences of each paragraph should align with the descriptions presented in your thesis statement. This will allow your reader to understand the main topic of each paragraph before reading through it.

Working with Transitions

New topic sentences help to create better organization throughout your paper, but a smooth transition is needed in between paragraphs for the ideas to build on each other. Make sure to develop strong transition sentences between paragraphs by concluding the ideas of a paragraph and finding a link to the next topic that will be covered in the following paragraph. This provides a logical flow of ideas for the reader.


Transition sentences are greatly important for the ideas in your paper to shift efficiently, but some concepts may be too large and drastically different to allow for an easy transition. For example, if you write a position paper, you will need to state the advantages and disadvantages of a specific topic. These two areas are drastically different and could contain much detail and explanation, allowing for multiple paragraphs to develop in the process. In this case, the use of subheadings can be greatly beneficial to make that shift for the reader, allowing him/her to follow along with larger ideas that cover a greater length of pages.

The approaches provided above can greatly strengthen the organization of your paper, providing the “flow” that is so desired by the reader. Organizing your ideas well can ultimately give you more credibility as a writer, a strategy that you should keep in mind before you submit your final essay.

Ready to start writing, but not quite sure how? Read our blog post on non-generic ways to start your paper.

Happy writing!

Watch Your Tone: The Sound of Academic Writing

Rhea Crone, Consultant

Most of us have received corrections, or suggestions for revision, on papers handed back to us by professors. Some of these comments are straightforward; “awkward word choice,” “incorrect spelling,” or “subject/verb disagreement” come to mind. Some comments, however, aren’t so clear. Among those in the latter camp are the dreaded question marks, free-floating in the margin; nefarious squiggles beneath phrases, sentences, or worse, entire paragraphs; and of course, some of the most loaded comments of them all: those suggesting a revision to “tone.”

DSCN3687So, what exactly does “tone” suggest when written in a margin? Isn’t it a term used to describe the way something sounds? How can a paper sound wrong, and why is any kind of sound significant if the paper’s argument is sufficiently advanced? Moreover, why must academic writers use one tone over another, and for that matter, why must we use any kind of tone, at all? There is no single correct response to any of these questions. In fact, in composition studies—a field that aims to simultaneously promote a sense of authorial ownership in writers of all levels, study the individual styles and needs of writers, and develop the most effective ways to teach everyone to write as effectively as possible—there is a long standing tension between those who say academic writers should not have to adhere to a specific “tone,” at all, and those who say that we must.

One has to wonder if there is a consensus on any aspect of such a debatable, fissured topic. Luckily, a set of general guidelines regarding the term itself exists. These guidelines usually take into account the following, give or take a few preferences or nuances depending on the reader/grader of a paper:

  • Use of clear and direct language, or the “active voice”;
  • Avoidance of personal pronouns, especially “we, you, you all, I,” etc.;
  • Omission of colloquialisms and/or regionally various terms and phrases.

To extrapolate from this short list a bit, academic tone is generally used so that a writer can quickly and effectively get their point(s) across, and so that the reader does not have to overexert themselves trying to understand what the author is saying. Academic tone also typically foregrounds information and argumentation, and demands that prose not sound as if it is merely the expression of an author’s opinion. Overall, this “tone” hinges on the following values: concise communication, and the establishment of authorial credibility. It also assumes that the reader of an academic paper wants to know, first and foremost, what the paper is talking about; and, of course, that the author of the paper knows what they’re talking about. Furthermore, use of the academic tone does not simply assume a certain reading style on behalf of a paper’s audience, but is ultimately an expression of respect for the reader. It does not, for example, ask the reader to believe unsupported claims, spend more of their time than necessary on reading through a paper, or require them to exert more mental energy on working through an argument than is necessary.

Now that we know what academic tone is, and why writers might want to use it, we can better understand the consequences of failing to use it correctly. These consequences don’t always result in a few required revisions or a point deduction. Indeed, academic tone can sometimes be broken with/from to great effect. Practiced, seasoned writers will sometimes switch their tone briefly, in order to emphasize a particular aspect of their argument. For example, placing a casual aside in parentheses, or including a quote from pop culture, can be used to draw attention to, and/or make a bit clearer, an important passage. In order to effectively break with/from academic tone, however, one must first understand and utilize it well. The reason for this is twofold: to borrow an adage, one must first understand a set of rules in order to break them, and the overall tone of a paper must be academic in order for a divergence/variation in that tone to be noticed at all, much less to great effect. If this tone is not broken pointedly, with some kind of rhetorical purpose, the author runs the risk of losing the attention and/or the comprehension of the reader, frustrating the reader, intellectually fatiguing the reader, losing authorial credibility, and/or needlessly obscuring an argument.

No blog post on academic tone would be complete without a disclaimer regarding various academic disciplines. Of course, not every discipline will require that papers be written in/with an academic tone. This is primarily because different disciplines address different audiences, and therefore value and judge tone differently, and sometimes it will not be necessary to write in a strictly formal, academic tone. Further, regardless of discipline, the occasional professor will encourage informal tone at various (more than likely initial) stages of any given writing assignment. Usually, however, it is best to assume that the academic tone is valued and will be expected in/of the majority of your papers.

Ya dig?

For further and/or more specific information on academic tone, please feel free to peruse the following sites:

Opportunity Instead of Failure: 5 Tips for Rewriting

DSCN3636Emily Blair, Consultant

So you’ve realized that your paper maybe doesn’t fit the prompt as well as you imagined, or your professor suggests you need to rewrite some or most of your first draft. At the University Writing Center, we can help with this common writing situation, but here are a few tips to get you started on your own.

  1. Don’t think everything is “wrong.”

When you hear the phrase “substantial revision,” you might think you need to throw out all of your original paper and begin again. While this MIGHT be true (see tip #2), it probably isn’t. Perhaps your thesis statement didn’t reflect your ideas well, or your research skewed toward an interesting idea that unfortunately didn’t always fit with the prompt. However, if your ideas and thesis are solid, a “substantial revision” might mean rewriting a body paragraph or two in order to better support that thesis. Don’t think that everything you’ve already done is useless now!

2. Don’t be afraid of the blank Word document, again.

So you spent a week tweaking this paper, perfecting your word choice, refining your argument to a fine point, and your professor wrote Revise! in the margins. While you might be tempted to ignore their suggestion because of the amount of time and energy you poured into your work, this is commonly referred to as a Sunk Cost Fallacy, meaning that you shouldn’t compare the time you spent on a project that will not, in the end, work, against the time you would have to spend revising it. If your goals for the paper are to successfully navigate a writing assignment, don’t be afraid of the new document, or of reworking a major part of your paper. The time spent revising will pay off.

3. Ask for clarification.

If your professor suggests that you should substantially revise your paper, ask exactly what she means. Perhaps the ideas, research, and thesis are great, but you have some sentence structuring issues through the paper. Maybe one of the body paragraphs doesn’t support your thesis, but the rest of the paper reads well. Without clarification, you might spend time and energy changing things that don’t need changing, or actually be weakening your paper in the process.

4. Go back to the beginning.

What was your first thought when you received the assignment or prompt? How did your thought process progressing to your final paper draft? Were there points where you knew parts of your paper were less than stellar, but you continued working because of a deadline or other pressures? Or, were you rushing to finish the paper because of a time crunch? Many factors affect how college students write and edit their work, and being able to chart your working attitude with your writing can help you see where you might expand, improve, and revise.

5. Carry revision strategies into your next first draft.

I know, thinking about your next writing assignment while in the throes of a rewrite sounds ridiculous, but rewriting allows us to revisit our writing process and consider what we might improve on for the future. Do you spend too much time on sentence level revisions and ignore the larger flow of your paragraphs? Do you find yourself distracted from your thesis, leading to a muddled body section? Are your conclusions focusing too much on previously stated facts and not enough on connections and expansions? Rewriting is the time to look at your writing with fresher eyes than you would while editing a first draft, and you can and should think about the revising process as you begin brainstorming for your next assignment.

Peter Elbow wrote in Writing With Power: Techniques for Mastering the Writing Process, Second Edition, “Don’t let yourself engage in taking the whole thing apart again for major revising even though your feelings say, ‘This thing must be completely done over, it’s worthless’” (174). He describes the nausea that sometimes accompanies the revising process, and even as a published and respected writer and professor, he feels the panicked revulsion at what he has written, and how he thinks he should change his writing. So you aren’t alone if the revision process seems overwhelming! At the University Writing Center, we enjoy working with writers at every phase of their writing process, and hope you will come in with a revision (or anything else) soon!

Getting Started with Revising

Adam Robinson, Associate Director

With a week left to go in the semester, I imagine that many of you are finishing up final revisions.  I have some advice about how you might start the revision process.

AdamFirst, I recommend that you think about revising and editing as two different processes.  Revising is connected to rethinking your argument, reorganizing parts of your paper, rewriting paragraphs, adding new sources, taking out paragraphs that don’t seem to fit in the paper.  Editing focuses more on proofreading your grammar and punctuation errors, checking your citations, rephrasing sentences that may confuse readers.  Revising and editing are equally important, but as you probably know through experience, revision takes a lot more time.

It’s useful to make this distinction between revising and editing for a few reasons, but one in particular comes to mind.  If your professor asks you to revise, then you know based on the distinction you have made between revising and editing, that she or he wants you to make some significant changes to your paper—to restate your thesis—to rewrite a section of the paper—to add new sources that strengthen your argument.  Your professor does want you to edit your work too—but editing doesn’t do the work of revision.

Okay…so you have in your mind the differences between the two.  What next?

I’d reread your paper.  Odds are you haven’t read your paper in a while, so it’s very likely you will have a new perspective when you do so.  Hopefully, you’ll notice places where you can add more analysis or you’ll notice a paragraph doesn’t have as much substance or insight as some of the others in your paper.   Hopefully, you’ll notice some parts of your paper you really like too.  You may decide to focus your revision on what you feel you are doing well.  That’s an important thing to note.  Oftentimes, a writer will view the “good parts” of her or his paper as the parts that can be left alone when revising and editing.  But sometimes the opposite should happen.  Sometimes the best section of a paper needs to be more than a section of the paper—it needs to be the whole paper!   The big point here is that a big part of revision has little to do with actual writing—thinking or rethinking is equally important.

After you’ve reread the paper and started to come up with things to work on, check again on what you were asked to do with the assignment.  This starts with taking another look at the assignment sheet as it usually will have some clues about how you can approach your revision.  Not only do assignment sheets have lists of requirements (this many sources, this many pages, etc.), but often they have insight into why your professor asked you to do the assignment to begin with.  This seems obvious I know, but it’s easy to miss assignment details when you write your first draft.  Writers are often just eager to get thoughts down on the page with early drafts, so details can get skimmed over.

Look at professor comments if you have them.  Read those comments as soon as possible to be sure you understand what you’re professor has written—you may need clarification.   And I recommend drawing a diagram—or some kind of chart—where you organize the comments your professor gave you.  What comments ask you to revise?  What comments ask you to edit?  If you take anything away from reading this blog, it may be the following the point: Be sure to address those revision comments.  It’s easy to fix commas and misspelled words (the editing stuff)—it’s harder, for example, to strengthen your paper by reworking your introduction so it frames your paper more effectively or by rewriting a paragraph so it connects better to your argument.

Finally, this comment relates to any paper that requires you to use sources or requires you to analyze a book, film, etc.—which is a lot of papers in college.  Before you go and track down more sources, go back to the sources you already have.  For example, you may be citing a scholarly source or analyzing a novel.  Scholarly sources and novels can be pretty dense; you usually need to read them more than once to really get everything the writer is trying to say.  So rereading all or part of that source again may allow you to draw on some more material.  And also go back to your paper, to the places where you use sources.  Are you getting everything you can out of the source?  When you quote, do you take time to discuss the quote and really flesh out for the reader what you see when you read the quote?  Basically, what I mean to get across here is that you may have all the material you need right in front of you.  Or you may not!  You may need to read some more.  You may need to change the direction of your paper.  But at least doing some of this preliminary work can help you figure out what you will need to do to successfully revise.

Before I end this blog, I have to credit Alex Clifton (a consultant in the University Writing Center) who  created a wonderful handout about revision strategies.  Check out Alex’s handout, along with all of our other newly revised handouts, all of which, are located on our new website.

Good luck revising!


5 Pieces of Writing Advice to Reconsider

Jacob Robbins, Consultant

Giving writing advice, by its very nature, is a difficult minefield to navigate. It is often handed down in what appear to be timeless platitudes, as if only recently and begrudgingly translated from the Latin. While they are situationally applicable, the following instances of (mis)guidance suffer from their often indiscriminate use:

“Show don’t tell”DSCN1622

In many cases, this is actually excellent advice. There is no easier way to guarantee that one’s personal statement is dull than by turning a riveting personal anecdote into a grocery list or instruction manual. Vivid details ensnare the reader, and can ensure persistent attention. However, continuing to do so with no reprieve is not only exhausting, but also tends to dilute the descriptions with increased use. Showing often draws its power from poignant use, so blanketly following this rule can actually have the opposite intended effect.

“Clichés are bad”

This one may be the hardest to put a half-hearted defense for. If you just use the same old, same old tired phrases, you’ll just end up beating a dead horse. Also, the individual meanings you intend to impart upon your utterances may be lost in the process. That being said, if you are attempting to win the The Bulwer-Lytton Writing Contest, clichés are right on the money.

“Edit as you go”

One should absoltutely edit as they go, because that indicates attention to the minutiae of the paper. However, it seems as if this statement excludes the possibility of (or diminishes the importance of) editing on a largger, more global level. In other words, this maxim only covers hald the equation. Editing is a constant process that requires attention to meticulous details as well as the big picture, rather than one to the exclusion of the other.

“Only use said”

There is no denying that “said” is the most direct way to indicate speaking attribution. However, the monotony of using it exclusively can quickly develop a white-washing effect similar to that which is created by the overapplication of the other “rules” found on this list. “People say things in a variety of ways that can be reflected in language; it would be a shame to unnecessarily limit our capacity to describe that variation,” mused Jacob.

“Write what you know”

This is by far the worst offender of the bunch. Depending on one’s perspective (or philosophical stance), the argument can easily be made that knowing itself is a tenuous and perhaps impossible goal. Conversely, writing what you know may be the only possible option. Read generously, this statement warns against fabrication. Hopefully this is not something we need remind ourselves constantly as we write.

At points, I was perhaps too critical or too ungenerous in assessing the value of these time-honored directives. However, I believe that negative experiences or habits connected to the constant overapplication of these phrases can be put in perspective when viewed through this critical lens. As in most (if not all) things, these expressions are best used in moderation, rather than generally.

What to Do with Revision

Scott Lasley, Consultant

In terms of writing stages, many of my clients visit the writing center with concerns involving the revision process, particularly after less than stellar peer-revision sessions and being stuck in the “I don’t know where to go with this” stage of writing.  In reflecting on these particular clients, it seems especially important to breakdown this behemoth of “revision.”  What does it mean to revise?  How to we go about it when approaching a deadline?  Why should students even bother?  Some may be simply focused on getting a grade and being done with the assignment, so what can we, as writing consultants, do?  My hope is that by answering these questions with what has worked for some of my clients, this breakdown of revision will offer some new strategies for all writers, young and old.

How to Approach It?

One of the biggest issues students seem to face with utilizing revision is knowing where to start.  Sometimes a professor may provide students with a marked-up copy of their rough draft as a means of revising before turning the paper, but that may not always be possible.  The best thing you can do is to breakdown revision into manageable pieces.  A good question to ask yourself is what areas need to be focused on?  Is my thesis in need of revision?  Is organization the issue?  By setting up a game plan for what particular areas to revise, the actual task of revising a paper becomes less daunting and far more doable, especially if that ominous deadline is looming over your head.  If you are uncertain of what areas to really focus on, have a fellow classmate or friend read over your draft.  By looking at the feedback they provide, you can narrow down which areas to focus on as you revise.  It’s also a good idea, if possible, to focus on one particular aspect at a time.  For example, you may work on making your argument more clear one day, then work on developing your ideas another day.  Regardless of how you approach it, the important thing to keep in mind with how you approach revision is to have a plan and keep things focused.

Developing a Habit of Revision

  1. Know the terms or create your own: Just naming various aspects of your writing that need improvement can be especially helpful not just in identifying what specific area you want to focus on when revising but also in giving you power over that aspect because you know what to look for in your work.  It also helps to know the names of various aspects of writing, such as organization, thesis, clarity, comma splice, etc., in order to articulate your concerns when asking someone to read through a piece of your work.  While the terminology isn’t necessarily a vital part of the revision process, it does help make sense of all of the potential areas to be addressed.
  2. Have a list or guide handy as you work through your paper: By having your personal “check list” of revision, you can not only keep yourself focused on which specific areas you want to tackle, but it also gives you an easy guide to refer back to in case you find yourself getting overwhelmed or distracted by lower-order concerns.  In some ways, having a revision list is like having a map, giving you the directions to reach your destination while giving you a landmark to return to if you have to stray a little bit to make note of something unexpected.
  3. When in doubt, refer to the prompt: Professors usually have key words or “hints” in their prompts, such as what expectations they have, page length, formatting style, number of citations, and material or questions that should be addressed.  This can be a great tool to use when coming up with a revision plan, especially if you’re unsure where to get started. 

Above all else, revision should be a practice that is done out of choice rather than obligation.  Obviously not all writing assignments will be equally valued, but developing strategies and ways to make revision useful and intriguing can not only flesh out and strengthen your writing, but also give you the opportunity to make a piece of writing you’re especially passionate about the best it possibly can be.  Happy writing!

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.