Rock Valley College

Reading the Prompt & Understanding the Assignment

Be sure you understand the writing assignment

The key to understanding any writing assignment is to read the assignment closely. Be sure to read the prompt for the assignment in its entirety, then:

  • Highlight, circle or underline the most important information on the assignment sheet. Include things like key phrases or terms that are repeated throughout, directions that tell you what to be sure to door that caution you on what not to do, and details about the assignment’s purpose(what it hopes to accomplish). Pay close attention to the verbs used (like consider, define, solve, argue, compare, or analyze).These action words can tell you a lot about how to proceed. If you don’t understand any of the terms be sure to look them up (TIP: The Writing Center’s Resource Library has handouts on The Types of Writing, Organization, Thesis Statements, and many other writing topicsthat could help!)
  • On a designated page in your planner or the notebook you use for the course, write down the logistical information for the assignment (like citation style, required pages, number of sources needed, and due date).
  • Write down questions or concerns you may need to ask your instructor about before getting too far into the assignment. These questions should be those thatthe assignmentpromptitself does not answer, or questions that ask for clarification of key assignment details.
  • Simplify the notes you’ve taken about the assignment prompt by ranking the points you’ve jotted down. Order the ideas in terms of importance. Doing that will help you decide what will constitute the bulk of the essay or writing assignment, as well as what research you will need to do to be ready to write.
  • Once you’re sure you understand the assignment’s content, you’re ready to start the process of mental preparation, which can be broken down into three basic questions:
    • What is the assignment’s purpose? This could be one of several different objectives. For example, is the purpose to inform, to argue, to analyze, to discuss, or to compare and contrast? Be sure you know.
    • Who is your audience? In an academic setting, your audience is generally your instructor. After all, the instructor will be the person who ultimately assigns your grade (but pay close attention to any other directions your instructor may have given about audience in the assignment prompt or in class). In most instances, however, an academic paper will be written for an academic audience and adhere to academic conventions. That means it should be written using proper English, appropriate terminology, and in whatever style is assigned (MLA, APA, etc.).
    • What resources do you need? Many college papers require research. Where will you find your research? Make sure you understand the difference between scholarly research and empirical research. Empirical research is research based on personal experiences or observations. Empirical research doesn’t require much library work at all. On the other hand, scholarly research is found in academic journals and is often peer-reviewed, which means other professionals in the field have given the thumbs up to the article your author has written. You can access scholarly research through the library database and in some choice resources online—but don’t be fooled; just because something can be found through an academic database, that doesn’t mean it’s necessarily reliable. You still have tobe a cautious and conscientious reader! Scholarly research is usually the more appropriate choice for college-level writing. If you’re not sure how to do scholarly research, your instructor or a campus librarian can help you.
  • Use a writing planto keep yourself on track. Even if your instructor didn’t give you due dates for all the steps in the writing process, give yourself a timeline and set goals to accomplish prewriting, drafting, revising and editing your paper. Remember to start early, anddon’t be afraid to meet us in the Writing Center for guidance, even if you don’t have one word written yet!That’s why we are here!

Download Reading the Prompt & Understanding the Assignment Handout here!