Decoding an Assignment – What Now?

Not all writing comes from prompts, but in a University setting, prompts often are involved in the writing process. In this case, fully understanding a prompt as well as the purpose of an assignment is an important early step.

Parsing out the Purpose

Read your prompt, preferably a few times. Then, make sure you understand the meaning of the prompt on the most basic level; in essence, make sure you understand what the sentences mean, especially if the wording of the prompt is less than forthright.

  • Helpful tips:
    • Underline key words within the prompt.
    • If the prompt seems complex, try to write out its different parts as a list.
    • See if you can rewrite the prompt in your own words.
    • Lots of assignments have similar goals; CUNY advises to look for common keywords that often give information about the assignment. Some examples include: identify, summarize, analyze, describe, compare, contrast, discuss, and explain.
    • Ask your professor (or whoever the creator of the prompt is, if not a professor) if you’re unsure.

Reading Between the Lines

Every prompt has something to say aside from its literal meaning. The context of the prompt can also inform your writing.

  • Other questions to ask yourself aside from, “What does this prompt mean?”:
    • What is the genre of my piece? Is it a short, analytical piece? A research paper? A speech? A short story?
    • Am I trying to be persuasive? Analytical? Summarizing? Entertaining? Several of these or others?
    • Given the goal of this paper, what sort of tone would be most effective?
    • Is the prompt meant to be rigidly followed, or is it meant to serve more as a guideline?
    • How strict is my professor about style and tone? If I wanted to try something different from the norm, would they care? Would care if they cared?
    • Who is my audience for this piece? Is it my professor, fellow students in my class, or someone else? How familiar are they with the content of my work?
    • How should I organize my work in order to appeal to this audience?
    • Do I need to do any research before I start this piece? What kind of research if so?

Beyond the Prompt, but Probably on the Next Page or So

A lot of assignments also prescribe certain formatting methods. You might find it important to make sure you understand these guidelines as well.

  • Questions to ask:
    • If applicable, what citation style does my professor prefer?
    • How long is my work supposed to be? Is length determined by word count or pages?
    • What font size and type should I use?
    • How large should my margins be?

Additionally, here are some helpful links to more resources: