by Brianna Jerman, a PhD candidate in Literature and Writing Studio Consultant
Even for confident writers, a writing assignment can be daunting. Unlike the simplistic form of a multiple choice exam, writing assignments vary from one discipline to the next and from course to course. There are lots of things to think about and consider—length requirements, citation and document formatting, target audience, organization, research, integrating evidence, and so much more. Your instructor, however, has most likely given a cheat sheet or a recipe of sorts in the form of the assignment sheet. An assignment sheet will clearly layout the what, why, and how of the essay, and if you read it carefully enough, you should be able to create a checklist to help guide your writing process.
You should always begin by actively reading the assignment sheet. Start by reading the whole document through one time. Then read it again, annotating the assignment sheet to highlight the most pertinent information. Here are some questions to ask and key concepts to look for:
- Assignment objective
What is the purpose of this assignment? Why is your teacher asking you to do this? Writing assignments are often used by instructors to assess students’ conceptual understanding of course material and to challenge their critical thinking skills. Usually there are a set of objectives defined for an assignment. Look for words or phrases such as “The purpose of this assignment is to…” or “The goal of this essay is…” or “Students should be able to…”. If you can identify why you are being asked to write a paper, this will help you to reflect on your work later on to make sure you have exhibited the skills or knowledge your instructor is looking for.
- Essay prompt or question
What are you being asked to do? Is the assignment asking you to explain a concept or analyze something? Look for directive words—words like “analyze,” “compare,” and “discuss.” The nuances of these words are very important for knowing exactly what your instructor is expecting. You can find a full list of directive verbs and their meanings here.
- Research requirements
What resources will you need? Will you need to do research to complete the assignment? For most assignments you will need to reference at least a textbook or course notes or you might need to find scholarly journal articles or conduct an interview. Make sure you understand the level of research you are expected to complete, and since the research phase of writing can sometimes be the most time consuming, make sure you give yourself ample time to complete this step. You can always consult the library’s Research Rescue page for help on how to begin the research process.
- Assignment requirements
How many pages/words must the essay be? What format will the essay be in? How will you cite your sources? The assignment requirements include things such as length, citation format, and document layout. One thing to consider is that length requirements are usually given to students because instructors know approximately how long it will take to adequately answer the question or prompt.
If you are having trouble meeting an assignment length or are greatly over the word or page limit, go back and check you are truly understanding the assignment first, then come to the Writing Studio for some help!