College of Staten Island
 The City University of New York

  Harry Thorne,
  WAC Coordinator
  Office: Building 2S Rm 227
  Email WAC

Writing Across the Curriculum/
Writing in the Disciplines
for Students


Understanding the Writing Assignment

ProfessorYou’re sitting down to begin planning and writing your paper or essay, and you start out by re-reading the writing prompt (the description of your writing assignment). Hmmm. You read it again. Still unclear?

Even if your writing prompt is unclear (or maybe it was only verbally stated in class), your professor still probably has a clear idea of what he or she expects in your paper or essay. Your task is to find out your professor’s expectations. Make sure you can answer this list of questions for yourself before you begin:

  • Purpose: What is the overall purpose of the assignment?
  • Type: Should your paper make an argument or just describe?
  • Audience: Whose understanding should you be writing for?
  • Tone: Should your paper be formal (like a scholarly article), or can it be more informal (like freewriting)?
  • Style: What style handbook should you use (MLA, Chicago, APA, etc.)? And are there any formatting requirements you should follow?
  • Sources, examples, and texts: Should you include them, and how many? Are there any specific sources or texts that your professor requires? Can you use your textbook as a source? Can you incorporate any other class materials or lessons in your paper?
  • Due Dates: When is your final paper due? How about an annotated bibliography, a report of your sources, or a first or second draft?
  • Length requirement: How many words or pages should you write?
  • Rubric: Is there a rubric (a breakdown of what is being graded in the assignment and for how much value)? For instance, how much is grammar worth?

Here are a few ways to find out the answers to those questions:

Paraphrase the assignment.
Try to identify the central question in the writing prompt, and rewrite it as a short, understandable question for yourself on the same page. Add a list of assignment requirements beneath your question. You may check with your professor to make sure you’ve articulated it correctly. Refer back to your rephrasing of the question when you feel lost.

Think back.
Reflect on another paper you’ve received from the same professor. Based on his or her feedback on this past assignment, jot down some observations about your professor’s expectations.

Ask a friend.
If you were absent on an important day, be sure to contact a fellow student to get the missed information.

Check with your professor.
Well in advance, ask your professor during class or office hours some of the precise questions listed above. Ask your professor to approve your topic or research plan.

Request samples.
If you and your fellow classmates are uncertain about the writing assignment, you can politely request that your professor provide examples to the whole class of what he or she expects.

Assume the highest standards.
If you don’t have anyone to check with, keep these thoughts in mind: Nearly every formal writing assignment requires you to make an assertion and back it up with evidence, it’s better to err on the side of formality than informality, and professors will appreciate it more if you do a little extra than if you try to get away with doing as little as possible.

Next: Planning: Breaking It Up into Manageable Steps ->