Understanding Writing Assignments

Understanding Writing Assignments

No matter what your course of study, writing assignments will be an important part of your college experience, helping you learn about a topic and demonstrating what you have learned.

Understanding what is being asked of you as a writer is critical to your success.

Recognize that writing is a process.

Words do not flow effortlessly from the pens — or keyboards — of even the most experienced writers.

As you begin working on a project, remember that writing is a process, a series of manageable activities that result in a finished product.

Although writing processes vary in scope and sequence from writer to writer and assignment to assignment, these activities should be part of every writing project:

Understand the assignment

Begin by analyzing the assignment so you are clear about your writing situation:

Your topic and purpose as well as the audience you will address, the tone and stance you will take, the genre — or type of writing - you will produce, and the medium you will choose.

Note other important details about deadline, length, and format (your context).

Generate ideas and plan your approach

Give yourself time to explore your topic, using a variety of prewriting techniques.

Decide on a working thesis that will help you focus your first draft, and sketch an informal or a formal plan for the sequence of your ideas.

Draft paragraphs and visuals

Use paragraph development as a way of moving your writing forward.

Use various strategies such as description and comparison to develop and shape your ideas.

Consider when visuals such as tables, graphs, or multimedia elements will be an efficient way to present data and support your ideas.

After you draft the body of your project, develop an effective introduction and conclusion.

Revise, edit, and proofread

Develop your first draft, and tailor it for your readers in subsequent drafts.

Analyze the overall development from paragraph to paragraph; then look at individual paragraphs, sentences, and words. Use revising and editing checklists in this process.

Design your document

A clear, uncluttered format will make your text more appealing to readers. Lists and headings may help them see the structure of longer documents.

Understanding the Situation by Asking Questions and Consulting Peers

Understanding the Situation by Asking Questions and Consulting Peers

Learning, whether in the classroom, on the job, or elsewhere, is not merely a matter of amassing information.

Even more important is the ability to ask questions appropriate to your rhetorical situation:

  • For an art history class, for example, you might ask how a work of sculpture relates to an artist’s life and times and to the history of sculpture.
  • For a math class, you might ask about the proportionality of a statue to average physical dimensions.
  • During a museum visit, you might ask about the significance of the sculptural work to the collection as a whole.
  • On the job, you might ask why your company devotes funds to public art.

In any college class, it is appropriate to ask your instructor for clarification if you are unclear about an assignment.

Many instructors will also encourage you to form study groups with your classmates, and they may also assign peer review.

Learning how to sort through sometimes contradictory advice from peers, and from colleagues on the job, will be of great benefit throughout life.

The skills you develop by working on college assignments — analyzing the situation, gathering information, generating ideas, selecting the best medium for communication, and editing with your audience in mind — will serve you well after graduation.

In a marketing company, for example, you may be asked to analyze the effectiveness of packaging for a particular kind of cereal.

After gathering information through surveys and focus groups and consulting with other members on your team, you will be ready to write your report, using all the skills you learned in college.

Understand the writing situation

Understand the writing situation

Writers respond to writing situations.

When you write a lab report for a science class, create a flyer for a candidate for student government, or send an e-mail inviting a friend for coffee, you shape the communication (message) to suit the purpose, audience, and context.

The results for each situation will differ. All communication arises because something is at stake (the exigence).

The audience receives the message. Audience members may be friendly or hostile to the writer’s message, and their cultures and backgrounds will influence their reactions.

Your purpose may be to inform them or to move them to action.

Your context is the environment in which the communication takes place, including the means of communication available to you and the events that are occurring around you.

Ask yourself these questions as you approach a writing assignment:


What are you being asked to write about?
Have you narrowed your topic to a question that interests you?
What types of sources will help you explore this topic? Where will you look for them?
What kind of visuals, if any, would be appropriate for this topic?
What genre and format would suit this assignment?


What do you want your writing to accomplish? Are you trying to inform, analyze, or argue? (Which key words in your assignment indicate the purpose?)
Do you want to intensify, clarify, complicate, or change your audience’s assumptions or opinions?

Audience, Stance, and Tone

What are your audience’s demographics (education level, social status, gender, cultural background, and language)? How diverse is your audience?
What does your audience know about the topic at hand?
What common assumptions and different opinions do these audience members bring to the issue? Are they likely to agree with you, or will you have to persuade them?
What is your relationship to them? How does that relationship influence your rhetorical stance?
What sort of tone would appeal to this audience: informal, entertaining, reasonable, or forceful? Why?


Does your topic deal with issues of interest to the public or to members of an academic discipline?
What have other writers said recently about this topic?
How much time do you have to complete the assignment?
What is the specified number of pages or words?

Genre and Medium

What genre would best support your purpose? What medium are you using (print text, video podcast, Web site, presentation software)?
Find an appropriate topic

Find an appropriate topic

Many college writing assignments allow students to find a topic of interest to them within the framework of the course.

A topic does not need to be personally relevant to be intellectually interesting, of course.

A student with an interest in science who is assigned to write about one factor in the decline of the Roman Empire might focus on the epidemics that ravaged the Roman population.

Someone interested in military history might focus instead on the instability caused by a succession of military emperors who seized power by force.

1. Finding a manageable topic

Thinking of questions on a topic will help you generate interesting ideas.

Play the “I wonder / They say / I think” game:

  • I wonder: Starting with the subject matter of the course or the assignment, list concepts and issues that you wonder about.
  • They say: Reviewing your class notes, course reading, online discussion-group postings, and scholarly bibliographies, see what topics and issues others in the field say are important. Jot down relevant information, ideas, and issues.
  • I think: Choosing an item or two that you have listed, figure out what you think about it, giving your curiosity free rein. Connect your interests to what you are learning in the course.

2. Narrowing your topic

When choosing a topic, consider whether it is narrow enough to fit your assignment.

A topic such as Thomas Jefferson’s presidency would be appropriate for a book-length treatment but could not be covered in adequate detail in an essay.

Consider the following examples:

Broad topics Narrow topics
Sports injuries The most common types of field injuries in soccer and how to administer emergency care
Reading problems Approaches to treating dyslexia in middle-school students

The following strategy can help you narrow your subject area:

1. Browse your course texts and class notes to find topics, and then ask specific questions about the topics. Use the “five w’s and an h” strategy by asking about the who, what, why, when, where, and how of a topic.

2. Make sure that you are posing a challenging question that will interest your readers. An appropriate question cannot be answered with a simple yes or no, a dictionary - like definition, or a handful of well-known facts.

3. Speculate about the answer to your question, which will give you a hypothesis to work with during the research process. A hypothesis is a speculation, or guess, that you must test and revise as you explore your topic.

Be clear about the purpose of your assignment

Be clear about the purpose of your assignment

If your instructor has provided a written description of the assignment, look for key terms that might give you a clue about the composition’s purpose.

Are you expected to inform, interpret, or argue?

Each of these purposes is linked to a common writing assignment found in many different disciplines.

Informative report

In an informative report, the writer’s purpose is to pass on what he or she has learned about a topic or issue.

The following terms are often associated with the task of informing:

  • Classify
  • Illustrate
  • Report
  • Survey

A psychology student might survey recent research about the effects on adolescents of violence in video games.

A business major might illustrate the theory of supply-side economics with an example from recent history.

Interpretive analysis

An interpretive analysis explores the meaning of written documents, cultural artifacts, social situations, or natural events.

The following terms often appear when the purpose is interpreting:

  • Analyze
  • Compare
  • Explain
  • Reflect

A philosophy student might explain the allegory of the cave in Plato’s Republic.

A science student might analyze satellite images in order to make weather predictions.


An argument proves a point or supports an opinion through logic and concrete evidence.

The following terms usually indicate that the purpose of a paper is to argue a position:

  • Agree
  • Assess
  • Defend
  • Refute

A political science student might defend the electoral college system.

A nutrition student might refute the claims of low-carb weight-loss diets.

Ask questions about your audience

Ask questions about your audience

Whether we realize it or not, most of us are experts at adjusting what we say to suit the audience we are addressing.

In everyday conversation, for example, your description of a car accident would be different if you were talking to a young child instead of an adult.

For most college assignments, your instructor is your primary audience, but he or she also represents a larger group of readers who have an interest or stake in your topic.

Consider why your topic might interest your audience as you answer the following questions:

1. Are your readers specialists, or are they members of a general audience?

How much prior knowledge and specialized vocabulary can you assume your audience has?

An education professor, for example, might ask you to write for a general audience of your students’ parents.

You can assume that they have a general knowledge of your subject but that you will need to explain concepts such as “authentic assessment” or “content standards”.

If you were writing for a specialist audience of school principals, you would not need to define these common terms from within the discipline.

Consider, for example, how the difference in audience accounts for the variation in these two passages about snakes.

Many people become discouraged by the challenge of caring for a snake which just grows and grows and grows. Giant pythons can get bigger than their owners, eat bunnies, and need large cages, plus it’s hard to find pet sitters for them when you go out of town. — DANA PAYNE, Woodland Park Zoo Web site
The skull of Python m. bivittatus is very highly ossified, with dense bone and complex sutures. Like other snakes, it has lost the upper temporal bar, jugal, squamosal, and epipterygoid. A bony interorbital septum is present. — SUSAN EVAN, NSF Digital Library at UT Austin

The first passage, written for a general audience, gives practical advice in simple, nontechnical language and with a humorous tone.

The second passage focuses on physical details of primary interest to other scientists who study snakes and uses technical language and a serious tone.

Are the demographics (age, gender, sexual orientation, ethnicity, cultural background, religion, group membership) of your audience relevant to your presentation?

What experiences, assumptions, interests, opinions, and attitudes might your audience members have in common?

What are their needs?

Will any of your ideas be controversial?

Background information can help you build rapport with your audience and anticipate any objections they may have, especially when you are writing an argument.

In some high-stakes situations, writers may use interviews or questionnaires to gather information about their audience.

More typically, writers use peer review to gauge audience reactions and make adjustments.

Determine the appropriate rhetorical stance

Determine the appropriate rhetorical stance

Your stance is determined by the position you take in relationship to your audience. You may have heard people say that where you stand depends on where you sit.

In other words, you might take one stance in your workplace writing as an employee and possibly shift to another stance when you assume leadership responsibilities.

It is essential to consider your stance carefully because others will be sure to interpret your words in terms of their understanding of “where you sit”.

Being conscious and intentional about your stance will clarify your communication, influence your relationships with your audience, and determine whether your communication succeeds.

When you write as a leader or advisor, for example, it is particularly important to be direct, to communicate with sincerity and authority, and to avoid sounding condescending or pompous.

Condescendings Pompous
Along with many opportunities, obstacles exist that have restricted the amount of foreign direct investment, as I already explained to you. It behooves investors to cogitate over the momentousness of their determinations.

These sentences use a more appropriate tone.

Appropriate Appropriate
Along with many opportunities, obstacles exist that have restricted the amount of foreign direct investment, as noted earlier. Investors should consider the consequences of their decisions.

Decide on the appropriate tone

Decide on the appropriate tone

The identity, knowledge level, and needs of your audience will determine the tone of your writing.

In speech, the sentence “I am surprised at you” can express anger, excitement, or disappointment depending on your tone of voice.

In writing, your content, style, and word choice communicate tone.

Consider the differences in tone in the following passages on the subject of a cafeteria makeover.

Sarcastic Serious
“I am special,” the poster headline under the smirking face announces. Well, good for you. And I’m specially glad that cafeteria prices are up because so much money was spent on motivational signs and new paint colors. Although the new colors in the cafeteria are electric and clashing, color in general does brighten the space and distinguish it from the classrooms. But the motivational posters are not inspiring and should be removed.

The tone in the first passage is sarcastic and obviously intended for other students.

An audience of school administrators probably would not appreciate the slang or the humor.

The second passage is more serious and respectful in tone while still offering a critique.

For most college writing, your tone should reflect seriousness about the subject matter and purpose, as well as respect for your readers.

You can indicate your seriousness by stating information accurately, presenting reasonable arguments and interpretations, dealing fairly with opposing views, and citing sources for your ideas.

Unless you are writing a personal essay, the topic — not yourself or your feelings — should be the center of attention.

Consider the context

Consider the context

The context, or surrounding circumstances, influences how an audience receives your communication.

Your assignment goes a long way toward establishing the context in which you write.

Your instructor probably has specified a length, due date, and genre. Context also involves broader conversations about your topic.

Your course gives you background on what others in the discipline have said and what issues have been debated.

Current events, on campus and in society as a whole, provide a context for public writing.

You may wish, for example, to e-mail the student newspaper in response to a new school policy or on an issue of general concern.

appropriate genre and medium

Use the appropriate genre and medium

Understanding the genre, or type of writing, that an assignment calls for is an important step in successfully fulfilling it.

If you are supposed to be writing a description of a snake for a field guide, you will not be successful if you write a poem — even a very good poem — about a snake.

Some Common Genres of Writing:

  • Letters
  • Profiles
  • Brochures
  • Memoirs
  • Proposals
  • Case studies
  • Essays
  • Instructions
  • Reviews
  • Reports

Sometimes an assignment will specify a genre. For example, you may be asked to write a report (an informative genre), a comparative analysis (an interpretive genre), or a critique (an argumentative genre).

In other instances you might be asked to select the genre yourself.

Make sure the one you choose — whether it be a multimedia presentation or a researched report — is appropriate to the purpose of your assignment.

Some genres have very specific conventions for formatting and design.

Whether you follow the formatting conventions and documentation style recommended by the Modern Language Association (MLA), the American Psychological Association (APA), the editors of The Chicago Manual of Style, the Council of Science Editors (CSE), or some other authority will depend largely on the disciplinary context of your writing.

Your instructor will typically let you know which style you should use.

If you are unfamiliar with the conventions of a particular genre, seek out examples from your instructor or college writing center.

Writers today have wide choices in medium, whether in print or online, and many instructors will encourage you to use technology to exercise those choices.

You can ask yourself, for example, what might be the best medium to persuade your college administration to repave the parking lot with materials that protect the environment.

Would the print or online medium available in your student newspaper be best, or would it be more effective to use presentation software at a student senate meeting?

Or perhaps a Web page or YouTube video might be more effective.

In 1964, when Marshall McLuhan coined the now famous aphorism “The medium is the message,” he had no idea of the possibilities for expression available today.

discuss coauthored projects

Meet early to discuss coauthored projects

In many fields, collaborative writing is essential. Here are some suggestions to help you make the most of this activity:

Working with your partners

Working with your partners, decide on ground rules, including meeting times, deadlines, and ways of reconciling differences, whether by majority rule or some other method.

Is there an interested and respected third party you can consult if the group’s dynamics break down?

Divide the work

Divide the work fairly so that everyone contributes to the project.

Each group member should do some researching, drafting, revising, and editing.

Personal journal

In your personal journal, record, analyze, and evaluate the intellectual and interpersonal workings of the group as you see and experience them.