Understanding Write Prompts | Writing and Speaking Center


Contributor: Aaron Smale

For many academic papers, a prompt will ask questions related to readings and class discussion, asking you to demonstrate topic analysis and discussion. Decoding what a prompt asks can be overwhelming at times. The sooner you understand a prompt, the sooner you can start writing. Here are some helpful tips for understanding writing prompts:

As soon as you get the prompt, read it twice:

  • While many prompts are complex to encourage well-reasoned responses, they can be confusing / inaccessible if read only once before writing. Reading the prompt as soon as possible can help you identify the length of a document, the amount of information you need to gather, and may reveal concepts you need to understand before tackling the task.

Once you’ve read the prompt, try sharing what you think the prompt means to a friend, family member, or another student:

  • This helps “check” if your understanding of the prompt matches that of others outside of the class and can help identify what you still need to know.

Keywords can identify the type of assignment the prompt invokes :

  • Most prompts indicate whether the article is meant to be a comparison and contrast article, rhetorical analysis, review article, etc. Keywords can include terms like compare, synthesize, expand, explore, etc.

Come back to the prompt and highlight the key characteristics, terms and phrases relevant to the topic / assignment and compare it to the lecture notes / assignments:

  • As you review the prompt, highlight terms or phrases that came up frequently in the discussion or are important in the course. You can also choose to highlight terms in the prompt that you need for further study. Sometimes a prompt will ask you to recall resources or texts from an earlier point in the course, so a review of key sources, topics, course notes, or related assignments can help you write an effective article. . Additionally, it reveals key scenes or identified sections of text in the prompt.

Look for the language in the prompt that indicates who the target audience is:

  • While your audience often includes your professor and peers, some prompts for research papers and essays will require you to address other target audiences. For example, an article that discusses a new method of patient support might cite a hospital board of directors as a potential audience. By identifying your target audience, you can establish the necessary context for your audience to engage with your article.

Prepare discussion questions to ask your technical assistant or instructor regarding the parts of the prompt that are unclear:

  • Once you have gone through the prompt itself, make a list of questions to discuss with your teacher or personal assistant in order to have more clarity on the assignment.


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