Writing Assignments: Getting Started


One of the most common problems with student writing we see here in the Writing Center is actually not with the writing itself. It’s a failure to understand the assignment guidelines. Just this week, the majority of those I’ve helped have either not fully read their instructor’s assignment guidelines or simply not followed them. This is a sure way to get started on the wrong foot and waste a lot of valuable time.

What is Your Purpose?

The assignment should direct your research and set boundaries. Last week here at Writing Center Underground, we talked about beginning your research with considering what type of topic it is. Some topics are better suited to the requirement of peer-reviewed sources. If that isn’t a requirement, then you’ll have more flexibility in terms of source material. Newspapers or websites might be acceptable. You’ll only know this, however, with carefully reading your assignment guidelines.

What is the Product?

Has your instructor asked for a short opinion piece, or a longer in-depth research paper? What is the required number of pages? Are there any restrictions on the topic you can choose? Instructors often have their own list of topics that are overdone (legalize marijuana), too broad (we shouldn’t go to war abroad), too narrow (our school needs to recycle glass) or just too boring (cats make better pets than dogs).

Does your instructor ask that he/she approve the thesis statement? If this is a requirement, don’t skip it. Revising your thesis after you’ve started writing is often difficult. Do you know how your project will be assessed? Instructors often hand out rubrics, or a grade sheet, of how each section or requirement will be assessed. This is a gift. Make sure you study this carefully so there won’t be any surprises.

What is the Process?

How much time do you have to complete each step? It’s important to chart out at least a rough timeline to keep yourself on track, otherwise, it can get overwhelming and you can easily fall behind.

Do you have to turn it in after you’ve completed each step? For instance, is an outline one assignment, an annotated bibliography one assignment, and a first short draft another assignment, each related to the whole?

It’s common for instructors to ask that you write the first draft of an argument paper as an opinion piece, without the use of research. This prevents the writer from taking on the ideas and voice of outside experts that so often can happen when we read too much research in the beginning.

What Types of Sources are Expected?

Primary research involves interviewing subjects, conducting surveys, or making observations. Primary research may not be required for your argument essay, but it’s often acceptable to instructors, as they see it as the student taking initiative and showing interest in their topic.

In the past, it was common for instructors to require only print sources, such as books or academic journals. However, that’s becoming less and less important with the proliferation of credible sources now found online and especially in library databases. If you are allowed web sources, do they need to be .gov or .edu?

Other Considerations

Will you be expected to define who your audience is? For instance, is the audience in agreement with your position, or are they a hostile audience? This will determine many aspects of your paper, including the organization and the type of research you’ll include.

Are there any key words in the assignment guidelines that specifically ask you to evaluate, analyze, or compare and contrast? These key words each ask for the writer to do something different. If you are not familiar with their meaning in regards to your assignment, ask your instructor to clarify. Click this link to read more on these terms.

Final Thoughts

As you can see, understanding assignment guidelines is a key component in a successful final paper. No two assignments are alike, so don’t assume since you’ve written an argument essay in high school that an argument essay in college will require the same components. Schedule enough time in each step of the process to do a thorough job and not rush yourself. Finding credible research is time consuming and always takes longer than students often anticipate. Once you feel confident you understand the guidelines, you have overcome the first hurdle toward a successful paper.


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