Understanding Writing Assignments


Writing assignments can often be difficult for new students to understand. The academic jargon used by professors often sounds like a foreign language! Learning how to translate complicated assignment directions is the first step to put you on the path to writing success.

Breaking it Down

The first thing you’ll need to do when given a new writing assignment is to consider what the instructor’s expectations might be, so put it in context. Are you reading a chapter on a specific type of writing, maybe a chapter on summarizing or persuasive writing? It’s a good bet the assignment is related to the assigned readings.

It’s obvious to state that you should read the assignment carefully, but if you’ve read it five times and still don’t get it, then what? Look for clues, and the clues are in the verbs.

VERB: a word used to describe an action, state, or occurrence.

The verbs are the key to unlocking the mystery of the assignment. In writing assignments, the verb will tell you what kind of thinking or writing task is required. Some common assignment verbs are describe, examine, explain, and compare.

(Click here for a thorough list of academic writing verbs from Ashford University Writing Center)

What Exactly is a “Research Paper”?

It’s not uncommon to receive a broad, vague assignment such as the “research paper.” Defining the research paper will reap a glut of responses, such as . . .

A research paper is an argument.

A research paper is an analytical essay.

A research paper is informational.

A research paper is the same as a persuasive paper.

A research paper is your opinion about something with quotes from experts.

Let’s break each of these answers down.

A research paper is an argument: True, it can be an argument, but it doesn’t necessarily have to be an argument. Your instructor might simply want you think seriously about some issue, and present your research findings. (See “informational” essay.)

A research paper is an analytical essay: True, sort of. An analytical research paper is different than an argument, in that the writer poses a research question he or she intends to “analyze,” but has taken no position on. In this type of research paper, the writer is simply exploring the topic thoroughly and possibly evaluating the research, or exploring a problem. Some instructors might even ask you to write a research paper to evaluate the existing research on a topic. This type of essay is often referred to as a meta-analysis or literature review.

A research paper is an informational essay: It can be, but in order for a research paper to be solely an informational essay, like the analytical essay, the writer will take no stance on the topic. The term “informational essay” is sometimes used interchangeably with “analytical essay,” as the point is to simply present information as opposed to take a position and persuade the reader to agree with you.

A research paper is my opinion about something with quotes from experts: This type of research paper would be considered an argument essay or persuasive essay (terms used interchangeably) , in that the objective is to persuade the audience that your position should be supported. Any time you see something like “offer your opinion” or “argue your point” this translates to “Argument Essay,” which is persuasive.

However, this is where a close reading of the assignment and taking the assignment in context of the class gets tricky. Your instructor might simply want you to write an opinion essay by arguing a point, but include no research. This is similar to an op-ed, or opinion editorial, in a newspaper. So if it’s labeled “research paper” it’s a good bet that you are to include expert quotes from research.

Other Guidelines May Help Determine the Assignment Objective

Your assignment might have directions that state such requirements as Follow MLA or APA guidelines; include Works Cited; include source information in-text; or peer-reviewed sources required. These are all academic-speak for OUTSIDE RESEARCH REQUIRED. You’ll need to include either direct quotes, summary, or paraphrases from experts, or ideally, a combination of all. Most likely, when this type of research is required, your instructor expects an argument/persuasive essay, with an argumentative thesis.

Concluding Thoughts

While it’s essential to learn key terms and concepts in academic writing, it’s quite common to become confused when trying to decipher a writing assignment. If you’ve exhausted all efforts and are still confused, don’t hesitate to ask the instructor to explain the assignment and their expectations. Even requesting a sample student paper is acceptable, and many instructors will offer sample papers with the assignment.

If you are still in doubt and the instructor fails to respond to your question? With few exceptions, you are probably being asked to make an argument. Convincing your reader of your argument is often the main goal of academic writing across disciplines, and often the end goal in college writing classes.

What are your thoughts? Have you had an assignment that was impossible to understand? Terms or directions that were confusing? Share your experiences!