Starting a Paper

Learning Objectives

  • Analyze ways to effectively approach a writing assignment
Five sticky notes on a billboard. Each contains a letter to spell out "START".

Figure 1. Before beginning any writing assignment, always ensure that you understand your instructor’s expectations and criteria for the paper.

Fortunately, most writing assignments include some directions and parameters, and these constraints can help you feel less daunted when you set out to find a topic or begin writing. Understanding what your instructor expects in the final paper is often the best place to start.

1. Read the assignment carefully.

When reading the assignment prompt, consider underlining key words and questions. Look for clues that indicate the topic, questions to answer, word count, source requirements, and intended audience. Knowing what kind of writing you’ll be doing can help you narrow your focus and organize your approach. Clues can be found in the verbs used in the assignment: Are you being asked to analyze a historical event, compare and contrast two films, discuss works by different authors?

2. What question(s) are being asked? Do you understand them?

If you encounter unfamiliar terms or concepts in the assignment, review your assigned readings and class notes. For example, if you’re taking a class on eighteenth-century British history, and the assignment asks you to provide evidence of “Enlightenment thinking” in a certain author’s work—and you’re not sure what Enlightenment thinking means—you’ll probably want to go back to your readings and check your notes. A dictionary won’t be much help, as this assignment is specific to what you’ve been discussing and studying in your particular class. If you’re still unsure, ask your instructor for clarification.

3. What kind of paper are you being asked to write?

Before you begin to write any part of an essay you have been assigned, you must think about the requirements and how you plan to meet those requirements. All too often, students make the mistake of jumping into an assignment without stopping to think about it rhetorically.

What does it mean to think about an assignment rhetorically? It means that you’re considering the purpose of the assignment, the audience for the assignment, the voice you might want to use when you write, and how you will approach the assignment effectively overall.

Each time you are presented with a writing assignment in college, you’re being presented with a particular situation for writing. Learning about rhetoric can help you learn to make good decisions about your writing. Rhetoric can be simply defined as figuring out what you need to do to be effective, no matter the writing situation.

Thinking rhetorically is an important part of any writing process because every writing assignment has different expectations. There is no such thing as right when it comes to writing. Instead, try to think about good writing as writing that is effective for that particular situation.

Watch It

The following video presentation will help you as you begin to think about your assignments rhetorically. It’s so important to stop and think about what you are being asked to write about and why before you begin an assignment.

4. Who is the audience for this paper?

Knowing your audience can help you decide whether you’ll be writing for someone who is familiar with your topic (e.g., your instructor) or not (e.g., your classmates or family). That, in turn, may influence your thoughts about the main points you are trying to get across and what is most important for you to cover. Knowing your intended audience will also help you determine what type of tone and voice you should use in your paper. Can it be informal and conversational? Or should it be more research-based and formal?

5. What sources will you need in order to fulfill the assignment? Are your own opinions permissible, or are you expected to support your claims with evidence from other sources?

Even if you are required to consult or cite a certain number of academic sources, you may be able to start thinking about a topic or do some initial brainstorming before you head to the library. For example, if your assignment asks you to “explore the reasons for the growing opioid epidemic in America today,” and you’ve been discussing this issue in class all term, you may have enough ideas to do some brainstorming and get started—even if you will need to do additional research.

When you receive your writing assignment from your professor, it’s important to stop and think about your assignment. What are the requirements? What is the purpose of this assignment? What is your professor asking you to write? Who are you writing for?

Link to Learning

When getting started on a writing assignment, it’s also a good idea to plan out enough time to work through each step of the writing process. Use this assignment calculator to help you break it down.

Try It