Breaking Down the Assignment

Learning Objectives

  • Describe ways to manage the expectations of writing tasks given in a college class
A screenshot of Google Maps displaying navigation.

Figure 1. Having a good understanding of what an assignment asks of you is similar to having a map to lead you to your destination.

Let’s say you want to drive from Chicago to Springfield, IL. What would be your first step? Do you just start driving south and hope you hit your destination? Not if you actually want to get there. No, you take out a map and… who are we kidding? You type “Springfield” into an app and follow the directions, right? So far so good. Make a right, make a left, get on the highway… Ten hours later, you find yourself in Springfield, Arkansas. As you make a U-turn and head back to Illinois, you think: all this could have been avoided if you had just zoomed out on the map to check the whole route.

The same principle applies to writing assignments. Before we start writing the assignment, we need to get an overview of the task at hand. What are we turning in? When are we turning it in? How will it be evaluated? What are the steps along the way?

The purpose of this section is to help you break down the question and map out a strategy for completing the assignment successfully.

Breaking It Down

Step 1: Read the prompt carefully, all the way through

Then read it again. Mark any words or phrases that you don’t understand, then attempt to use clues from the supporting sentences to figure out the meaning. If you still don’t fully understand, talk about it with a classmate or ask your instructor for clarification. (See the next page for more about this).

Step 2: Find the verbs and action items

When breaking down a writing prompt, a good first step is to look at the verbs. What specifically are they asking you to do? On the left, we see the original writing prompt. On the right, let’s list the verbs and the action items.

Writing Prompt Verbs
You will choose one of the topic ideas below to write your descriptive essay. Begin with brainstorming your ideas either through listing words, cloud notes, or an outline and then start to join the ideas together in a sentence to form the foundation of your essay.
  • choose
  • write
  • begin with brainstorming
    • listing words
  • join the ideas together
    • form the foundation of your essay
1) Think of a person who is special to you and use descriptive words that will convey your feelings about them. (Remember, you want the reader to feel what you feel for this person through written words.)
  • think of a person
  • use descriptive words
  • convey your feelings
  • you want the reader to feel
2) Think of a special day and use descriptive words to describe the feelings you had that day. Allow the reader to understand how special this day was for you through written words.)
  • think of a special day
  • use descriptive words
  • describe the feelings
  • allow the reader to understand
3) Think of a special object or possession which is important to you and use descriptive words to allow the reader to form an image in their mind.
  • think of a special object
  • use descriptive words
  • allow the reader to form an image in their mind
4) Think of a special place that brings you happiness or joy and use descriptive words to allow the reader to feel the same way you do while at this special place.
  • think of a special place
  • use descriptive words
  • allow the reader to feel the same way you do

These verbs tell us a lot about what the assignment is looking for. Verbs you may commonly see in writing assignments include:

Verb Means . . .
Analyze Consider in detail for the purpose of finding meaning or relationships, and identifying patterns, similarities and differences; To examine the whole to find out its parts and the relationships of those parts
Apply Put concepts or ideas into practice
Argue Give reasons for or against something
Communicate To transmit information so that it is satisfactorily understood
Compare Estimate, measure or note how things are similar or dissimilar
Contrast Compare in such a way as to emphasize differences
Define       To determine the essential qualities of; to set forth the meaning of; to fix or mark the limits of
Describe Give an account of characteristics or features
Discuss Talk or write about a topic, taking into account different issues or ideas
Evaluate Examine or judge the merit or significance of something
Examine Determine the nature or condition of
Explain       To make plain or understandable; to give the reason for or cause of
Identify To show the identity or individuality of
Interpret Draw meaning from
Investigate Plan, inquire into and draw conclusions about
Justify Show how an argument or conclusion is just, right, or reasonable
Outline To indicate the main features or parts of
Sequence Arrange in order
Summarize Give a brief statement of the main points
Synthesize Combine elements (information/ideas/components) into a coherent whole

Step 3: Identify the Deliverables

In project management, “deliverables” are the specific items that must be delivered to consider the project or project phase completed. Some college assignments have obvious deliverables (an essay final draft, for instance), but others are less clear. If the assignment is to “read chapter 4 for Tuesday’s class,” there is no specific deliverable. If you have to turn in a reading report on chapter 4, the report is the deliverable (but the reading is the main part of the assignment). When you’re breaking down a writing assignment, make sure you understand the deliverable: are you handing in an outline, a rough draft, or a final draft?

How long should it be? Are there any specifications about how the assignment should be formatted? How should you hand it in?

And it goes almost without saying: when is it due?

Step 4: Make a plan

Now that we know what we have to turn in and when it’s due, we can plan out how to complete the assignment. Is it a multi-week project with multiple stages, or a 10-minute freewrite? This is a good time to pull out your calendar and decide when you’re going to complete the work for the assignment.

Step 5: Identify required components and characteristics of the assignment

Often, the writing prompt or assignment will include information about what the instructor expects to see in the completed assignment. These expectations might be stated explicitly (clearly), like this:

  • Your essay should contain 3 quotes from sources we’ve used in class
  • Your narrative should include characters, conflict, sensory details.
  • Your essay must include a presentation of the opposing views, along with lines of reasoning to refute them

Sometimes the instructor will provide a grading rubric. Grading rubrics state the criteria the instructor will be using to grade the paper, and can be very helpful for understanding the expectations for the assignment.

Some expectations may also be implicit (implied or not stated directly). For instance, you should always proofread your work, and cite any ideas that are not your own (see the modules on proofreading and citation to learn more about these expectations).

Step 6: Freewrite

Do a quick brainstorm and freewrite related to the prompt. What are your first impressions? What are your initial ideas? What could you write about? How do you imagine this essay will look? You can use your freewrite ideas to get started on the assignment itself and to develop a working thesis statement and outline to guide you through your work. Remember, the writing process is iterative, so you don’t have to have a perfect plan from the beginning, but can come back and make changes while you write.

Understanding the Assignment

Imagine you’ve been assigned the following prompt for an argumentative essay.

Writing Prompt:

In this assignment choose a specific issue in which two credible parties have documented clearly opposing positions, and have clear agendas.

Choose the position you agree with and argue that position using:

  • Three separate lines of reasoning to support your position
  • Research to support each line of reasoning (example, testimony, and fact/data, or any combination) that supports your position
  • Research about the opposing position’s views
  • Presentation of the opposing views, along with lines of reasoning to refute them

First, let’s find the verbs.

In this assignment choose a specific issue in which two credible parties have documented clearly opposing positions, and have clear agendas.

Choose the position you agree with and argue that position using:

  • Three separate lines of reasoning to support your position
  • Research to support each line of reasoning (example, testimony, and fact/data, or any combination) that supports your position
  • Research about the opposing position’s views
  • Presentation of the opposing views, along with lines of reasoning to refute them

Next, let’s make sure we understand the assignment. We don’t know the length or details of the essay, but we do understand that it will be an argumentative essay about something with which there are two obvious sides. Then we will need at least three “lines of reasoning.” What is a line of reasoning? In the next bullet we see that we need to research to support each line of reasoning. So a line of reasoning is another way of saying “claims” or “evidence.” This prompt is asking us to take a stance with at least three pieces of evidence, and to support each of those pieces of evidence with research. We will also need to address the opposite viewpoint.

Now that we understand the assignment, we want to freewrite about possible ideas. Maybe it looks something like this:

Two opposing views. Maybe abortion? No, too common and controversial, and I wrote about that in another class. What interest me—Education? Sports? Social justice issues? Should college athletes be paid? Should college be free? How can we eradicate poverty? Are preschool programs effective? Okay, how about college being free. Pros—everyone can go, no more massive debt, people more likely to study what interests them, more opportunities for advancement. Cons—too expensive, someone needs to pay for it somehow, what if people don’t want to go to college, how long will it take, can it be truly free, etc. I think I could find out more about this.

After the freewrite, we can do some preliminary research to decide how to move forward. Based on the expectations of this prompt, we could expect the essay to start taking shape with an initial thesis statement of, “College education should be free for everyone.” But we know that we need to support that with at least three points, so we could expand that to say, “College education should be free for everyone because it is a public good, it will promote equality and reduce economic inequality, and because America needs a highly educated workforce to ensure a healthy economy.” With that as a thesis statement, we can already see how the essay could take shape an include a paragraph, with supporting details, about each of those lines of reasoning.

Writing Workshop: Breaking down the prompt

You will begin with reading the writing prompt, identifying the verbs, and creating an action plan to address the assignment. Once you have completed this, you will then do a free write for five minutes about the writing prompt.

Let’s look at a writing prompt together.

Writing Prompt:

Assignment: Narrative Essay—Prewriting and Drafting

Click here to see the whole prompt

  1. Read through the whole assignment. There’s a lot there, so make sure you read all the way through– don’t leap to conclusions.
  2. In your Working Document, list the key verbs or action items in the prompt (particularly in the section with the heading “Assignment Instructions”). What are you supposed to do here?
  3. What are you supposed to turn in for this assignment? In your Working Document, fill in the blanks:
    • What to turn in: ________________________
    • How to turn it in: ________________________
  4. How long do you think it would take you to complete this assignment? Write your estimate in your Working Document. If the assignment were due this time next week, when would you do the work?
    • Estimated time needed: ________________________
    • When would you find this time? ________________________
  5. What components or characteristics are expected in this essay? Type (or cut and paste) a list of the elements required in this essay.
  6. In your Working Document, do a five-minute freewrite.  If you were going to do this assignment, what could you write about?

Try It


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