Thinking About Writing Prompts

Learning Objectives

  • Describe effective methods for approaching different kinds of college writing assignments
An icon of a head with a thought bubble containing a lightbulb.

Figure 1. Identifying the purpose or end goal of any given situation provides you with a sense of direction. It is no different with class assignments.

Getting Started

What exactly am I supposed to do with this assignment? What is the professor looking for? Is there a right or wrong answer? Every student asks these questions. Knowing how to think about how to approach an assignment is so important. When you are confident that you are going about your work in the right way, it makes doing that work so much easier!

Let’s take a simple prompt. Your instructor gives you this prompt at homework:

In 500 words, discuss the main idea of the article we read on the dangers of head injuries in American football.

Let’s first focus on purpose. Students often think the purpose of these sorts of writing assignments is to check to see if you have done the reading. That is NOT the purpose. Obviously, the purpose is for you to learn, but what?

Try It

What do you think the purpose of the homework prompt above? Jot down some ideas about the purpose below.

As you may have discussed, the purpose of this assignment might depend on the course. If you were reading an essay about the dangers of head injuries in football as part of a composition class, then the task of finding the main idea may have been designed to have you practice identifying the main idea. If, however, you were reading an essay about the dangers of head injuries in football as part of a physiology or psychology class, then your goal might have been to identify the specific issues of brain injury associated with football. For the composition class, the purpose would have been to practice identifying the main idea. For the psychology class, the purpose would have been to learn and demonstrate your understanding of some content knowledge about the brain and brain injuries.

Try It

Often, instructors in college will offer prompts with many, many questions. Especially if you were taught in high school that it was important to answer every question in the prompt, it can be very challenging to think about how to approach this kind of a prompt.

Try It

Try It


Let’s think about some of the ordinary situations in which we use implied questions. If you ask your father if you can have the car keys, what is the implied question? Of course, it’s really—Can I borrow the car? If your grandmother asks you if you would like her to drop off some cookies, she may be asking: would it be okay if I came over to see you? We use implied questions in our everyday communication all the time.

You should look for the implied question or questions especially when you see these words in a prompt: discuss, examine, consider, explore, or comment on. One way to think about this is to think about the different questions you might ask in relation to a broad prompt.

Try It

Do you see how any of these (and probably more that you thought of) might be implied by the original prompt? As above, the point isn’t that you need to answer all of these implied questions, but that you recognize that behind many prompts there are other implied questions. Thinking about those unasked but implied questions can help you dig into the prompt and be more successful!

Try It

Writing Workshop: Writing Prompt Reflection

Find the Writing Prompt Reflection area of The Working Document.

Now that you’ve explored some of the ways to think about an essay prompt, write a paragraph to reflect briefly on what you have learned. When you receive a writing assignment, how might you think differently about the prompt? What questions might you ask yourself? How can you feel more confident about your approach to the writing task?


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