Writing Prompts: Understanding what the teacher wants (1/3)

In this post, we will go through how to dissect a writing prompt in order to figure out exactly what your teacher wants from you. I will also give you some pointers about how papers could be structured in response to different prompts.

What is a “writing prompt”? The prompt is the question you are being asked to answer. You might more commonly hear it called “the assignment.” Sometimes prompts or assignments are quite explicit, but other times they may be found within a longer, explanatory paragraph, where all of the material is meant to help you understand what the teacher wants from your paper, but the actual question may be easy to miss. I will walk you through several assignments that were provided to me by Dr. Shannon Fanning at Farmingdale State College in New York, and by Dr. Kate Koppy at Marymount University in Virginia (see Dr. Koppy’s blog on writing pedagogy here).

First Example: Comparison/Contrast

Our first example comes from Dr. Fanning, and is a classic example of a comparison/contrast essay. In this type of essay, you are asked to do two things: to identify things that are similar across the items you have been asked to study, and to identify things that are different across those same items. In this case, the items studied are poems. The assignment is below.

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The first thing you see, under Readings, is the list of poems that you are allowed to choose from. Your teacher may be this specific, or they may say something like “use one of the readings we have used in class.”  In the latter case, it’s your job to know what you have read (or were supposed to have read). Consult your syllabus; don’t ask the teacher.

Moving on to the Assignment section, we quickly get to the point of the paper. You’ll see (below) that I’ve underlined the portion that is the actual direction about what you are supposed to do. Here’s a great habit for you to cultivate: print off the assignment sheet if at all possible and then mark it up. Underline things, circle things, and make a list of anything you don’t understand so that you can ask the teacher. (See Before You Begin and How to read an assignment sheet and rubric for more.)

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So your job for this paper is to compare and contrast how three different authors, in three different poems, talk about the concept of work.

That sounds pretty simple, doesn’t it? But wait – don’t discount all of the other text that your teacher has provided for you. Dr. Fanning has given you a considerable amount of information here on how to do well on this paper. What is meant by “while this is primarily a compare and contrast paper, you still need to formulate and support your own argument. . . . Stating that the poems have some similarities and some differences is not a strong enough argument for this assignment”?

Here’s what that means: it’s a cheap way out to write a thesis sentence that reads something like this: “There are some similarities and some differences between poems A, B, and C when it comes to their perspectives on work.” And for this paper, you’ve just been told that if you write a thesis like that, you’re going to lose points. Probably a lot of them.

What does it mean to “formulate your own argument”? It means that the teacher expects you to be able to apply what you’ve used in the class to make an insightful statement about what you see being said about work across these poems. Perhaps, for example, two of the poems use soaring metaphors to glorify the concept of work for the sake of working, while a third uses gritty metaphors to show how workers are ground down by labor that they do not find fulfilling. Then your thesis sentence might read “While poet A and poet B both emphasize the glory of work, poet C focuses on how horrible work can be for those who are being exploited.”

Don’t stop reading there, though. Notice that the next paragraph also gives insight into how the paper should be written (I’ve underlined the important bits, again):

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Now we can just see that saying that two poets focused on the glory of work and one focused on how it’s awful is just not going to cut it. Dr. Fanning wants students to go beyond that, and to use terms and concepts used in the class in the paper.

The rest of the assignment covers issues like page length, works cited, and etc, covered in more depth in future posts and in How to read an assignment sheet and rubric and How long does my paper have to be?

Good practice is for you to re-write the assignment prompt in a way that makes sense to you, as you understand it. If you have any qualms, show your version of the assignment to the teacher and ask if it matches their intent. Here’s what I might write for myself, if I were answering this writing prompt:

Write a comparison/contrast essay that focuses on how “work” is presented, using three poems from the list. Make sure to create a thesis that goes beyond the mere fact of difference, and write a paper that focuses on use of language and terms that we’ve learned in class.

Now you need to write that thesis and choose the language and terms you want to use to develop your paper. Let’s say that I see these poets using metaphor, diction, and tone in their poems and think that I can build on that (you almost never focus on only one literary tool; 3-5 is a good benchmark). My thesis might look something like this:

Through their use of metaphor, diction, and tone, poets A and B create a glorified vision of work, while poet B emphasizes the grueling toll that labor within the capitalist system exacts on the American worker. 

Your next step is to decide how you want to organize your paper. The most obvious model is that you devote a paragraph to each poet, so that you have five paragraphs: an introduction, three body paragraphs, and a conclusion. But that isn’t your only option. You could also organize by literary measure: metaphor, diction, and tone, in this example. Either way, your choice should be made based on the kind of evidence you will be using to write your paper, and you want to make sure that you are very well organized. If you write one section per poet, then you should talk about metaphor first for all three, diction second for all three, and tone last for all three. If you organize by literary tools, then you should talk about poet A first across your paragraphs on metaphor, diction, and tone.

Your last step is to make sure that your citations are correct (I will add a post on citations later), that your page length, font size, and so on are all hitting your instructor’s requirements, and then proofread for errors.

Also, re-read critically to make sure that your paper actually answers the thesis that you wrote. It’s very easy for students to get sidetracked and never actually write the paper they set out to write. If that happens, either fix the paper or fix the thesis, but don’t turn it in with a mis-match.

Continue to Writing Prompts: Understanding what the teacher wants (2/3) for the next writing prompt example.

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