Write with Might #12: Understanding the Prompt


1. Read and re-read the prompt carefully

As you sit down to read the assignment prompt, attempt to put on hold your attachment to outcome. Try to forget, for the time being, that you will need to actually write a paper from this prompt. Relax, your only agenda is to gain an understanding of exactly what the prompt says. Use your social work skills of patience, focused listening and curiosity. Consider reading the prompt a few times. Remember that your task in step one is to absorb the information in front of you, that is all.


2. Read the prompt critically


Now is your chance to use your critical thinking skills. Pick up your pen and circle/underline/highlight key words or phrases. Pay close attention to action verbs--the words in the prompt that direct you to DO something. Also highlight key concepts and ideas that are grounded in the readings/research/topics you have explored in class. If you are not clear on all of the highlighted key course concepts, it will show up in your writing. If you feel uncertain about your understanding of particular ideas or concepts, make a list underneath the prompt to remind you of what exploratory work you will need to do before you begin writing. To address this concern, consider re-reading your course notes, articles and/or set up a time to meet with your professor or tutor.


3. Translate the prompt into your own words


Do you recall some of the skills we developed last quarter around reverse outlining and thesis development? The same tips apply here. Your goal is to use your own voice to convey the message to a bystander who "knows nothing" about the topic. Can you be specific and brief? Speak out loud or to talk to a friend. If you can explain in your own words what the prompt is asking you to do, you will be on track to begin the writing process with clarity.


4. Ask yourself, what are the rules for this paper?


Identify the page length requirement, deadline, the writing style expected of you (APA?) and the audience for which you will be writing. Are there also unwritten rules? For example, remember that you are writing an assignment as a student at the School of Social Work. How will your piece communicate your perspective on social justice? How much should the specific paper reveal about your own opinions and views about the topic at hand? What does the prompt's author hope to see in your writing, beyond the proper use of the English language? Does she hope to see evidence of your ability to apply course readings or course concepts? Does he intend for you to demonstrate your ability to think critically about your own experiences or identity positioning that impacts the way you might address the prompt? REMEMBER that the prompt is your guide and it is full of clues as to help you succeed! Always keep the prompt out on your desk as you proceed through each step of the writing process.


5. Review the meaning of terms commonly used in writing prompts


Know that many writing prompts use similar language and that is is helpful to understand what certain words actually mean. Pay attention to the following key words. The following information is an excerpt from a handout entitled "Understanding Assignments" from The Writing Center at the University of North Carolina, with citation below.


Information words

ask you to demonstrate what you know about the subject, such as who, what, when, where, how, and why.


define—give the subject’s meaning (according to someone or something). Sometimes you have to give more than one view on the subject’s meaning


explain—give reasons why or examples of how something happened

illustrate—give descriptive examples of the subject and show how each is connected with the subject summarize—briefly list the important ideas you learned about the subject


trace—outline how something has changed or developed from an earlier time to its current form research—gather material from outside sources about the subject, often with the implication or requirement that you will analyze what you have found


Relation words

ask you to demonstrate how things are connected.


compare—show how two or more things are similar (and, sometimes, different) contrast—show how two or more things are dissimilar


apply—use details that you’ve been given to demonstrate how an idea, theory, or concept works in a particular situation


cause—show how one event or series of events made something else happen


relate—show or describe the connections between things


Interpretation words


ask you to defend ideas of your own about the subject. Do not see these words as requesting opinion alone (unless the assignment specifically says so), but as requiring opinion that is supported by concrete evidence. Remember examples, principles, definitions, or concepts from class or research and use them in your interpretation.


assess—summarize your opinion of the subject and measure it against something


prove, justify—give reasons or examples to demonstrate how or why something is the truth


evaluate, respond—state your opinion of the subject as good, bad, or some combination of the two, with examples and reasons


support—give reasons or evidence for something you believe (be sure to state clearly what it is that you believe)

synthesize —put two or more things together that have not been put together in class or in your readings before; do not just summarize one and then the other and say that they are similar or different—you must provide a reason for putting them together that runs all the way through the paper


analyze—determine how individual parts create or relate to the whole, figure out how something works, what it might mean, or why it is important

argue—take a side and defend it with evidence against the other side


The University of North Carolina Writing Center. (n.d.). Understanding Assignments. Retrieved from: http://writingcenter.unc.edu/handouts/understanding-assignments/


Wells, Jaclyn M. (2009, March, 23). Understanding the Prompt. Retrieved

from: http://owl.english.purdue.edu/engagement/index.php?category_id=2&sub_cat...