Writing Center

Writing Promptly

By Zenab S., Writing Tutor

Following directions can be hard. Following directions that seem extremely specific or too vague can be even harder.

Though academic writing can be intimidating at first, knowing what exactly you are supposed to be writing about and what your professor is expecting to read from you provides a good vantage point. It can be difficult, though, when you are not really sure what the prompt is asking. Whenever you are assigned to write a paper and are given a prompt, your writing process can take you in a few different directions. If the prompt seems too vague, it can be difficult to even know where to start. If the prompt is very specific, though, starting your paper might be an easier task, but making sure that you have thoroughly answered the entire prompt can create some stress. And if the prompt does not ask a question that you are particularly thrilled or eager to answer, making sure that you do not start to stray away from the intended purpose of your paper can pose a challenge.

Since academic writing can be challenging as it is, having a prompt (whether it is one that is only a single sentence long or one that provides you with a list of specific questions) is extremely important. Here are some strategies that I have used when writing papers to make sure that I am sticking to the prompt:

  1. Read the prompt. Then read it again.

Every time I am assigned to write an essay in a class, the very first thing I do is dissect the prompt so thoroughly to the point that I could probably recite it from memory. I make sure that I have a good understanding of what my essay should be about. If someone saw me sitting in the library, typing away on my computer, and asked me what I was working on, I could tell that person what my essay was about in thirty seconds. By familiarizing myself with what exactly my essay should focus on and what exactly my professor wants me to write about, I know that I have at least some direction.

  1. Read the prompt if you ever get stuck.

As I am writing my paper and get stuck or unsure where to go next, I read the prompt again to redirect myself and make sure that I am on the right (or write) path. This also helps me make sure that I am still answering the question and focusing on the same subject that I was when I started writing the paper.

  1. Answer the question the prompt calls for (not the one you expect it to or the one you wish you could answer).

Sometimes, I get assigned essays that I less than thrilled about. I would rather write about the feminist perspective than the functionalist perspective in my sociology class. But if the prompt asks me to write about something, I have to make sure that I stick to it. I try not to feel too trapped by a prompt; rather, I grant myself some creative liberty while making sure that I do not wander too far from what I should be writing about. For example, in my essay about the functionalist perspective, I might use the conclusion paragraph to mention other sociological perspectives and include a few sentences comparing the functionalist perspective to the feminist one.

This is something I especially keep in mind with in-class exam essays. Sometimes, you walk into that midterm prepared to fill a blue book with paragraph after paragraph about what you think your professor will ask you to write about and are given a prompt that you did not expect. Rather than getting overwhelmed, I read the prompt again and answer that question to the best of my ability.

  1. Do not be afraid to ask questions.

Whenever I get confused about if I am writing about what I should be writing about or if I begin to think that I might have interpreted the question wrong, I ask the person who posed the question in the first place: the professor. Sometimes, even when you are done writing your essay, it can be helpful to have someone else look at it to make sure that you have answered the prompt, too (which is one of the services that your friends at the Writing Center provide).

Even though it can be initially overwhelming when you are given an essay to write, you have taken a few steps towards progress by making sure you have a clear understanding of the assignment and know where you want to end up by the time you have completed it. Though following directions can be hard, it is important to pay attention to them to make sure that your writing does what it is supposed to do.