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Understanding Writing Assignments

No matter what courses you’re taking, chances are that they will include some sort of writing assignment. There are many types of writing assignments, and the requirements for each type of assignment can vary – but no matter what kind of assignment you’re faced with, there are a few simple tips and tricks you can use to start off on the right foot.

Step 1: Survey your assignment

Writing assignments come in all different shapes and sizes – some are short and sweet, while others involve lots of detailed instructions content, formatting, and required resources. It’s tempting to jump right in and begin your work, but surveying the entire assignment before you begin can save you time and effort later.

  • Read the directions through once from beginning to end. You may not be able to absorb all the details in one go, but that’s okay! Reading the entire assignment beginning to end gives you an overview of the general goal of the assignment, how big it is, and how many steps it will include.
  • Look for any section headings, lists of criteria, grading rubrics or due dates that your instructor has provided. These are your “roadmaps” for the assignment, and can help you think of a large writing assignment in smaller and more manageable pieces once you’ve identified them.

Step 2: Look at the big picture

Before beginning your work, it’s important to understand the purpose of the assignment. What are you being asked to do, and why are you being asked to do it? Consider the following questions before you begin:

  • What is the goal of this assignment? Is it to analyze a text, compare two texts, or simply to discuss your own ideas with your classmates? Before you begin writing, you need to understand what kind of “job” the writing assignment has – to persuade, analyze, compare, contrast, etc. – and make sure you’re prepared to stick to that goal in your writing.
  • How should you accomplish that goal? Can you say anything you like about this text, or should you be focusing on certain aspects of it? Maybe you have been asked to analyze a specific literary device in a story – like tone, or characterization – or maybe your job is to discuss a news article as it relates to the topic of your class discussion. Before you start writing, make sure you check the assignment carefully for details about how your instructor wants you to approach the topic.
  • Identify keywords in the assignment. Key words and phrases such as “compare”, “analyze” or “identify” can help you understand what you are being asked to do. Also pay close attention to any phrases from your lectures or textbooks that show up in your assignment – these will help you understand how your instructor wants you to approach the topic, and keep you focused as you begin to write.

Step 3: Make sure you understand the criteria

Once you understand what you’re being asked to do in a writing assignment, and who you’ll be writing for, it’s time to focus on making sure you meet the mechanical requirements of the assignment.

  • How should you format your writing assignment? Many instructors will provide specific directions on how long a paper or response should be, how it should be structured, etc. Look for specific directions from your instructor in the assignment to avoid making technical mistakes.
  • What sources should you use? Some assignments will call for you to use specific sources, while others may ask you to do your own research and find evidence to support your ideas.
  • Do you need citations? If so, what kind of citations will you need to create? There are various style guides for citations, such as MLA and APA, and each of them have different guidelines. Look for directions from your instructor about what, if any, citation style to use for your writing assignment.

Step 4: Know when and where to reach out for help.

Perhaps the most important part of understanding any writing assignment is knowing when – and how – to reach out for help when you need it! If you’re still unclear about certain aspects an assignment, or have questions that aren’t answered by the instructions, here’s what you can do next:

  • Write down your questions. You can write questions in the margins, highlight confusing sections or phrases, or make note of your questions in a separate document, but make sure to take note of what you still don’t understand by the time you’re done reading the assignment.
  • Ask your instructor to clarify. Your instructor knows the goals of your particular assignment better than anyone, and can provide you with more explanations, examples or context. Don’t hesitate to contact them if you have questions!
  • Ask a tutor for help. SUNY Schenectady tutors are available for drop-in tutoring sessions in the Learning Center (Begley Learning Commons, 1st floor). Stop by and see us for additional support!