The prompt is as much a part of the assignment as the paper itself.
Navigating a prompt can seem daunting to a student, but some simple guidelines, that can be applied to most assignment descriptions, can help. An action plan, leading to the paper’s action plan, is not so daunting because it is based on common sense questions:
Did I read it? Read it-all the way through, before anything else.
What is the overall objective of this assignment? The prompt probably contains a statement to that effect. Highlight or label it.
What are the “givens,” the technical stuff? Make a list of to-dos, such as length, style, due date, etc. These become a simple checklist. Save it the for last, after the work is done. (Don’t wrap the box before the present is inside.)
Who is the audience? Who, other than the instructor, are you writing for? (This might be a real audience, or it might be a “made-up”one for the purposes of the paper. Either way, it doesn’t matter; it gives you focus, and helps you strategize.)
What is this? Highlight anything that just isn’t clear or doesn’t make sense, and ASK. (The teacher and/or the writing center are there to help.)
What materials will I need (research, texts, etc.)?
Are there any special rules or exceptions for this assignment (e.g. an author’s note, or an exception to an MLA or APA rule, etc.) If not, then forget about it.
Get all these things “sorted,” as they say in England, then, think about a tentative thesis, and finally, begin that outline. Breaking it down into bits, eliminates the scary. They’re just things to do.
Here’s some more detailed information from Purdue and UNC:
One of the most challenging times for a student, especially in a First Year Writing course, or in any class with writing, is navigating the assignment., Often, they don’t think about doing a critical reading of the assignment description, or annotating it, like any other text they encounter. And, oftener still, they don’t ask for help when they are confused.
Several years ago, I came up with a simple activity to get them to talk with each other about the assignment itself. It takes three index cards, and something from which they can be drawn, like a bag, or a cap, or envelope.
After they have read over the assignment description (say for a paper), and the instructor has gone over it, the index cards are employed to get them talking about the doing of the work:
Each student gets a card.
On the lined side of the card, they write the single thing about the assignment they think will be the most challenging. Ask them to be concise and write only that one thing.
All the cards go back in the bag.
Then, everyone draws a new card.
They then respond to what the card says. This could be identifying with the concern, an answer, or suggestions, etc.
The cards go back in the bag.
Each student draws a new card.
This time, on the blank side, the last student builds on what the first two have said.
The third student presents to the class. They read the original concern, the response, and then what they wrote to build on it.
Discussion will begin organically because others will want to respond, etc.; the instructor just needs to guide it.
This not only gets them taking abut the paper they must write, but about studying/writing/reading habits that work, and it eases some of that tension about “looking dumb,” or that “everyone but me gets it” feeling they might have.
The process of transitioning from research notes to a first draft can be daunting, and the creation of outlines and mind maps eases the way for many writers. But what if your favored method of working is a direct dive into writing pages and pages of exposition until you reach the conclusion? Can stream-of-consciousness drafts result in quality essays?
The truth is, readers can easily spot an essay that hasn’t been shaped. Some telltale signs are repetitiveness, disorganization, paragraphs that don’t align with topic sentences, and a conclusion that doesn’t match the thesis statement. To a professor, these are signs of a hastily crafted, night-before-it’s-due paper; to an editor, they’re signs that an author isn’t invested in the work being done. No matter what your writing timeline is, these are impressions to avoid, and there’s a relatively pain-free fix. It’s called “the reverse outline.”
Sometimes the mention of the word “outline” has writers rolling their eyes and envisioning roman numeral exercises from elementary school, but a reverse outline is a fast and simple method for revealing the bones of your work and is a critical part of the revising and editing process. Here’s one method for reverse outlining:
Read each paragraph, and write out the main point in the left margin.
In the right margin, write down how each paragraph supports and advances the thesis.
Review the right margin notes. Is there a logical build and direction that moves the reader from your thesis to the conclusion? If not, what needs to be shifted, added, or removed?
Review the left margin notes. Are any main points repeated? Are there paragraphs where it was difficult to identify a main point? Are several main points jumbled together in the same paragraph? Are there sentences that don’t support the paragraph’s main point? What shifts might be necessary to resolve any of these issues?
Making those shifts: move paragraphs, delete sentences, and clarify connections and focus.
Note if there are sufficient signposts and transitions for the reader to follow the re-ordered argument and evidence.
Carry on with your usual editing and proofreading from here!
With a small bit of fine-tuning through the use of these reverse outline suggestions, a stream-of-consciousness draft can evolve into a logically structured essay with great flow while fully supporting the thesis and effectively guiding the reader to a logical conclusion. Not bad for avoiding the use of roman numerals! Even your elementary school teacher would be proud.