- Beginning Finish the Story - The Snow Day
- Beginning Finish the Story - The Fair
- Beginning Finish the Story - Summer Camp
- Beginning Finish the Story - The Birthday Party
- Beginning Finish the Story - The Halloween Costume
- Beginning Finish the Story - The 4th of July
- Intermediate Finish the Story - The Beach Trip
- Intermediate Finish the Story - The Great Find
- Intermediate Finish the Story - Which Way?
- Intermediate Finish the Story - Finding Muffin
- Intermediate Finish the Story - The Zoo
- Advanced Finish the Story - The Troublemaker
Question Response Writing Worksheets
- Beginning Question Response - Your Favorite Color
- Beginning Question Response - Your Favorite Day
- Beginning Question Response - Your Favorite Number
- Beginning Question Response - In Your Family
- Beginning Question Response - Your Favorite Sport
- Beginning Question Response - Your Favorite Clothes
- Beginning Question Response - Your Favorite Music
- Beginning Question Response - How You Relax
- Beginning Question Response - Lunch Time
- Beginning Question Response - With Your Friends
- Beginning Question Response - Collecting Stamps
- Beginning Question Response - Your Birthplace
- Beginning Question Response - Starting Your Day
- Intermediate Question Response - Your Favorite Food
- Intermediate Question Response - Your Favorite Movie
- Intermediate Question Response - Your Favorite Song
- Intermediate Question Response - TV Programs
- Intermediate Question Response - Your Favorite Time
- Intermediate Question Response - Which Country?
- Intermediate Question Response - The Wisest Person
- Intermediate Question Response - Someone You Admire
- Advanced Question Response - A Great Accomplishment
- Advanced Question Response - The Most Exciting Thing
- Advanced Question Response - Oldest Memory
- Advanced Question Response - The Most Productive Day of the Week
- Advanced Question Response - An Interesting Person
- Advanced Question Response - What Have You Built?
- Advanced Question Response - What You Like to Read
Practical Writing Worksheets
- Beginning Practical - Grocery List
- Beginning Practical - TO Do List
- Beginning Practical - At the Beach
- Beginning Practical - The Newspaper
- Intermediate Practical - Absent From Work
- Intermediate Practical - Your Invitation
- Intermediate Practical - Paycheck
- Intermediate Practical - The New House
- Advanced Practical - Soccer Game Meeting
- Advanced Practical - Note About Dinner
- Advanced Practical - A Problem
- Advanced Practical - A Letter to Your Landlord
- Advanced Practical - A Product
Argumentative Writing Worksheets
- Intermediate Argumentative - Cat, Star, or Book?
- Intermediate Argumentative - Soccer or Basketball?
- Intermediate Argumentative - Giving and Receiving
- Intermediate Argumentative - Does Practice Make Perfect?
- Advanced Argumentative - Five Dollars or a Lottery Ticket?
- Advanced Argumentative - The Most Important Word
- Advanced Argumentative - An Apple
- Advanced Argumentative - Too Many Cooks
- Beginning Writing Worksheet
- Intermediate Writing Worksheet
- Advanced Writing Worksheet
Using Precise Language
- Using Precise Language - An Introduction
- Using Precise Language Practice Quiz
You are using an outdated browser. Please upgrade your browser or activate Google Chrome Frame to improve your experience.
60+ ESL Writing Assignments, and 5 Ways to Open with a Bang
From a student’s point of view, writing assignments are something to dread.
But from an ESL teacher’s point of view, they should be a challenge worth accepting.
The challenge for you is getting your students motivated enough to actually be excited about writing.
Sound impossible? It’s actually quite simple.
The key to motivating your students is a strong pre-writing activity that provides them with confidence-boosting experience and useful vocabulary.
So, how do you get your students’ writing off to a great start ?
In this post, we’ll look at some different ways to prepare for writing exercises, as well as lots of assignment options for each.
Download: This blog post is available as a convenient and portable PDF that you can take anywhere. Click here to get a copy. (Download)
1. Start with a Story
Stories to incite writing.
A story for a pre-writing activity could be in the form of…
- A movie , whether a biography, a sci-fi film, a thriller, an action-packed adventure, a fairy tale or even a cartoon.
- A story read aloud from a book: Read in a interesting voice (do the “voices”), hold the book up to show the pictures or scan them and project onto a screen as you read. Or you can use a video of someone famous reading aloud .
- A story from the news , whether from TV, the radio, a newspaper or an online news site .
- A story read from a book or magazine by your students themselves: Let them read a story silently or with a partner and take as long as they like to examine illustrations and think about the meaning.
FluentU takes authentic videos—like music videos, movie trailers, news and inspiring talks—and turns them into personalized language lessons.
Whether you choose a fairy tale, kids’ story, personal anecdote, allegory, news story or any kind of story at all, it’s a great lead-in to the writing exercise of your choice. People of all ages love a well-told story, and using stories to teach ESL is a sure winner.
After the first storytelling, you might want to move through other activities such as speaking, illustrating, re-telling, acting out or even doing research on the background of the story to become more familiar with it.
Then it’s time to ride the wave of enthusiasm and excitement into a writing assignment. What could students write about? Let’s look at a few ideas and examples. Remember that a story can lead to any genre of writing, not just narrative.
Writing Assignments to Follow a Story
Narrative writing assignments:
- Re-tell the story as is, or summarize it.
- Change the point of view. Re-tell the story from the point of view of the antagonist, or a minor character, and tell it in the first person (“I did it… “).
- After watching “Finding Nemo” : Tell the story from the point of view of the whale, the dentist’s daughter or Bruce, the shark.
- Also after watching “Finding Nemo”: Make up a story about a farm animal/zoo animal/jungle animal. What if a baby ___ was lost? What if a child was lost in the city? What if you found a lost child?
- After watching a “Lord of the Rings” movie: What would you do if you had the one ring? Write about a magical quest you and several friends would go on if you could.
- After the story of “Goldilocks” : Tell the story from the baby bear’s point of view.
- What if the baby bear and Goldilocks became best buds? Then what would happen?
- After “The Gingerbread Man” : Tell the story from the fox’s point of view, or from the gingerbread man’s point of view.
- After “Little Red Riding Hood” : Write the story in the first person, with you as Little Red Riding Hood or as the wolf.
- After watching a “Pirates of the Caribbean” movie: What if you were a pirate? What adventures would you have if you were a pirate?
Keep in mind: While your ESL students may be very capable of thinking about hypothetical situations, writing about them in English can be extra-challenging because the language constructions are a little bit more complicated and can be confusing.
However, as you can see above, there are many ways you can start them off with a “What would you do if… ” situation to motivate them.
Description writing assignments:
- After watching “Titanic” : Write about what you discover when you dive onto the wreck. Imagine you were on the ship and tell how you escaped.
- After watching a “Star Wars” movie: Imagine you’re a space explorer and write about what happens when you meet some characters from “Star Wars.”
- After watching a “Terminator” movie: Imagine your teacher is a robot that has come back from the future. Or imagine you have come back from the future—what was it like?
Instruction writing assignments:
- After watching a “Harry Potter” movie: Make up some magic spells and explain how you would use them.
- After watching “Finding Nemo” : Explain to Marlin how he should look after Nemo better.
- After “The Gingerbread Man” : How do you make a gingerbread man? What other shapes could you make instead?
Opinion writing assignments:
- After “Little Red Riding Hood” : What should Red Riding Hood have done when she met the wolf?
- After “Titanic” : Whose fault was it that so many people drowned? What should they have done?
- After “The Gingerbread Man” : What did the old woman do wrong that made the gingerbread man run away?
All of these types of writing, and more, can be sparked from a story delivered in any way.
2. Get Moved by Music
Everybody loves music! You can watch your students’ attitudes transform as soon as they realize that they’re about to be treated to some songs rather than chalk-and-talk! Music stirs the emotions, and may well get your students excited about writing.
Music to Incite Writing
- Classical music: There are some pieces of well-known classical music that specifically tell a story , such as Prokofiev’s “Peter and the Wolf,” Saint-Saëns’ “The Carnival of the Animals” and Tchaikovsky’s “Romeo and Juliet.” All of these are available in various forms (animation, live, etc.) on YouTube.
- “Fantasia 2000”: Particularly “Rhapsody in Blue.” This wonderful little wordless animated story can be the beginning of so many good things!
- Movie music: The music that goes with a movie tells watchers how they should be feeling, and could be a good jumping-off point for some writing.
- Popular songs and music.
- Kids’ songs : There’s something about singing a catchy little ditty that makes the words stick in your mind more than just saying them. This can lead to some interesting writing, too.
Writing Assignments to Follow Music
Listening to music can be the precursor to any type of writing, and the music can be played again (and again) as the students are in the process of writing.
- After “Peter and the Wolf” : Tell the story from Peter’s point of view.
- After “The Carnival of the Animals” : Imagine walking through the scenes with the animals and interacting with them. Write a story from the point of view of an animal.
- After “Romeo and Juliet” : Re-tell the story, adding a twist.
- Listen to a piece of classical/instrumental music and tell the story that it might be a background to— imagine that it’s the background music for a movie.
- Example: Taylor Swift’s “Wildest Dreams” : What happens in your wildest dreams?
- After watching and listening to “Rhapsody in Blue” : Tell all/part of the story.
- If you were the main character in “Rhapsody in Blue,” what would you do?
- What if you were a famous pop star or musician? What would it be like? What would you do?
- Describe the animals in “The Carnival of the Animals.”
- Describe meeting someone special, like in Taylor Swift’s “Wildest Dreams.”
- Give instructions on how to find your favorite song on the Internet, both music and lyrics.
- If you play an instrument, or have a relative who plays one, write about some of the basics of how to play. (This could be shared as a speaking and listening activity, and then the whole class could write about it.)
- What is your favorite music, and why?
- Do you think young children should be allowed to freely watch music videos?
3. Picture Perfect Writing
Pictures to incite writing.
- Pictures from social media: If you use social media at all, then you’re doubtless inundated daily with amazing photos and videos, all of which make excellent writing prompts .
- Pictures from Google Images : A quick Google search will turn up plenty.
- Cartoons : If you prefer a less photographic style, there’s an endless supply of cartoons out there, too.
- Pictures selected by your students: If you’re not sure what to choose, you can even have your students find and/or select pictures to write about.
Writing Assignments Based on Pictures
- Tell the story—real or imagined—of what is happening in the picture.
- Tell what happens next from the pictured moment.
- Tell what was happening just before the pictured incident.
- What if that was you in the picture? What if you were the person who took the picture?
- What if you knew the people in the picture? What would you say to them?
- Simply describe all of the elements in the picture. This is great for vocabulary practice.
- Describe how someone in the picture might be feeling.
Instruction writing assignment:
- Explain how to get into a pictured predicament (for example, in the picture here , how did he get into the boat without the crocodile eating him?) as well as how to get out of it.
Opinion writing assignment:
- Express an opinion about the rights and wrongs of the pictured situation. For example, for the same picture above: Should crocodiles be hunted and killed? What should happen if a crocodile kills someone?
4. Let Their Taste Buds Do the Talking
For many of your students, food is their favorite subject. They’ll always be motivated to think about, talk about, write about and participate in activities having to do with food.
How you can integrate food into your writing assignments will depend on your classroom arrangements and the amount of time you’re willing to put into preparation.
Ideas for Inciting Writing with Food
- Start with the preparation and sharing of food before writing about it.
- Look at pictures of food and talk about them before moving on to writing.
- Have students research food-related topics on the Internet.
- Start with a story about food.
Writing Assignments Based on Food
- After the story of “The Gingerbread Man” (see the first section, above): Think about food that develops a life of its own, and what would happen with it. (This can also open up a discussion about cultural foods.) For example, make up a similar story about another piece of food (e.g., spaghetti or rice that comes alive). What if you felt something moving in your mouth after you bit your burger… ?
- Write a story (real or imagined) about being very hungry and/or finding/buying/stealing food to meet a desperate need.
- Write a story about trying a new, unfamiliar kind of food—maybe in a (relevant) cross-cultural setting.
- Write a story about finding and eating a food that has magical or miraculous power. (Maybe read, or watch, some or all of “Alice in Wonderland” first.)
D escription writing assignments:
- Describe interesting/disgusting/unusual/delicious/colorful foods, especially after a class tasting lesson. (Prepare students first with suitable taste vocabulary.)
- Describe a food that is unfamiliar to other students in the class. (Especially if the class includes students from several different cultural groups.)
- Describe an imaginary magical food.
- Give instructions for preparing a particular recipe (maybe one that is particularly relevant culturally).
- After a class activity or demonstration involving food: Write down what you have learned.
- Give instructions for producing food (growing vegetables, keeping animals, etc.).
- Give instructions for buying the best food (what to look for, looking at labels, checking prices).
Opinion writing assignments :
- Write about your opinion on food and health in first-world and third-world countries.
- Write about your opinion on the cost of food.
- Write about your opinion on GMO foods.
5. Follow the Trail of a Mystery
There’s nothing quite like a good “whodunnit,” and students will always enjoy a good puzzle. There are various pre-writing activities you can use to get warmed up for writing about mystery-related subjects.
Mystery Activities to Incite Writing
- Conundrum is an example of a game that can be played as a speaking and listening activity, and can lead into some good writing. The game starts with a simple statement, or description of a situation such as the ones described as situation puzzles . Students ask questions, and receive yes/no answers until they work out the explanation for the situation.
- Putting their hands inside a cloth bag (or just feeling on the outside) to guess what an object is.
- Smelling substances in opaque jars with perforated lids, and trying to guess what they are.
- Tasting mystery foods on plastic spoons (with blindfolds).
- Looking at pictures of mysterious objects from obscure angles.
- Listening to and guessing the origins of sound effects. (You can record your own, or use some from the Internet .)
Writing Assignments to Follow Mystery Activities
- After Conundrum: Write a story about the sequence of events involved in a situation brought up in the game.
- After a guessing game: Write about a possible mystery object and a magical quality it could possess.
- After Conundrum: Devise and describe your own situation puzzle.
- After a guessing game: Describe what you thought you saw, heard, felt, tasted or smelled.
- Give instructions for playing one of the games.
- Give instructions for the perfect crime.
- Give your opinion about a recent crime and the punishment.
No matter what writing assignments you choose, make sure to keep the excitement level high so that your students are enthusiastic for your next writing session.
Whether they write by hand or type on a computer, enjoy what your students have written, and encourage them by noticing the good points rather than just running all over their mistakes with a red pen.
And always find ways for them to share their efforts (online, on the classroom wall, bound together in a book to be passed around, etc.).
Read aloud to each other, share with their parents and siblings and even share with other classes!
For more ESL assignment ideas, check out this post:
Great ESL homework ideas can be difficult to come up with. So check out these 13 great ideas for ESL homework assignments that your students will love. Not only are they…
Enter your e-mail address to get your free PDF!
We hate SPAM and promise to keep your email address safe
The assignments in this course are openly licensed, and are available as-is, or can be modified to suit your students’ needs.
If you import this course into your learning management system (Blackboard, Canvas, etc.), the assignments will automatically be loaded into the assignment tool. These assignments and quizzes come pre-loaded with specific assigned point values. We recommend changing the point values to match your course design .
This course includes a series of assignments associated with most modules, as well as essay assignments that can be included in the course as you see fit. Some instructors assign multiple rhetorical styles, while others scaffold just one or two large essays throughout the course. For this reason, the essay assignments are listed at the front of the course and can be easily moved into the appropriate places within the LMS. The different rhetorical style essays are each split into at least two parts, with one for prewriting and one for the final draft. They could also be combined into one assignment or split into several smaller assignments; for example, you could divide each essay into a prewriting, drafting, and final draft stage (which is how the argument essay is currently organized).
The “Writing Process—Revising and Proofreading” module also includes a discussion assignment that has students peer review whichever essay is assigned during that module ( Discussion: CARES Peer Review).
- Narrative Essay
- Illustration Essay
- Cause and Effect Essay
- Argument Essay
The optional “Essay Reflection” Assignment can also be paired with any of the rhetorical style essays listed above.
The assignments can also be broken down into smaller steps or combined/simplified as desired. Remember, these can be deleted, modified, or replaced within your LMS to meet the needs of your students.
Improve this page Learn More
- Assignments. Provided by : Lumen Learning. License : CC BY: Attribution
- Pencil Cup. Authored by : IconfactoryTeam. Provided by : Noun Project. Located at : https://thenounproject.com/term/pencil-cup/628840/ . License : CC BY: Attribution
Purdue Online Writing Lab Purdue OWL® College of Liberal Arts
Common Writing Assignments
Welcome to the Purdue OWL
This page is brought to you by the OWL at Purdue University. When printing this page, you must include the entire legal notice.
Copyright ©1995-2018 by The Writing Lab & The OWL at Purdue and Purdue University. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, reproduced, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed without permission. Use of this site constitutes acceptance of our terms and conditions of fair use.
These OWL resources will help you understand and complete specific types of writing assignments, such as annotated bibliographies, book reports, and research papers. This section also includes resources on writing academic proposals for conference presentations, journal articles, and books.
Understanding Writing Assignments
This resource describes some steps you can take to better understand the requirements of your writing assignments. This resource works for either in-class, teacher-led discussion or for personal use.
This resource outlines the generally accepted structure for introductions, body paragraphs, and conclusions in an academic argument paper. Keep in mind that this resource contains guidelines and not strict rules about organization. Your structure needs to be flexible enough to meet the requirements of your purpose and audience.
This handout provides detailed information about how to write research papers including discussing research papers as a genre, choosing topics, and finding sources.
This resource will help you with exploratory/inquiry essay assignments.
This handout provides information about annotated bibliographies in MLA, APA, and CMS.
This resource discusses book reports and how to write them.
This handout provides suggestions and examples for writing definitions.
Essays for Exams
While most OWL resources recommend a longer writing process (start early, revise often, conduct thorough research, etc.), sometimes you just have to write quickly in test situations. However, these exam essays can be no less important pieces of writing than research papers because they can influence final grades for courses, and/or they can mean the difference between getting into an academic program (GED, SAT, GRE). To that end, this resource will help you prepare and write essays for exams.
This resource discusses book reviews and how to write them.
This resource will help undergraduate, graduate, and professional scholars write proposals for academic conferences, articles, and books.
In this section
What this handout is about.
The first step in any successful college writing venture is reading the assignment. While this sounds like a simple task, it can be a tough one. This handout will help you unravel your assignment and begin to craft an effective response. Much of the following advice will involve translating typical assignment terms and practices into meaningful clues to the type of writing your instructor expects. See our short video for more tips.
Regardless of the assignment, department, or instructor, adopting these two habits will serve you well :
- Read the assignment carefully as soon as you receive it. Do not put this task off—reading the assignment at the beginning will save you time, stress, and problems later. An assignment can look pretty straightforward at first, particularly if the instructor has provided lots of information. That does not mean it will not take time and effort to complete; you may even have to learn a new skill to complete the assignment.
- Ask the instructor about anything you do not understand. Do not hesitate to approach your instructor. Instructors would prefer to set you straight before you hand the paper in. That’s also when you will find their feedback most useful.
Many assignments follow a basic format. Assignments often begin with an overview of the topic, include a central verb or verbs that describe the task, and offer some additional suggestions, questions, or prompts to get you started.
An Overview of Some Kind
The instructor might set the stage with some general discussion of the subject of the assignment, introduce the topic, or remind you of something pertinent that you have discussed in class. For example:
“Throughout history, gerbils have played a key role in politics,” or “In the last few weeks of class, we have focused on the evening wear of the housefly …”
The Task of the Assignment
Pay attention; this part tells you what to do when you write the paper. Look for the key verb or verbs in the sentence. Words like analyze, summarize, or compare direct you to think about your topic in a certain way. Also pay attention to words such as how, what, when, where, and why; these words guide your attention toward specific information. (See the section in this handout titled “Key Terms” for more information.)
“Analyze the effect that gerbils had on the Russian Revolution”, or “Suggest an interpretation of housefly undergarments that differs from Darwin’s.”
Additional Material to Think about
Here you will find some questions to use as springboards as you begin to think about the topic. Instructors usually include these questions as suggestions rather than requirements. Do not feel compelled to answer every question unless the instructor asks you to do so. Pay attention to the order of the questions. Sometimes they suggest the thinking process your instructor imagines you will need to follow to begin thinking about the topic.
“You may wish to consider the differing views held by Communist gerbils vs. Monarchist gerbils, or Can there be such a thing as ‘the housefly garment industry’ or is it just a home-based craft?”
These are the instructor’s comments about writing expectations:
“Be concise”, “Write effectively”, or “Argue furiously.”
These instructions usually indicate format rules or guidelines.
“Your paper must be typed in Palatino font on gray paper and must not exceed 600 pages. It is due on the anniversary of Mao Tse-tung’s death.”
The assignment’s parts may not appear in exactly this order, and each part may be very long or really short. Nonetheless, being aware of this standard pattern can help you understand what your instructor wants you to do.
Interpreting the assignment
Ask yourself a few basic questions as you read and jot down the answers on the assignment sheet:
Why did your instructor ask you to do this particular task?
Who is your audience.
- What kind of evidence do you need to support your ideas?
What kind of writing style is acceptable?
- What are the absolute rules of the paper?
Try to look at the question from the point of view of the instructor. Recognize that your instructor has a reason for giving you this assignment and for giving it to you at a particular point in the semester. In every assignment, the instructor has a challenge for you. This challenge could be anything from demonstrating an ability to think clearly to demonstrating an ability to use the library. See the assignment not as a vague suggestion of what to do but as an opportunity to show that you can handle the course material as directed. Paper assignments give you more than a topic to discuss—they ask you to do something with the topic. Keep reminding yourself of that. Be careful to avoid the other extreme as well: do not read more into the assignment than what is there.
Of course, your instructor has given you an assignment so that he or she will be able to assess your understanding of the course material and give you an appropriate grade. But there is more to it than that. Your instructor has tried to design a learning experience of some kind. Your instructor wants you to think about something in a particular way for a particular reason. If you read the course description at the beginning of your syllabus, review the assigned readings, and consider the assignment itself, you may begin to see the plan, purpose, or approach to the subject matter that your instructor has created for you. If you still aren’t sure of the assignment’s goals, try asking the instructor. For help with this, see our handout on getting feedback .
Given your instructor’s efforts, it helps to answer the question: What is my purpose in completing this assignment? Is it to gather research from a variety of outside sources and present a coherent picture? Is it to take material I have been learning in class and apply it to a new situation? Is it to prove a point one way or another? Key words from the assignment can help you figure this out. Look for key terms in the form of active verbs that tell you what to do.
Key Terms: Finding Those Active Verbs
Here are some common key words and definitions to help you think about assignment terms:
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
- describe —provide details about the subject by answering question words (such as who, what, when, where, how, and why); you might also give details related to the five senses (what you see, hear, feel, taste, and smell)
- 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
More Clues to Your Purpose As you read the assignment, think about what the teacher does in class:
- What kinds of textbooks or coursepack did your instructor choose for the course—ones that provide background information, explain theories or perspectives, or argue a point of view?
- In lecture, does your instructor ask your opinion, try to prove her point of view, or use keywords that show up again in the assignment?
- What kinds of assignments are typical in this discipline? Social science classes often expect more research. Humanities classes thrive on interpretation and analysis.
- How do the assignments, readings, and lectures work together in the course? Instructors spend time designing courses, sometimes even arguing with their peers about the most effective course materials. Figuring out the overall design to the course will help you understand what each assignment is meant to achieve.
Now, what about your reader? Most undergraduates think of their audience as the instructor. True, your instructor is a good person to keep in mind as you write. But for the purposes of a good paper, think of your audience as someone like your roommate: smart enough to understand a clear, logical argument, but not someone who already knows exactly what is going on in your particular paper. Remember, even if the instructor knows everything there is to know about your paper topic, he or she still has to read your paper and assess your understanding. In other words, teach the material to your reader.
Aiming a paper at your audience happens in two ways: you make decisions about the tone and the level of information you want to convey.
- Tone means the “voice” of your paper. Should you be chatty, formal, or objective? Usually you will find some happy medium—you do not want to alienate your reader by sounding condescending or superior, but you do not want to, um, like, totally wig on the man, you know? Eschew ostentatious erudition: some students think the way to sound academic is to use big words. Be careful—you can sound ridiculous, especially if you use the wrong big words.
- The level of information you use depends on who you think your audience is. If you imagine your audience as your instructor and she already knows everything you have to say, you may find yourself leaving out key information that can cause your argument to be unconvincing and illogical. But you do not have to explain every single word or issue. If you are telling your roommate what happened on your favorite science fiction TV show last night, you do not say, “First a dark-haired white man of average height, wearing a suit and carrying a flashlight, walked into the room. Then a purple alien with fifteen arms and at least three eyes turned around. Then the man smiled slightly. In the background, you could hear a clock ticking. The room was fairly dark and had at least two windows that I saw.” You also do not say, “This guy found some aliens. The end.” Find some balance of useful details that support your main point.
You’ll find a much more detailed discussion of these concepts in our handout on audience .
The Grim Truth
With a few exceptions (including some lab and ethnography reports), you are probably being asked to make an argument. You must convince your audience. It is easy to forget this aim when you are researching and writing; as you become involved in your subject matter, you may become enmeshed in the details and focus on learning or simply telling the information you have found. You need to do more than just repeat what you have read. Your writing should have a point, and you should be able to say it in a sentence. Sometimes instructors call this sentence a “thesis” or a “claim.”
So, if your instructor tells you to write about some aspect of oral hygiene, you do not want to just list: “First, you brush your teeth with a soft brush and some peanut butter. Then, you floss with unwaxed, bologna-flavored string. Finally, gargle with bourbon.” Instead, you could say, “Of all the oral cleaning methods, sandblasting removes the most plaque. Therefore it should be recommended by the American Dental Association.” Or, “From an aesthetic perspective, moldy teeth can be quite charming. However, their joys are short-lived.”
Convincing the reader of your argument is the goal of academic writing. It doesn’t have to say “argument” anywhere in the assignment for you to need one. Look at the assignment and think about what kind of argument you could make about it instead of just seeing it as a checklist of information you have to present. For help with understanding the role of argument in academic writing, see our handout on argument .
What kind of evidence do you need?
There are many kinds of evidence, and what type of evidence will work for your assignment can depend on several factors–the discipline, the parameters of the assignment, and your instructor’s preference. Should you use statistics? Historical examples? Do you need to conduct your own experiment? Can you rely on personal experience? See our handout on evidence for suggestions on how to use evidence appropriately.
Make sure you are clear about this part of the assignment, because your use of evidence will be crucial in writing a successful paper. You are not just learning how to argue; you are learning how to argue with specific types of materials and ideas. Ask your instructor what counts as acceptable evidence. You can also ask a librarian for help. No matter what kind of evidence you use, be sure to cite it correctly—see the UNC Libraries citation tutorial .
You cannot always tell from the assignment just what sort of writing style your instructor expects. The instructor may be really laid back in class but still expect you to sound formal in writing. Or the instructor may be fairly formal in class and ask you to write a reflection paper where you need to use “I” and speak from your own experience.
Try to avoid false associations of a particular field with a style (“art historians like wacky creativity,” or “political scientists are boring and just give facts”) and look instead to the types of readings you have been given in class. No one expects you to write like Plato—just use the readings as a guide for what is standard or preferable to your instructor. When in doubt, ask your instructor about the level of formality she or he expects.
No matter what field you are writing for or what facts you are including, if you do not write so that your reader can understand your main idea, you have wasted your time. So make clarity your main goal. For specific help with style, see our handout on style .
Technical details about the assignment
The technical information you are given in an assignment always seems like the easy part. This section can actually give you lots of little hints about approaching the task. Find out if elements such as page length and citation format (see the UNC Libraries citation tutorial ) are negotiable. Some professors do not have strong preferences as long as you are consistent and fully answer the assignment. Some professors are very specific and will deduct big points for deviations.
Usually, the page length tells you something important: The instructor thinks the size of the paper is appropriate to the assignment’s parameters. In plain English, your instructor is telling you how many pages it should take for you to answer the question as fully as you are expected to. So if an assignment is two pages long, you cannot pad your paper with examples or reword your main idea several times. Hit your one point early, defend it with the clearest example, and finish quickly. If an assignment is ten pages long, you can be more complex in your main points and examples—and if you can only produce five pages for that assignment, you need to see someone for help—as soon as possible.
Tricks that don’t work
Your instructors are not fooled when you:
- spend more time on the cover page than the essay —graphics, cool binders, and cute titles are no replacement for a well-written paper.
- use huge fonts, wide margins, or extra spacing to pad the page length —these tricks are immediately obvious to the eye. Most instructors use the same word processor you do. They know what’s possible. Such tactics are especially damning when the instructor has a stack of 60 papers to grade and yours is the only one that low-flying airplane pilots could read.
- use a paper from another class that covered “sort of similar” material . Again, the instructor has a particular task for you to fulfill in the assignment that usually relates to course material and lectures. Your other paper may not cover this material, and turning in the same paper for more than one course may constitute an Honor Code violation . Ask the instructor—it can’t hurt.
- get all wacky and “creative” before you answer the question . Showing that you are able to think beyond the boundaries of a simple assignment can be good, but you must do what the assignment calls for first. Again, check with your instructor. A humorous tone can be refreshing for someone grading a stack of papers, but it will not get you a good grade if you have not fulfilled the task.
Critical reading of assignments leads to skills in other types of reading and writing. If you get good at figuring out what the real goals of assignments are, you are going to be better at understanding the goals of all of your classes and fields of study.
Make a Gift