Many times, starting an academic writing assignment is easy: you write about the topic as assigned by the instructor. Of course, it is never a good idea to simply repeat what the instructor says about a particular topic. But in many college classes, the topic of your writing projects will be determined by the subject matter of the class and the directions of the instructor. If you are required to write a research paper for your political science class that focuses on the effects of nationalism, chances are an essay on the relaxation benefits of trout fishing would not be welcomed.
So, how do you write about topics assigned by the instructor? The answer to this question depends on the specific assignment and the class, but here are a few questions you should ask yourself and your instructor as you begin to write:
• What is the purpose and who is the audience for the essay you are being asked to write? In other words, what do you understand to be the instructor’s and your goals in writing? Is the instructor’s assignment designed to test your understanding and comprehension of class lectures, discussions, and readings? Is the instructor asking you to reflect and argue about some aspect of the class activities? Is the intended audience for the essay only the instructor, or is the assignment more broadly directed to other students or to a “general reader”?
• What do you think about the topic? What’s your opinion about the topic assigned by the instructor? If it is a topic that asks you to pick a particular “side,” what side are you on? And along these lines: to what extent would it be appropriate for you to incorporate your own feelings and opinions about the topic into your writing?
• How much “room” is there within the assigned topic for more specialized focuses? Most assigned topics which at first appear limiting actually allow for a great deal of flexibility. For example, you might think that an assigned topic about the “fuel economy and SUVs” would have little room for a variety of approaches. But the many books and articles about fuel efficient vehicles suggest the topic is actually much larger than it might at first appear.
• Does the assignment ask students to do additional research, or does it ask students to focus on the readings assigned in class? Assignments that ask students to do additional library and Internet research are potentially much broader than assignments that ask students to focus on class readings.