Snowflakes, Fingerprints, and Assignments
Writing assignments in college differ as much as instructors. There is no one guidebook, approach, or set of rules that college teachers will consult when putting together their coursework. Since each assignment will always be unique, it is important to devote time to thoroughly understanding what is being asked of you before beginning. Don't wait until the night before the work is due to begin asking questions and delving in. The sooner you understand and approach the assignment's requirements, the less time you will spend second-guessing (and needlessly revising) your writing.
Analyzing an Assignment
You will likely encounter many different kinds of writing assignments in college, and it would be nearly impossible to list all of them. However, regardless of genre, there are some basic strategies one can use to approach these assignments constructively.
- Read the assignment sheet early and thoroughly. An assignment sheet may be lengthy, but resist the temptation to skim it. Observe and interpret every detail of the text. Moreover, it is essential to focus on the key words of the subject matter being discussed. It would be unfortunate to hand in an incomplete or misguided assignment because you did not properly read and understand the guidelines. Since you can easily overlook details on the first reading, read the assignment sheet a second time. As you are reading, highlight areas where you have questions, and also mark words you feel are particularly important. Ask yourself why your professor has given this assignment. How does it relate to what you are studying in class? Pay attention to key words, such as compare, contrast, analyze, etc. Who is your audience? Should the paper be written in a formal or informal tone? Is there documentation required? If a specific number of sources are required, how many must be books vs. online sources? What type of citation is called for: APA, MLA, Chicago, etc.? Is there a page or word count minimum/maximum? Are you required to submit a draft before the final copy? Will there be peer review?
- Get answers to your questions. After thoroughly reading the assignment sheet, you might not have questions right away. However, after reading it again, either before or or after you try to start the assignment, you might find that you have questions. Don't play a guessing game when it comes to tackling assignment criteria--ask the right person for help: the instructor. Discuss any and all questions with the person who assigned the work, either in person or via email. Visit him or her during office hours or stay after class. Do not wait until the last minute, as doing so puts your grade at risk. Don't be shy about asking your professors questions. Not only will you better your understanding and the outcome of your paper, but professors tend to enjoy and benefit from student inquiry, as questions help them rethink their assignments and improve the clarity of their expectations. You likely are not the only student with a question, so be the one who is assertive and responsible enough to get answers. In the worst case scenario, when you have done all of these things and a professor still fails to provide you with the clarity you are looking for, discuss your questions with fellow classmates.
- Writing Centers. Many colleges and universities have a writing center. Tutors are helpful consultants for reviewing writing assignments both before and after you begin. If you feel somewhat confident about what you need to include in your writing assignment, bring your completed outline and/or the first draft of your paper together with your assignment sheet. Tutors can also review your final draft before its submission to your professor. Many writing centers allow you to make appointments online for convenience and may also have "walk-in" availability. It is a good idea to check out the available options a week or so in advance of when you will actually need the appointment, or even longer if it will be during mid-term or finals week.
- Create a timeline. Set due dates for yourself, whether they be to have a topic picked or a whole rough draft completed. Procrastination rarely results in a good paper. Some school libraries offer helpful computer programs that can create an effective assignment timeline for you. This is a helpful option for new, inexperienced writers who have not yet learned the art of analyzing assignments, and who are not familiar with the amount of time that is required for the college writing process. Remember, late papers may or may not be accepted by your instructor, and even if they are your grade will likely be reduced. Don't sell yourself short with late submissions.
Prewriting and Brainstorming
Every writing assignment from every discipline requires the formulation of complex ideas. Thus, once the assignment guidelines have been thoroughly considered, you should begin to explore how you plan structure your work in order to meet them. While this is often considered to be the start of the writing process, it is also an essential part of assignment analysis, as it is here that the assignment is broken down into the most digestible parts. Such a process can be done either individually or in a group, depending on the situation.
- Prewriting. The first and foremost stage of the individual writing process is that of Prewriting. Often overlooked by inexperienced writers, this is essentially the architectural stage of the writing/analysis process, where the foundations of an assignment are first laid out and constructed. Free-writing, outlining, diagramming, and mapping are all possible approaches to this stage of development, where the goal is to organize one's ideas around the requirements of the task at hand. Many people begin this right on the assignment sheet, as it can be helpful to highlight what the instructor is specifically asking for while simultaneously adding one's own understanding to the ideas. Eventually though, you will want to move to a separate page. If you are free-writing, you should start by writing out an assignment related question or main concept, and then proceed to freely (with or without punctuation or formality) write anything that comes to mind in relation to it. If you are outlining, you are essentially breaking down the main ideas of the assignment and your response to them in a linear format (by paragraph, subject, section, subsection etc.). If you are diagramming, your prewriting can take many different forms, but always as a visual representation of your response to some/all of the assignment constituents. Lastly, if you are mapping, you are essentially outlining in a more visual way, using both linear and non-linear representation to organize your ideas about the assignment. Research can also be conducted during this stage of the writing/analysis process, as it is sometimes helpful to know more about a topic before you make the commitment to writing about it. You may even choose to use more than one of these approaches if you find it helpful in developing your understanding of the assignment.
- Brainstorming. Similar to prewriting, brainstorming takes place in the space between analysis and drafting, the difference being that brainstorming generally involves group discussion. The size of a brainstorming group varies according to task, but ideally consists of smaller odd numbers (3, 5, or 7) when there is no assigned mediator present. There are obviously many pitfalls to such group discussion, and many divergent possibilities (distractions, freeloading, repetition, etc.) that can lead to counter-productivity. Nonetheless, if all members are devoted to the task of analysis and development, the variety of perspectives can prove to be most rewarding. If all goes well, each member of the group takes turns posing questions related to the assignment being discussed, to which the other members respond openly and freely. When positive attitudes and constructive criticism can manage to be maintained, each member of the group will have his or her own critical thinking expanded upon and enriched by the understanding of the other group members.
As discussed earlier, instructors will come up with any number of assignments, most of which will stress different types of composition. In each section below, there are sample assignment directions and suggestions on how to proceed. What follows is not meant to be a comprehensive list of assignments, but rather a short list of the most common assignments you can expect to see in an introductory English course. Many assignments not listed here are simply creative variations of these basic directives. For example, you could approach a visual analysis the same way you would a rhetorical analysis; an argument paper is similar to a research paper, perhaps with a shorter argument. The techniques you use in writing a narrative can also translate into writing a short story or observational essay.
For this paper, you will take a position on a topic of either local or national interest. Research the topic thoroughly, making sure you know all sides of the debate, and decide what your position will be.
Your task is to write an 8 to 10 page research paper convincing your audience of your point of view. You are required to use at least 8 sources, 4 of which should be scholarly (peer reviewed). You will use MLA format for your in-text citations and Works Cited page. Remember, the key to a good debate is knowing the opposition. Therefore, some of your sources and paper should be dedicated to such. Use this as an opportunity to show how your viewpoint is conclusive.
You will likely have to write a research paper of a significant length during college. Students are usually overwhelmed by the page count and the struggle to come up with a paper topic. Sometimes, in an attempt to make sure he or she reaches the page minimum, students choose very broad research categories like welfare or the death penalty. Believe it or not, these extensive topics generally do not make for great papers, simply because there is too much information to cover. Narrow topics allow for more in-depth research and writing. Choosing a topic takes time and research, so don't be surprised if your instructor requires your topic ahead of time. This is to make sure you do not leave all of your research until the last minute. Look online for topics that interest you and write down a few notes about what is going on in that field. Since a research paper generally involves an argument, you must pick a topic that has two sides. One-sided, fact-based arguments such as "smoking is bad for your health," are not suitable for research papers.
Look at the assignment sheet for key words. What is the purpose of the paper? To argue. What are your requirements? Not only are there page requirements, but also source requirements. What are scholarly sources? How do you judge the credibility of a source? Are you familiar with MLA?
There is one mistake that is very easy to make: confusing an argumentative research paper with an expository one. Don't let your argumentative research paper become an informational report where you simply list information on a topic (expository writing). Unless explicitly stated, that is not your assignment.
A narrative can be defined as a story or account of an experience or event. Think of a moment or experience that you found to be particularly important, meaningful, humorous, etc., and describe this event. Events do not have to be extraordinary large or dramatic to be important and fun to read--a snapshot of what happened while you were sitting at a stoplight can be just as entertaining as a story about being in a tornado.
Narratives are a favorite first assignment for instructors, as it is assumed that most people find it easiest to write about what they are familiar with. At the same time, the idea of self-reflective writing can be very intimidating. Most students have fantastic stories to tell, but inevitably edit themselves too early by worrying that their stories might not be "important" enough.
However, the assignment clearly states that you should not worry about your narrative concerning a large event. One of the key words is "describe." Therefore, the most important part of the assignment is your use of description ("show, don't tell"). Prewrite and describe a few ideas you might want to talk about. Pick one of them and start writing down as many descriptive details as you can think of about the event. Who were you with? Where were you? What was the weather like? What did the building look like? What were you thinking? How did you feel? What did you learn? Recording these concrete details will help guide you through your narrative. Don't forget to include as many sensory perceptions (taste, touch, sight, sound, and smell) as possible to paint the clearest picture of what you are trying to describe to your reader.
At this point, you still might be worried about the "importance" of the story. While it is true that your story should come to some sort of point, themes usually develop naturally in a story. If you begin your story with an agenda, you'll often find yourself describing the theme and not the event itself. Allow the themes to develop, and do not try to force them unto the page.
A rhetorical analysis calls for students to closely read a text and determine several characteristics about it (author, context, purpose, emotional appeal/effects, etc). For this assignment, you will read "A Modest Proposal" by Jonathan Swift and write a rhetorical analysis. Remember, this is not a reflection piece, but rather a deep look at the tone, style, and intended audience, as well as ethos, logos, and pathos.
At first, a rhetorical analysis sounds somewhat difficult. However, analyzing just means making a conscious effort to read each word carefully and think about what the author is doing. The first step would be to read the piece, not once, but two or three times. Highlight important passages and take notes. For this assignment, the instructor wanted students to write about ethos, logos, and pathos, which are rhetorical terms you should become familiar with. Pay attention to specific word choices that may evoke emotion, or any facts the author may have put forward in the text. Look at the background of the author as well as the time period in which he or she was writing. Consider the tone of the piece. Is it formal/informal/serious/humorous? These are all things to keep in mind while reading. Make an ongoing list of the author's rhetorical techniques that you may want to discuss in your paper.
Remember to be mindful of your essay's organization. It is easy to discuss three different topics in one paragraph and jump back and forth from one idea to the next, but this makes it difficult for your reader to follow. Also, do not forget that this is not a reflection. For this assignment, the instructor isn't concerned with your reaction to the text, or your ability to summarize; he or she wants to gauge your analytical skills.
Read Martin Luther King Jr.'s "Letter from Birmingham Jail." Give a brief summary of the article and a response. Cite specific examples and avoid generalizations.
Before writing a summary, it is important to use your critical reading skills. Plan on reading the article at least two, but preferably three times.
- First, read the article from the beginning to the end to get a general sense of its main ideas. You don't have to understand every word at this point. After you've read the whole article, write down a few sentences that explain its main ideas in your own words.
- Second, read the article again, this time more slowly. Annotate as you read. "Annotate" means that, as you read, you mark up the text by underlining, highlighting, or circling sentences or phrases that seem important or revealing. Annotating also involves taking notes, either in the margin of the article or on a separate piece of paper. You could begin by writing down the main point of each paragraph in the margin next to it. "Converse" with the text by asking questions, making connections to other things you've read, and noting areas of confusion.
- Third, continue your conversation with the article by reading it a third time. This time, read very slowly and carefully. Try to answer the questions you asked during the second reading. You don't need to find the right answer. Actually, it's likely that there is no one absolutely correct answer. But let your own ideas respond to your questions as you layer this set of notes over your first set. Your answers will really be more like suggestions. Think about how the different pieces of the article fit together to form a unified whole. Go back to the summary you wrote after your first reading and revise it to reflect your deeper understanding and consideration of the author's ideas.
Now you are ready to summarize the article. In a summary, you use your own words to describe the author's main points. This means that the author's minor ideas will be left out. If you choose to include some of the author's exact words, remember to enclose them in quotation marks. Every summary needs a citation because, while the words are your own, the ideas are not.
While writing a summary may be a familiar assignment from high school, college instructors will frequently require a response. Writing a response is explaining your reaction to the text. However, statements such as "I did/did not like it" are not sufficient. Not only must you be more thoughtful and academic with your response, but you should also support what you say. For example, if you think that the author did not think sufficiently explain one of his main ideas, find the exact places in the text where the author's writing is weak, incomplete, or confusing. In the same way, describe your positive reactions to the text as well.
Your summary and response should be in at least two different paragraphs; don't combine the author's ideas and your reactions in a single paragraph. However, your instructor doesn't want two huge paragraphs, so divide the summary and/or the response into multiple paragraphs if necessary. Shorter paragraphs help you, as a writer, stay organized and helps the reader follow your ideas. The summary and response should each be about one page.
Finishing the Assignment
Remember, no matter what the assignment, identifying key words in guidelines can help you determine what type of thinking and ability the professor wants you to demonstrate. The following six areas of competencies are from Bloom's Taxonomy. To learn more, visit: http://jerz.setonhill.edu/writing/style/taxonomy.htm.
- Knowledge: This becomes evident in how well you remember the subject matter, such as the major ideas, dates, places, events, etc. Questions may begin with: Identify, describe, examine, when, where, who.
- Comprehension: How well you understand the information presented. Can you describe the information in your own words? Questions may begin with: Interpret, contrast, predict, discuss.
- Application: Can you use the principles learned to solve other problems in different situations? Questions may begin with: Illustrate, examine, modify, experiment, relate.
- Analysis: Can you recognize hidden meanings, see patterns, identify the underlying parts? Questions may begin with: Separate, order, connect, classify, divide, explain.
- Synthesis: Can you relate knowledge from different areas to draw conclusions? Questions may begin with: Modify, rearrange, substitute, design, invent, generalize.
- Evaluation: This involves verifying the value of the evidence when solving controversies, developing opinions, etc. Questions may begin with: Decide, convince, select, compare, summarize.
If you need clarification on what your instructor is looking for, do not hesitate to ask. After you have finished your paper, be sure to double-check that you have fulfilled all the requirements. Proofread your paper multiple times before handing in the final copy.