What can I do if I don’t completely understand the writing assignment?

Sometimes the hardest part about writing a paper is understanding the assignment. You may not understand what you’re being asked to write or how you’re supposed to write about it. But don’t worry: although the prompt may seem confusing at first, there are strategies you can use to understand your assignment.

First, try taking a break from the assignment.

Take a walk, clean your room, get coffee with a friend. Then come back and read the prompt again, keeping any of your instructor’s in-class comments in mind. Looking at your assignment with fresh eyes will often help you either finally understand the assignment or identify what specifically is confusing to you.

If your assignment still seems unclear, ask yourself the following questions:

    What is the purpose of your assignment? (What are you being asked to do?)

      To understand what the assignment is asking you to do, pay special attention to the verbs that your instructor used. These verbs often function as keywords that signal the purpose of an assignment. Argue, summarize, and compare/contrast are just a few keywords to look for. These verbs can tell you whether you are developing your own argument, describing a plot, or analyzing the similarities or differences between artifacts. Visit our blog or take a look at this handout to find a list of more keywords and their meanings.

      Another way to understand the assignment is to see if your instructor has asked you to follow a specific format. Is there a length requirement? Are there a certain number of sources required? Shorter papers are often a thesis-driven analysis with fewer sources. A longer paper with more sources may signal a research assignment. Again, pay attention to any verbs you see; these verbs will often tell you how to approach writing your assignment.

        Who is your audience?

          Part of the context of any writing situation will include your audience, or who you’re writing to. Since your audience includes your instructor, keep in mind any expectations she or he may have. What concepts have been emphasized in class? You may find these same concepts in your prompt. How is the assignment structured? Understanding the structure may help you decipher how you are being asked to approach the prompt.

          Your instructor may not be the only audience member to consider. Are you being asked to communicate with a general audience (who can follow a logical argument but doesn’t know anything about your chosen topic) or an informed one (an audience familiar with the material, but not your chosen angle)? Knowing who your audience is will help you decipher what kind of information will best support your thesis. If you have any questions about who your audience should be, ask your instructor for clarification.

            What evidence are you being asked to provide?

              Evidence, or the information you use to support your thesis, can come from in-class texts or outside sources like academic journals, scientific studies, or government websites. The type(s) of evidence that you use and how you present it will differ depending on the requirements of your assignment. Is your instructor asking you to draw on readings from class to make an argument? Chances are, this signals a textual analysis in which you develop a thesis and use quotes from your chosen text(s) to support your argument. Alternatively, are you being asked to use outside sources? If so, how many? This may signal a longer project, possibly a research paper in which you generate a thesis and present information on a given topic to either inform or persuade your audience.

              Understanding the type of evidence your instructor requires may help you work backwards to determine the format and, ultimately, the purpose of your assignment. Remember: evidence will be presented differently depending on your audience and purpose, so again, look for keywords to help.

              If you still find that you don’t fully understand the assignment, don’t panic: you aren’t required to tackle the prompt alone.

              Email your instructor and explain your confusion.

              Try to be as specific as possible. Are you confused about what you are being asked to do? Is it unclear how you are being asked to structure your paper? Or what kind of evidence you’re supposed to use? Ask them, even if you can’t be specific. They want to help.


              Come to the Writing Center! Talk to a friend or someone you know from class. Being able to talk to someone about your assignment may help you finally decode the prompt.

              What can the Writing Center do to help?

              Some questions about the assignment can only be answered by instructors, so you should be prepared to discuss the assignment with them. However, consultants at the Writing Center are experienced in reading and interpreting assignments. When you attend a Writing Center session, we ask that you bring a copy of the assignment with you (if you have one), and we will read through the assignment sheet together. We will then help you decipher keywords, look for hints about structure, and finally come to an understanding of the prompt. We can also help you begin brainstorming for the assignment and transition to other steps of the writing process.