Smarthinking Writer's Handbook

Analyzing the Prompt

Chapter 1: Section 1, Lesson 1

Sitting and staring at a prompt with a knot in your stomach may be a familiar scenario. The prompt, also called directions, instructions, or requirements, is the key to a successful essay. Analyzing the prompt will help you understand what your instructor expects for the assignment so that you can meet (or exceed) those expectations. Here's how to do it:

Tap into T-A-P: Topic—Audience—Purpose

The topic for your assignment could be general or specific. See some examples below:

General Topics Specific Topics
A memorable experience A time when you realized someone you care about had changed
The environment How recycling reduces pollution
The Civil War The historical significance of Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address
A Shakespearean play The effect of power on characters in Macbeth

As you read the prompt, consider whether your assigned topic is general or specific. If it's a general topic, you'll usually need to narrow your focus to a specific subtopic to avoid taking on too much. In the topic table above, each specific topic would work as a subtopic for the corresponding general topic. If the prompt topic is specific, make sure you stay on topic throughout your writing assignment so that you meet the assignment requirements. If your instructor has included several questions or steps in the prompt, make sure you answer all questions or address all elements included.

The audience is the person or group of people to whom your writing assignment is addressed. Often for college papers, your audience will be your instructor, the general reader, or your peers/classmates. To see more on this topic, check out the discussion of Audience Types.

  • Instructor as Audience: When writing a paper with your instructor as audience, take his or her views about the topic into consideration. This doesn't mean you have to agree with your instructor, but if you oppose your instructor's view, consider how you'll support this opposing viewpoint. Instructors want students to be informed and credible in their writing.
  • General Reader as Audience: If you're writing for the general reader, consider what you know about the topic that the average person might not know. What background information do you need to provide for context? Are there words or terms you need to define for a general reader?
  • Peers/Classmates as Audience: When writing for this audience, consider that not all your classmates may share the same view. What are the differing views on the topic? What background information do your classmates need to understand your view?

Purpose refers to the approach you take with your topic and audience in mind. The words below are the keys to finding the purpose of your prompt:

  • Describe: Use vivid sensory details to give your reader a mental picture of the scene, person, event, or object you're writing about.
  • Define: Give examples and explanations to define a word or idea in-depth. Definition essays sometimes also explain what the word or idea isn't and why.
  • Cause and Effect: Explain how one action causes another action to happen; alternatively, state the effects of a specific cause and explain why these effects occur.
  • Process: Explain why something happens or how to do something, incorporating multiple steps in the essay body.
  • Classification/Division: Separate a general category into multiple subcategories, and explain how the subcategories are different from each other.
  • Compare and Contrast: Explain the similarities and/or differences between two ideas, topics, or items. You may need to state which of the two is better for the intended audience based on your comparisons and contrasts.
  • Argue: Take a stance on an issue with at least two sides. State your case, often using supporting sources to back up your stance.
  • Persuade: An argument essay that goes one step further, convincing your audience to take a specific action.
  • Illustration/Exemplification: Use details and examples to support the main point of your essay. The essay may focus on just one example or one example per body paragraph.
  • Literary Analysis and Explication: Analyze one or more elements of a literary work (book, short story, poem, play) to explain the work's significance. Literary analyses highlight specific parts of the work (setting, character, symbols, etc.), while explication breaks down the work sentence-by-sentence or line-by-line.
  • Analyze: Break down a work to highlight its strengths and weaknesses. While an analysis should include enough summary for context, the bulk of the essay should focus on explaining what the strengths and weaknesses are.
  • Evaluate: Determine whether a work is effective or ineffective. Like analyses, the majority of the essay should focus on explaining why the work is effective or ineffective. Only include as much summary as needed for context.

Mark Up the Prompt
A great way to analyze the prompt is to make notes in the margins—either by hand or on your computer. Here’s an example prompt that includes some example margin notes:

Mark Up Prompt Table

Note Additional Elements
Pay attention to any additional elements you may need in your assignment, such as:

  • Outside Sources: Do you need to include outside sources? If so, how many? Which types of sources are required—books, journals, websites? Noting this will help you schedule research time.
  • Length and/or Specific Sections: Is there a length requirement for the paper—either words or pages? Typically, the average word-processing page is about 250-300 words when using a 12-point font, one-inch margins, and double-spacing. Does your instructor require specific sections for your paper? What should be included in those sections?
  • Formatting: Which font and font size are required? Do you need to cite sources in MLA, APA, or another style? Do you need a separate title page?
  • Due Date: How much time do you have to complete the assignment? The amount of time can help you understand the depth and quality expected; an essay due tomorrow won’t need the same in-depth focus as an essay due in six weeks.

Think About It

  • What is my T-A-P: Topic? Audience? Purpose?
  • What key words are in my prompt to help me figure out the purpose for this assignment?
  • What notes can I make on the prompt itself to help me better understand the assignment?
  • What are the additional requirements, such as outside sources, length, specific sections, formatting, and due date?

Analyzing the prompt is the first step in successfully completing a writing assignment since your analysis will help you understand what your instructor expects. Good luck!