Where To Go From Here: Redefining Your Writing Prompt -->

Where instructors and editors talk writing.

Where To Go From Here: Redefining Your Writing Prompt

No comments
In our appointments in the Writing Center, we typically talk about the writing process as something defined by the writing assignments you get from your instructors. Let’s say you’re asked to write a 3-5 page paper responding to a prompt about a topic you’ve been studying. You might use a process like the one we describe on our website, in which you complete subsequent steps to achieve a particular writing goal. We often use the word iterative to describe this process, which means that you’ll rarely go through these steps just once for any given writing task—typically, you’ll go through them a few times, making progress in each cycle until the paper is as complete as you can make it.

Where to go from here: redefining your writing prompt

This is an excellent way to approach many projects, especially relatively short course papers. In my perspective as an instructor, I also think it helps writers develop a strong writing practice. You might question, though, whether this process is ideal for other kinds of projects—should you take these same steps when writing something long, like a master’s thesis. Conversely, what if you only need to revise a portion of a paper—a section or even just a paragraph?

When you’re in a situation like this, I argue that you can—and should—use the process described above, but you should add an important step at the beginning. Rather than taking your assignment instructions as your prompt, your first task now should be to redefine your prompt based on what you need to accomplish. Often, this involves breaking a large project into a set of smaller projects in order to establish a set of criteria (or set a goal) for the project by asking yourself questions about what your finished product should look like.

Let’s go through a hypothetical example to illustrate how this new redefined writing process might work. Let’s say you’ve written a paper and had it reviewed by an instructor in the Writing Center. For the most part, it looks good: it’s clear on the sentence level, your body paragraphs are clearly organized, and you draw several key conclusions about your overall topic. The instructor noted, however, that it’s missing a thesis statement, and they recommend that you provide one early in the paper to give your reader a good sense of what you’re arguing. 

Here’s a process you might use for this task:

Redefine your prompt: “I need to add a thesis statement in the introduction of my paper. It should include just 1-2 sentences, and it needs to be specific, concise, and arguable.”

Read critically: Gather ideas you could use or refer to in your thesis. This might involve rereading your paper and noting the conclusions you’ve drawn about your evidence. How do these conclusions fit together? What bigger argument do they contribute to? What overall claim are you making?

Organize: Make a plan for your thesis statement. You could even write a short outline to make sure you’re covering everything you need to. (This might also be a good time to read through the Writing Center’s thesis-statement web page or watch our Writing Strong Thesis Statements webinar to get more information on what your thesis should include.)

Write your rough draft: Write your thesis statement.

Revise: Take a look at your draft and compare it to the redefined prompt you set. Is anything missing? Is anything included that shouldn’t be?

Write your final draft: Make one more pass through your thesis for clarity and style, then insert it into your overall paper.

Reflect: Think about how this went and any changes you could make for the future. You might, for example, remind yourself to include a thesis during the planning step when you write your next paper.

Of course, the details of each step in the process will vary depending on the task at hand. For a section of a literature review, your prompt might be something like “write a 1-2 page synthesis of the articles I read that address technological barriers to EHR adoption in rural clinics,” and for a major assessment project it might be “in 1-2 paragraphs, identify the problem of high teacher attrition rates and the gap in the literature regarding this topic.”

You may not need to take all of these steps for every writing task you face—in some situations they may not all be strictly necessary (e.g., you may not need to revise or reflect when fixing a minor word-choice issue), and you may take some of them subconsciously. I encourage you, though, to practice setting your own criteria for your writing tasks. It can help you manage your projects, use your time judiciously, and become a more self-sufficient writer.

Matt Sharkey-Smith author photo

Matt Sharkey-Smith 
is a senior writing instructor in the Walden Writing Center. He also serves as contributing faculty in the Walden Academic Skills Center.  Matt joined the Writing Center in 2010 with a BA in English from Saint John's University in Minnesota. He earned an MFA in Writing from Hamline University in St. Paul in 2011 and has worked outside of Walden as a technical writer, fact-checker, copy editor, tutor, and writing instructor.

"Send me new posts by email" button
Never miss a new post; Opt-out at any time

No comments :

Post a Comment