Making Sense of Prompts

Most of the time, you will readily understand your instructors' writing prompts. Occasionally, though, you are bound to receive a prompt that makes no sense to you. You may be puzzled by its wording, the assumptions behind it, or the instructor's views on what constitutes an acceptable answer. What then?

Your best option is to talk to the instructor, whether in person or by email. Always be polite, even if you're frustrated. Be prepared to share a few general ideas, both to prove your interest and to see if you're on the right track. This approach works best if the deadline is not looming over you. An instructor will not look kindly on a question that arrives by email mere hours before a paper is due.

If you can't get an explanation from your instructor, try asking your friends, especially those who are in the class with you. A different set of eyes to look at the prompt may be all you need. Remember that we in the SAGES Peer Writing Crew are your "professional friends" in cases like this.

If you're still stumped, try reviewing some of your notes or the assigned reading from the class. A quick refresher may jog your memory and provide a forgotten context for the assignment. Even if a quick review doesn't help you figure out the meaning of a prompt, it will help you write your eventual response.

If all else fails, just try to write a strong paper. The prompt, after all, is supposed to be a guideline to help you achieve that goal. If you can write a meaningful paper on an appropriate topic without strictly adhering to the prompt, many instructors will be forgiving. Just make sure you are on topic, even if you can't figure out exactly how the instructor expected you to approach the topic.

This strategy will not work for all writers, with all instructors, or in all situations; you can't always rely on your own writing skills to compensate for, or camouflage, a failure to understand the prompt. That's why I said if all else fails.


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