When your professor gives out the prompt to a paper, it can be easy to react with alarm. Even worse, if the prompt is multi-layered and requires the answer to multiple questions, you may quickly become overwhelmed and have no idea where to start. Here are some strategies that may come in handy when tackling the dreaded term paper.

What is my purpose?

Students often approach writing tasks without clearly defining the goal of the prompt. We’ve learned the black and white distinctions between fiction and non-fiction. Classification of genres has also categorized various works of writing. However, your purpose for writing will ultimately dictate the language of the text.

For example, how you compose a persuasive essay is much different than how you will approach an essay that compares two texts. In the first prompt, you must choose a viewpoint and your purpose is to convince the audience of a particular opinion. In contrast, the analysis intended to compare two texts lays out the commonalities and differences that two authors present without taking a stance. Ultimately, the utilization of emotion, statistics, additional research, etc. will depend on the goal of the writing prompt.

What question(s) do I need to answer?

This may seem a bit redundant, but the way some prompts are worded can catch you off guard. If it’s in paragraph form, see if you can rephrase the wording to dig out the question being asked. Even if the prompt says nothing but “describe,” there is always a question lurking beneath the seeming ambiguousness. For instance, if a prompt says, “Describe the role of technology in World War II,” one might rephrase it to say, “How did technology affect the events of World War II?” To go even deeper into detail, one could ask, “What particular events in WWII were a direct result of technological advances?”

What is the answer to the question(s) being asked?

There might be a correct answer, or it might be a matter of interpretation. It’s usually best to pick the answer that you feel most capable of defending. If you don’t have a lot of evidence to support your answer, you may want to consider a different angle.

What evidence can I use to support my answer?

Deciding how best to answer the prompt and searching for supportive evidence often go hand in hand. This is where you delve into your readings, past assignments, and any other resources which are there to help you build a strong foundation for your argument. There are a lot of resources available to you in this case — the Rutgers University Library hosts a wealth of articles, journals, theses, and more. Google Scholar can also prove to be very helpful.

How can I begin to outline my paper?

Is there a chronological pattern to the evidence you plan to present? Is one event the result of another? Are you describing characteristics of a certain geographic location? Look over the supporting evidence you’ve selected and try to figure out if they create a pattern of some form. If you talk about the American Civil War of 1861 in one paragraph and the Revolutionary War of 1775 in the next, your paper may not flow very smoothly. Identifying a pattern in your supporting evidence can be a great first step to organizing an outline for your paper.

Did you know outlining is a critical step in the writing process?

Learn More