Guided Tour Step One: Understanding an Assignment

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Welcome to the PSU Writing Center's "Guided Tour" to writing an academic paper. Each step consists of questions writers should consider at that particular point in the writing process. If you don't understand a question or aren't confident you've handled the issue, just click on the question to receive guidance. Let's get started:

Understanding an Assignment

 Before getting started, it's usually a good idea to consider where you want to go and how you want to get there. Consider the following questions before you continue to step two:

  1. Do you know when your assignment is due, and do you understand the basic guidelines of the assignment?

  2. Do you understand the purpose or goals of the assignment?

  3. Do you understand who the audience of this assignment is, and do you know how to appropriately address them?


1. Understanding the Basic Guidelines of an Assignment

There are some basic features of an assignment you should make sure you understand before you get started. Read your assignment and class notes carefully and see if you can answer these questions:

  • When is my assignment due?
  • How many pages is it supposed to be?
  • Do I need to do any research for this assignment? If so, how many sources are required and what type of sources must they be? For example, some instructors will only accept research taken from peer-reviewed journals, while others may have certain restrictions concerning Internet sources. (If this is all sounding very mysterious to you, stay tuned; you'll find more help with research on the Researching page.)
  • Do I need to use specific style guidelines, such as MLA, APA, or Chicago?


2. Understanding the Purpose/Goals of an Assignment

Reading Assignments for Keywords

Once you understand the basic requirements of an assignment, the next step is to carefully and critically reread the assignment sheet and circle key words that will help you understand the instructor's expectations. It's especially helpful to circle key ideas from the course, or verbs like analyze, compare, interpret, evaluate, or explain. The circled ideas should help you understand what concepts from the course are particularly important, and the circled verbs will help clarify what you are supposed to do with those concepts.

Also, determine if the assignment identifies or implies a specific form, or wants points addressed in a certain order, i.e. a lab report, literature review, position paper, or an essay with an intro, body, and conclusion.

Talking With Instructors About Assignments

If there are any terms or ideas in your assignment that are unfamiliar or confusing to you, don't be afraid to ask your instructor for help. Most instructors are happy to help you out, especially if you come to them well ahead of any deadlines. Professors keep office hours for a reason—use them!


3. Understanding "Audience" and Addressing Different Audiences

Before you get started on your paper, make sure you understand who your audience is, and consider what type of "voice" and evidence you should use to address that audience. This is not as daunting a process as it may seem. All writers make decisions about what written voice is appropriate for a particular piece of writing; in an email to your BFF (or best friend), you would most likely use different vocabulary, discuss different topics, and maybe even construct your sentences differently than you would in a letter to your granny.

Rather than making an abstract decision about what constitutes a "correct voice," it will often be easier for you to consider what you know about the intended audience, and then write accordingly. What does the audience care about? What are they are familiar with? What kind of language do they use? And what is your purpose in communicating with them, i.e. to show you read the text, to show you can apply a concept to a real-life situation, to convince them of something, etc.?

If you were to write an email to a friend about a movie you'd recently seen, called "Night of the Kilbot" for instance, it's appropriate to use a casual tone and your personal opinion to persuade her she ought to see the movie. When you are writing a formal paper in a university setting, the written voice shifts again. Your immediate reader will obviously be your instructor, but references to a specific reader in a personal or casual voice ("I don't know if you know what the KilBots did next, Prof. Smith, but it was so awesome that the scientific community could only say, 'Oh, snap!'") sound odd and aren't appropriate. This is because the assumed audience for college writing isn't a single person, but really a larger body of educated readers—people who know enough about your topic to grasp your thesis and evidence. And this educated audience values evidence over opinion (examples, statistics, logical lines of reasoning). The written voice that results from assuming this audience is what most people call "academic voice."

A university paper about a film, then, might be expected to include discussion of visual composition, use of terms like "mise-en-scene," or thoughtful analysis of artificial intelligence. The voice might sound something like: 

"The robots' search for acceptance on an unfamiliar planet creates a sense of pathos in the viewer, though the surprising complexity of the film's androids stands in direct contrast to the one-dimensional performances of the human players."

Writing for an academic audience might require some extra attention at first, and small adjustments might need to be made based on what field you're writing about. (Some fields are okay with the use of "I" in a formal paper, for instance, but others aren't.) In time, however, writing in an appropriate academic voice becomes more natural, and an ability to analyze what's appropriate for your audience can often help you figure out how to phrase thoughts clearly and effectively in any piece of writing.