Putting the Pieces Together: What Are Writing Prompts?

What Are Writing Prompts?

Writing prompts or timed essays are learning assignments that guide or “prompt” students to write about a specific topic in a specific way. Prompt writing is a long-standing and effective way to teach writing composition because it encourages students to develop their ability to focus on a specific issue, idea, or concept and to offer their own opinions on the topic the prompt presents.   Prompts stimulate student critical thinking and provide students with the opportunity to formulate a reasoned and structured argument in response to another writer’s viewpoint.

Why Are Prompts Used in WRIT?

Learning to write well takes time and practice. Becoming a better writer, whether for academic or professional purposes, can only begin if you actively engage with other writers, and, most importantly, other viewpoints. Responding to another writer involves not only understanding  the argument or position that they make, but also determining whether you agree, disagree, or partially agree with their position. Your goal as a developing writer, then, is to articulate your view clearly and concisely on an issue, to support it with solid reasons, and to respond to potential arguments other readers may raise about your own argument.

How Are Prompts Used in WRIT?

In WRIT, weekly prompts are used to allow students to demonstrate their understanding of the writing process.  Through guided writing practice, your instructor will use timely and topical writing scenarios so that you can apply the various aspects of writing competency in an incremental way each week.  Sure, writing weekly can seem daunting for some or repetitive for others. Yet, it is important to remember that learning any new skill involves a level of repetition.

Learning to write is an iterative process, which means you will get better the more often you write. You know what they say: practice makes perfect – and this is especially true when learning to write. Using prompts regularly as part of our writing curriculum can boost the chances that you will not only improve as a writer but also feel connected to the writing process itself.

Understanding Writing Prompts

A strong prompt response contains several components, components which must all work together to produce a finished product with which other readers can engage. As an emerging writer, we hope you will develop a number of skills to ensure you are understood. These skills include the ability to:

  • create a clear thesis (or main argument)
  • develop a logical organizational structure
  • use effective and formal language
  • vary your sentence structures
  • write cleanly without grammatical error to express yourself clearly and concisely

While learning to write effectively depends on your ability to master many of these skills,  one skill can be taught quickly: how to understand a writing prompt.  In fact, this should be the first skill you focus on as a developing writer.  Why? Because if you are unable to understand a piece of writing, then responding to it will be very difficult. Put another way: to make an argument about something, you’ll need to make sure you fully understand the arguments made by another writer–in our case the writer of the prompt. This skill requires more that simple reading comprehension.  More often than not,  strong students receive a weak writing grade because they misunderstood the prompt. In order to respond successfully , you must learn to analyze the prompt before responding to it.

Questions to Ask

The first phase of composing a strong piece of writing occurs in the pre-writing phase, and in WRIT you’ll practice and learn how to  plan your writing responses. Unlike a formal research essay assignment–where you’ll often have weeks to research, plan, and compose a polished final essay–in WRIT,  your responses will be shorter and designed to be completed within a set period of time. The ability to respond in writing quickly is a core skill you’ll practice in WRIT; that skill is called time-on task writing. While, the pre-writing phase will be shorter, you should still learn to ask a few key questions about the prompt to help narrow down your overall writing goal.

When reading a writing prompt, the following are helpful questions to ask and answer:

  • What is the topic of the prompt?
  • What is the main argument (thesis) the author makes?
  • What is the purpose of the prompt? Why does the author want to convince you of her argumentative position?
  • What kind of details or supporting points does the author provide?
  • Do I agree or disagree with the author’s points? Why or why not?
  • Can I provide reasons to oppose the author’s argument?
  • Do I understand WHY I support or oppose the author’s argument?

By asking and answering these questions, you can jump-start your essay outline and formulate your own thesis. A good way to begin is to write a one-sentence response to each question. Whether you practice this skill in class or not, there are a number of ways that you can do so everyday. You can:

  • Read an opinion editorial on a news site
  • Watch a film documentary
  • Watch a television interview
  • Listen to a documentary podcast
  • Track a social media hashtag

Most of the media with which we engage on a daily basis comes with thesis statements, points of view, arguments both well supported and not-so-well supported: the more you bring critical thought–by applying the core questions from above–to these spaces, the more you’ll develop into a critical thinker who is ready to become a critical writer.

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Putting the Pieces Together by Andrew Stracuzzi and André Cormier is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

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