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Understanding Your Assignment

Did you know that many low grades on papers are the result of not following assignment instructions properly?  Reading instructions strategically is an important step to getting started and doing well on any assignment.

First, make sure you understand the expectations for your particular assignment.  Expectations differ greatly from discipline to discipline; writing for philosophy and history, for example, is not the same as writing for English.  Also, many instructors assume you already know how to write according to the expectations of their particular discipline, so they may not state all of their expectations in writing.  The best advice is: if you have any doubt about what an assignment is asking you to do, ask your professor!

Some key considerations for understanding an assignment you’ve been given:

  • Read through the assignment sheet carefully.  Take note of italicized or bolded portions.
  • Circle or underline the key words or sentences that seem to be describing what you should do for the paper.
  • Jot initial ideas in the margins as you read through the assignment sheet.
  • Again, if you have any questions, ask your teacher for clarification.  Visit the teacher during office hours, or ask in class.

Brainstorming

You may have used brainstorming trees or maps in the past, and if those work for you, keep using them! But if you get stuck, try one of the following strategies:

  • Meet with a writing tutor.  Visit the Writing Center to talk about your assignment and ideas.  Talking on an informal basis with someone is one of the most effective ways to identify and clarify your thoughts.
  • Try the “Center of Gravity” Brainstorming Technique –a technique for discovering an idea or set of ideas that can “generate the source of energy” for your paper.
  • Check out the links below for additional ideas for effective brainstorming strategies:

Locating Source Material

Your classes often require you to do various kinds of research before you start writing, a process that can be difficult, time-consuming, and mysterious!  For these reasons, you need to give yourself enough time to track down source materials you need.  To get started researching, check out the information below.

A good place to begin is the UT Libraries home page and its resources:

Other General Tips:

  • Once you’ve found one good source, more should easily follow. Look at the source’s references, works cited page, and/or bibliography to see what sources that writer used, and look up some of them.
  • Check other books in the same area of the stacks where you found one good source.  You may find other helpful books nearby.
  • Keep notes about which sources you’ve consulted and where you found them, especially if you don’t have hardcopies.  Even better, document the citation information as you research and write your initial draft.  There is nothing more frustrating than forgetting where you found your quotes, statistics, or other evidence (and that is also a potential recipe for plagiarism!)
  • Be sure to evaluate all of your sources to make sure they’re reliable before you include them in your paper.

The Writing Center can also help you to locate sources for your project.  Stop by for help in HSS 212 or the Commons!

Creating a “Thesis” or “Main Point” Statement

Most instructors expect academic essays to include a “thesis” or “main point” statement in the introduction.  A strong thesis statement works as the foundation of your paper.  Below are some answers to common questions about thesis statements.

What is a thesis?  A thesis is a statement of your position in an argument, your answer to a debated question, or your solution to an unresolved issue.  Your thesis should prepare your reader for what you will try to persuade or inform him/her of throughout the paper.  Also, you could think of the thesis as a claim that others could dispute.   Some professors use different terms such as “main point” or “claim,” and the format for a good thesis differs from discipline to discipline.  But you’re on track if you are concentrating on creating some kind of statement about your overall point at the beginning of your paper.

Tip: You should allow yourself plenty of time to develop a “working thesis.”  Start with a first draft of a thesis that communicates the basics of your position.  Later, revise your thesis as you refine your argument.  Then, look at it again once you’ve written your final draft.

What is a “strong” thesis statement?

  • Does your statement address/answer the instructor’s writing prompt?
  • Does your thesis provide a claim or state a position about a topic that someone could debate?
  • Does your thesis indicate the reasoning that underlies your position or claim?
  • Will someone ask “So what?” about your statement?  If so, you need to revise it.

Check out “Have I Created a Strong Thesis Statement?” (pdf) for a working example of these questions.

Helpful Links:

Tip: Don’t forget to revise your “working thesis” once you’ve written your paper to make sure it still represents the position you took in the body of the paper!

Organizing Your Ideas

Framing your argument by organizing your ideas (thesis, support, conclusion) provides a supportive structural base upon which to build an effective academic essay.  However, before organizing your paper, it’s important to know what type or “genre” of paper you’ll be writing.  Once you know the type of paper you should be writing and the expectations held by your specific audience, an outline can help you include all the necessary information and follow the guidelines of your discipline accurately.

After brainstorming and formulating a thesis claim, let your thesis guide the organization of your essay.  A good thesis should indicate where you ultimately hope to lead your reader, and knowing where you want to end up can also help you decide where to start.

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