Shelley Reid .

Shelley's Quick Guides for Writing Teachers:
20 Questions for Writing Students

Here are 20 questions students might ask in their future classes to better understand "what the professor wants" in a writing assignment, and thus continue to apply what they've learned in their writing classes.

(As assignment designers, we can also look at our own prompts and in-class discussions thereof: are we answering these questions for our students?)


Questions students could ask a professor about getting started with a writing assignment:

  1. If I have my own idea for a topic or angle that's interesting to me, can I use it, or do I need to complete the assignment exactly the way it is described?

  2. Is there an assignment model, a sample essay, or a kind of published writing that I could look at to help me better see how to do this assignment?

  3. If I write an essay draft early, can I come see you to talk about it, or email you to ask a few questions? Will there be opportunities for peer review?


Questions about the assignment's main purpose:

  1. Why do people in this field or situation write or read a text like this?  What's the main goal for this kind of writing?

  2. Should I mostly review the similarities, differences, events, theories, or key features, or should I make arguments, draw conclusions, or give my interpretations about these ideas?  Do I need to answer the question, "so, what?"

  3. Should I broadly survey the field or issue, or should I narrow my focus and "go deep" with my analysis?


Questions about the assignment's target audience:

  1. Should I write for a knowledgeable audience that has read (or studied) what I have read (or studied), or do I need to give additional background or summary?

  2. Should I try to write for a resistant audience that will need a lot of evidence and persuasive reasoning, or should I write for an audience that generally agrees with my point?  Should I address and refute counterarguments?

  3. What kind of evidence will be most convincing in this field (or to this audience): numbers, descriptions, direct quotations, logical reasoning, examples, case studies, expert testimony? 

  4. Will I need to consult outside sources, and if I do, what kind of sources are appropriate for this field, audience, or genre?


Questions about style and format that differ among disciplines:

  1. Is it preferred that I use the scholarly language or format of this discipline or genre, or should I use standard paragraphs and plain, direct language accessible to a range of readers?

  2. Are lively, graceful introductions and extended paragraphs expected by readers in this field (or for this genre), or will short, informative paragraphs be sufficient?

  3. Is it important to readers in this field or for this genre that I write smooth, stylistic sentences, or is a straightforward "just the facts, ma'am" style enough?

  4. What citation format should I use for outside sources?


Questions about style and format that differ based on the assignment, context, or professorial preference:

  1. Is it okay to use first person ("I") or second person ("you")?  Is it okay to use specific, relevant examples from my own life or experience?

  2. Should I try to avoid passive voice ("to be" verbs)?  Does it matter whether I use present tense or past tense verbs (as long as I'm consistent)?

  3. Is the page-length specification an absolute requirement, or is it more of a guide to how much information I should plan to include in order to satisfy the audience's needs?

  4. Can I include relevant visual or other non-text information (pictures, charts, diagrams, sound or video clips), or should I include only text? 


Questions to gauge individual professors' goals and concerns:

  1. What do you think is the most difficult part of this assignment?  What are the most common mistakes students make with this assignment?

  2. What is the most important aspect of this assignment?  What should I spend most of my time and energy on as I write and edit?


Last updated June 2013 Email Shelley Reid