Understanding the Prompt

Everyone knows how overwhelming it can be to look at a blank screen or piece of paper when expected to write something. Imagine never being given any instruction on how to compose a piece of academic writing. That would be difficult! Although writing prompts might feel burdensome, they actually offer guidance to the writer. There are just a few strategies to understanding any prompt you're given so you can write the most effective essay possible in any circumstance.

Understanding the Prompt Understanding the Prompt

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Table of contents

    An Essay Prompt: Definition & Meaning

    A writing prompt is an introduction to a topic as well as instruction on how to write about it. Writing prompts, often used for essay assignments, are meant to direct the writing and encourage interest in the topic of discussion.

    An essay prompt could be anything meant to make you engage with the subject at hand; it could be a question, a statement, or even a picture or song. In addition to allowing you to interact with an academic topic, essay prompts are also crafted to challenge your writing skills.

    A writing prompt will often explain what style or structure you should use in your essay (if not contained in the prompt itself, you should be informed elsewhere in the assignment). This all depends on what the writing prompt is asking you to do.

    Prompt Writing Examples

    Writing prompts can vary in style and length, and there are several different types, each focusing on something else.

    Prompts can also vary by how much information they give you. Sometimes, a writing prompt will provide the writer with a scenario and ask them to defend their position on the topic, or give them a short reading assignment and ask them to respond. Other times, the prompt is very short and to the point.

    It’s ultimately up to the writer to respond accordingly, but it’s helpful to understand what precisely you are supposed to do.

    Below are the different types of essay prompts you might encounter, as well as an example of each. Some examples are lengthy and detailed, while others are simple questions; it is important to be prepared for either case.

    Think about a prompt from your previous English assignments; what kind of essay prompt do you think it was? How did the prompt inform your writing?

    Descriptive Writing Prompt

    A descriptive writing prompt aims to get the writer to describe something specific.

    How to respond: The goal here is to use vivid language, bringing the reader into the description so they almost feel like they are experiencing it for themselves.

    Example prompt: Read the sample about leisure from George Eliot’s Adam Bede (1859). Compose a well-written essay describing her two views of leisure and discuss stylistic devices she uses to convey those views.

    Narrative Writing Prompt

    Narrative writing tells a story. A narrative essay prompt will ask you to walk the reader through an experience or scene using creative, insightful language.

    A narrative essay prompt could easily be confused with descriptive. Still, the difference is that you’re responsible for explaining the series of events, not just describing one particular thing about the event. You may use elements of descriptive writing for a narrative essay.

    How to respond: Be prepared to tell a story. It might be based on real-life experiences or entirely fictional— that is up to you. You’ll organize your response according to the series of events in the story.

    Example prompt: Write a story about your favorite school memory. Include details such as who was there, where it was, what happened, and how it ended.

    Expository Writing Prompt

    Expository is a synonym for explanatory, so you will be asked to explain something in detail in this type of prompt. In an expository essay, you’ll need to support the information you’re sharing with facts.

    How to respond: Depending on the topic, you should generate a hypothesis and use evidence to support it. Present a coherent argument to the reader.

    Example prompt: On April 9, 1964, Claudia Johnson, First Lady of the United States, gave the following speech at the first-anniversary luncheon of the Eleanor Roosevelt Memorial Foundation. The foundation is a nonprofit dedicated to the works of former First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt, who passed away in 1962. Read the passage carefully. Write an essay that analyzes the rhetorical choices First Lady Johnson makes in order to honor Eleanor Roosevelt.

    In your response, you should do the following:

    • Respond to the prompt with a thesis that analyzes the writer’s rhetorical choices.

    • Select and use evidence to support your line of reasoning.

    • Explain how the evidence supports your line of reasoning.

    • Demonstrate an understanding of the rhetorical situation.

    Notice how this sample prompt is much more detailed than the previous examples. If you receive a prompt like this, pay attention to every specific detail and be sure you respond to each piece of instruction; otherwise, you risk not entirely answering the assignment.

    Persuasive Writing Prompt

    A writing prompt that asks for a persuasive response is trying to get the writer to convince the audience of something. In persuasive writing, you’ll need to take a stance or side of an argument and persuade the reader to agree with your position.

    How to respond: After considering the topic of the prompt, choose an argument that you can defend with logic and evidence (if possible) and try to convince the reader of your position.

    Example prompt: Winston Churchill said, “There is nothing wrong in change, if it is in the right direction. To improve is to change, so to be perfect is to change often.”

    - Winston S. Churchill, 23 June 1925, House of Commons

    Although Winston Churchill may have made this statement somewhat jokingly, one may easily find support for both change “in the right direction” and change that is destructive. From personal experience or your studies, develop a position regarding one change that is or was viewed differently by different generations.

    Steps to Understanding the Prompt

    When presented with a writing prompt, you can take a few steps to make sure you fully understand the assignment and can produce the most effective essay or piece of writing. Regardless of the length of the prompt, what type it is, or how detailed it is, you can use this process to get a firm grasp on the meaning of the prompt and what to write in response.

    Understand The Prompt A pen on top of a notebook with glasses in the background StudySmarterFig. 1 - Take notes to understand the prompt.

    1. Read and Re-Read the Prompt

    Step one may feel like an obvious one, but the importance of reading the prompt well cannot be overstated. It’s also important to not just read it but to read it without focusing on what your response will be just yet. Your agenda in this step is to simply take in the information. Feel free to take notes or underline keywords if you're reading new information (and perhaps even if you're already familiar with it).

    Consider reading the prompt several times for a deeper understanding (if time allows).

    2. Read the Prompt Critically

    Next, take another pass at the prompt, but this time read with a more critical eye. Look for keywords or phrases, and pay close attention to action words—the prompt is ultimately asking you to do something.

    Start to look for details and information that you can use in your response. Take notes, circle, or underline anything you might use. This will save you time as you begin writing.

    3. Summarize the Prompt in a Sentence

    The purpose of step three is twofold: to summarize the prompt by distilling it down to its most important parts (i.e. the part that includes your assignment) and to put it in your own words. Pay attention to keywords and phrases used in the prompt, and be sure to include them in your summary.

    Summarizing the prompt will allow you to fully digest the information in the prompt and further cement your understanding by reproducing it.

    4. Ask Yourself Questions About the Prompt

    It’s time to start thinking about the purpose of the assignment. You can ask yourself these questions to dig into what exactly you need to do next:

    Understanding the Prompt: Who Is the Audience for the Essay?

    Before you begin to write, you always need to identify your audience. Why? Because your audience should influence how you approach responding to the prompt. In an academic essay, you should always assume your audience is your teacher or whoever has written the essay prompt. Remember to write your essay in a way so that anyone can understand your response.

    Understanding the Prompt: What Form of Writing Does it Require?

    Do you need to construct an argument or narrate an event? Scan the prompt for clues about what type of response you should write. Sometimes a prompt will tell you precisely what type of essay to write, and other times you are given the freedom to respond as you see fit.

    What Is the Purpose of the Prompt?

    Look for action words in the prompt such as ‘describe’ or ‘explain’, as these give you a major clue about the purpose of the prompt. These words tell you what to do.

    Here are a few keywords and phrases commonly used in writing prompts and their meanings:

    • Compare - look for similarities between two things (texts, images, etc.).

    • Contrast - look for differences between two things.

    • Define - explain what something means and give an official definition.

    • Illustrate - highlight some detail about the topic of discussion.

    To figure out what a prompt is asking you to do, look for action verbs that will help direct the purpose of your response. In addition to those commonly used keywords, you should also pay attention to words that indicate a task or expectation for you, the writer. Here are a few examples:

    • Include
    • Support
    • Incorporate
    • Summarize
    • Apply
    • Illustrate

    Be sure you accomplish the action requested in the prompt, using examples and details as necessary.

    If you don’t find words like this, think through a possible response and try to identify what type of writing would answer the question posed in the prompt.

    Understanding the Prompt: What Information Do I Need to Complete the Task?

    Are there any graphs or statistics in the prompt that you might need to reference in your essay? Circle this information so you can easily find it later.

    If this prompt is not part of an exam, you may want to research the topic to round out your answer with details and accurate information.

    Understanding the Prompt: What Kind of Details or Arguments Does it Suggest?

    Look for what information you’re supposed to include in your response. These are specific details the prompt asks you to consider, such as the findings of a study or a fictional character’s personality traits.

    Is it possible that these details are enough to support your thesis statement? Could each detail be enough for an entire paragraph in a basic, five-paragraph structured essay? Answering these questions might be a big help as you begin to plan your essay.

    Understanding the Prompt, Thinking Emoji on a smartphone, StudySmarterFig. 2 - What comes next once you understand the prompt?

    I Understand the Prompt: Now What?

    Now that you have come to thoroughly understand the prompt and what it is asking you to do, the next step is to plan an outline.

    Even if you are taking an exam and have limited time, you should still devote a few minutes to drafting an outline. An outline is likely to save you time in the long run as it gives your writing direction, and it can keep you from meandering without ever proving your point.

    Armed with a firm understanding of the prompt and an outline of how you intend to answer the prompt’s ultimate question, you can now begin to write your amazing essay!

    Understanding the Prompt - Key takeaways

    • A writing prompt is an introduction to a topic as well as instruction on how to write about it.
    • A prompt is anything meant to engage you with a particular topic and is also meant to challenge your writing skills.
    • Prompts can be descriptive, narrative, expository, or persuasive (and your writing should reflect the style of the prompt).
    • Key steps to understanding a prompt include:
      • Read (and re-read the prompt)
      • Read the prompt critically
      • Summarize the prompt in a sentence
      • Ask yourself...
        • Who is the audience?
        • What form of writing does this require?
        • What is the purpose of the prompt?
        • What information do I need to complete the task?
        • What kind of details or argument does it suggest?
    Frequently Asked Questions about Understanding the Prompt

    What does understanding the prompt mean?

    Understanding the prompt means having a firm grasp on the topic and how the prompt has asked the writer to engage with or respond to it.

    What is an essay prompt?

    An essay prompt is an introduction to a topic as well as instruction on how to write about it.

    What is a prompt example?

    A prompt example would be: Take a position on the value of attempting difficult tasks, particularly when there is the guarantee that you will never achieve perfection. Support your position with personal experiences, observations, readings, and history.

    What does prompt mean in writing?

    A prompt is anything that encourages you to think about your relation to a topic and engage with it in the form of writing.

    How do I write a prompt response?

    Write a prompt response by first answering the following questions: 

    1. Who is the audience?
    2. What form of writing does this require?
    3. What is the purpose of the prompt?
    4. What information do I need to complete the task?
    5. What kind of details or argument does it suggest?

    Test your knowledge with multiple choice flashcards

    True or false, a prompt could be a picture.

    What type of writing prompt would require a response that tells a story?

    What type of writing prompt would require a response that formulates a hypothesis and uses evidence to support it?


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    Team English Teachers

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    • Checked by StudySmarter Editorial Team
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