Analyzing Prompts in Essay Writing

If timed essays are like track races, then prompts are like event names—the 100-yard dash, the 440 relay, the long jump. Unlike the track star who approaches the starting line with a strategy in mind for the race in which he or she is competing, when you sit down at the start of a timed writing test, you don’t even know the prompt. You have to show up at the “starting line” prepared to perform a variety of writing tasks— the expository essay, the persuasive essay, the compare and contrast, and so on.

To help you prepare, let us give you a quick definition of a prompt before we go any further. A prompt is “something said or suggested to incite to action, or to help the memory.” In this essay, we’ll give you the strategies to contend confidently with the challenges presented by prompts.

Our back story starts in 1866 when Alexander Bain, a Scottish rhetorician, wrote English Composition and Rhetoric, which described what we know today as the four modes—exposition, description, narration, and argument (a handy acronym for remembering them is EDNA). You may have been asked to write one or more of these types of essays in your English class.

  • Exposition: written to inform the audience
  • Description: written to describe something
  • Narration: written to tell a story
  • Argumentation: written to persuade the audience to the position promoted

Why is it useful to know these terms? Well, many writing-on-demand prompts refer to the modes, and you will be more comfortable responding to those prompts if you know what conventions the mode calls for. To help you analyze or take apart prompts, we’ll use our secret weapon: the Prompt Analysis Questions—or, as we like to call them, the PAQs.

Five PAQs

The PAQs help you become a close reader of prompts, which will help you avoid the rookie mistake that Sid mentions at the beginning of this chapter. Of course, prompts vary radically in the types and amount of information they provide about the kind of writing expected, so it may not be possible to answer every question for each prompt or assignment. However, learning to ask and answer a series
of questions about the claim/topic, audience, purpose/mode, strategies, and role helps you figure out what is required and generate ideas for meeting that requirement.

With that in mind, we offer the PAQs below to help you unlock the secrets of any prompt. Each of the five questions can be amplified by additional questions. These questions recur throughout this chapter and the rest of the book because we have found them particularly useful for understanding prompts and assignments.

  1. What is the central claim/topic called for? Do I have choices to make with regard to this claim/topic? Will I need to focus the claim/topic in order to write a good essay? What arguments can I make for this claim? What do I know about this topic?
  2. Who is the intended audience? If named specifically, what do I know about this particular audience? If the audience is implied or not identified, what can I infer about it or them? In either event, how might the expectations of this audience affect my choices as a writer?
  3. What is the purpose/mode for the writing task? Is the purpose stated or must it be inferred? What is this writing supposed to accomplish (besides fulfilling the demands of the prompt/assignment)? What does the goal of this writing suggest about the mode (narration, exposition, description, argument) or combination of modes that I should consider in responding?
  4. What strategies will be most effective? What does the purpose/mode suggest about possible strategies? Of the strategies I am comfortable using—like examples, definitions, analysis, classification, cause/effect, compare/contrast—which will be most effective here? Are there any strategies—such as number of examples or type of support—that are specified as required?
  5. What is my role as a writer in achieving the purpose? Have I been assigned a specific role like applicant or representative? If I have not been assigned a specific role, what does the prompt or assignment tell me about the level of expertise I should demonstrate, the stance I should assume, or the approach I should take?

You might have some questions about some of the terms in our questions. If so, you may find these definitions useful:

  • Claim: Often confused with topic, claim is what an argument rests on. Some prompts specify a particular topic on which the claim needs to be based. Here is an example of the difference between topic and claim:
    • Topic: The role of experience in learning.
    • Claim: One can learn in many ways, but the most effective is through direct experience.
  • Purpose and Mode. The purpose designated by the prompt—to explain, to describe, to argue, and so on—will usually dictate the mode of writing to be used. The modes frequently blur into one another because it’s very difficult to write an explanation without some description or argue without explanation.
  • Rhetorical strategies: Techniques for writing well and/or organizing your ideas so that the reader can understand your point. Some examples are compare/contrast, cause/effect, example, definition, and so on.
  • Stance: The different positions writers take in relation to their audience and topic.