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How to Dissect a Writing Prompt

Using Google Maps is a life-saver. However, we’ve all had the experience of misreading or miswriting our destination. If we don’t have the correct or precise destination in mind, we can wind up hopelessly lost. For example, in my town we love trees. You had better carefully input “Pine Tree Street,” not “Pine Tree Court,” “Pine Tree Avenue,” or “Pine Tree Lane.” Otherwise you might be knocking on the wrong door.

The same attention to detail is necessary when reading a writing prompt and planning your writing destination. Learning how to dissect the Writing Prompt is the first step in writing an effective essay that will get you where you’re headed. Knowing exactly what the writing assignment requires in terms of the audience, role of the writer, topic and its context, purpose of the essay, essay format, resource text, and key writing direction words are all necessary components of this task.

Following is a step-by-step procedure for dissecting a writing prompt. These directions are carefully designed to work with the Common Core State Standards Writing 1 (arguments) and 2 (inform or explain) standards with brief explanations why each step is important. Don’t leave out a step or you might wind up on Pine Tree Blvd. in Australia.

Let’s use the following as our writing prompt example:

Creating a town culture and identity is important to the success of any town. Towns that have clear cultures and identities don’t just evolve-they are carefully planned. Town planners help craft the ongoing vision of a town. Town planners know first-hand the truth of the old adage-“You can’t please all the people all of the time.” Effective planning involves saying “Yes” to some things and “No” to others. For example, many towns have enacted ordinances limiting the number of fast food restaurants. Take on the role of a town planner in a newspaper editorial to persuade businesses and residents that your town needs such restrictions, referring to the reading resource: Pine Town Business Ordinances.

How to Dissect the Writing Prompt

1. WHO

Underline any words which identify the audience or the role of the writer.

Good writing is a dialogue between author and audience. Writing is not a one-way task. First, find out who your audience will be. The audience may or may not be clearly stated. Don’t assume that you are writing just to your teacher or grader. Consider your audience’s level of expertise and degree of familiarity with the subject. This will help frame your word choice, which terms need to be defined, your audience’s point of view, and how much prior knowledge you need to tap into to create a coherent dialogue. In the writing prompt example, you should underline “businesses” and “residents,” because these are the two audience members in the writing task.

Look for words that help define your role as the writer. Are you to be an information provider, a thought-provoker, a teacher, a persuader, or ? Are you to remain objective and even-handed to treat all sides of an issue fairly? Or are you to be subjective with your primary task to convince or change your audience’s mind to your position? The answers to these questions will determine your writing voice. Your writing voice is your personal attitude toward the subject of the writing and your audience; it’s the way you come across. Of course, the writing voice must be consistent throughout your writing response so as not to confuse your readers. You never want to send mixed messages to your audience. In the writing prompt example, you should underline “town planner,” because this is your assigned role in writing assignment.


Circle any words which identify the topic, context, or purpose of the writing task.

As you read the writing prompt, search for words or phrases that clearly state the topic of the writing. The topic is the main subject about which you are to write, not the detail that explains the subject. For example, in this portion of the writing prompt example: “Many towns have enacted ordinances limiting the number of fast food restaurants” the topic would be “laws” and “fast food restaurants,” not “towns” or “number.” Stick to the main ideas, not the details that are parts of the whole or too general.

The context refers to the necessary background or situation that explains the significance of the topic. In the writing prompt example, the words “culture,” “identity,” and “planned” should be circled because they indicate the necessary context to understand why the topic is important. If your circled topic seems trivial, re-read the writing prompt to ensure that you’ve circled the correct topic.

The purpose of the writing task is the main focus of your writing task. As a writer, you are limited to this focus. You may not want this to be your focus, not you are stuck with this assignment. Keep the focus narrow and don’t “read into” the purpose of the writing task what is not stated. In the writing prompt example, the words “persuade,” and “restrictions” should be circled.

3. HOW

Bracket any words which identify the writing format or the resources to use.

The format of the writing task simply means how the writing response is to be shared with your audience. It is the form in which the writing task is to be composed. Again, the writer is limited to this form; there is no choice here. Often the writing format is assumed to be an essay. In the writing prompt example, the writing format is a newspaper editorial. Now, this assumes that the writer knows what an editorial is and is not. Prior knowledge is a harsh master; if you don’t know the characteristics of the format, you are in some trouble. Using the rest of the language of the writing prompt and the clue word “newspaper” will at least get the writer in the right ballpark of the writing format. Bracket the words “newspaper editorial.”

If a reading resource is stated, you should bracket that resource. In the writing prompt example, “Pine Town Business Ordinances” is that resource.

4. DO

Box any words which identify key writing direction words.

Often there is some overlap here. In the writing prompt example, “Persuade” should have been circled in the second WHAT step. Go ahead and box over the circle to emphasize exactly what you are to do as the writer. Knowing the academic language of key writing direction words is critically important. Following are the most often used writing direction words.

Writing directions words for essays designed as argument…

1. Analyze means to break apart the subject and explain each part.

2. Persuade means to convince the reader of your argument or claim.

3. Justify means to give reasons, based upon established rules, to support your arguments.

4. Evaluate means to make a judgment about the good and bad points of the subject.

Writing directions words for essays designed to inform or explain…

5. Describe means to show the characteristics of the subject to the reader through visual details.

6. Explain means to make something clear or easy to understand.

7. Discuss means to talk about all sides of the subject.

8. Compare means to show how things are the same, and contrast means to show how things are different. If the writing prompt only mentions compare, you must still do both tasks.

Here is a nice teaching summary of the WHO, WHAT, HOW, and DO strategy for dissecting writing prompts for display and reference and some writing prompts for dissection. Dissecting the Writing Prompt 

The author’s Teaching Essay Strategies, includes 42 essay strategy worksheets corresponding to the Common Core State Writing Standards, an e-comment bank of 438 prescriptive writing responses with an link to insert into Microsoft Word® for easy e-grading, 8 on-demand writing fluencies, 8 writing process essays (4 Common Core Standard informative/explanatory and 4 Common Core Standard persuasive), 64  sentence revision and 64 rhetorical stance “openers,” remedial writing lessons, writing posters, and editing resources to differentiate essay writing instruction in this comprehensive writing curriculum.

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