By Bryce Arghiere
In the Writing Center, the only things we read more of than assignment sheets are papers. If you’re like me and a lot of writers who come in for sessions, you have probably at some point had difficulty boiling down a long assignment sheet. Faced with a page-plus of paragraphs, bullet points, deadlines, options, and requirements, it can be hard to get started on a paper.
Even if your essay assignment sheet looks like an essay in itself, there is good news: confusing as they may seem, many long assignment sheets are packed with helpful information. Printing the assignment sheet and reading it with a pen in hand is never a bad way to start sorting through everything. This helps me because I can see the whole page at once—as opposed to scrolling up and down on AsULearn. Printing may also give you one of your only chances to mark up something written by your professor.
But before you do this, it will help to have a list of your questions about the paper. For example, I always want to know what the professor calls the paper. Is it, officially, an essay, personal narrative, scientific research paper, literature review, or something else? I’m also curious about which adjectives and words the professor uses to describe the paper (e.g., “informative,” “academic,” “concise,” “creative,” “descriptive,” “personal,” “summary”). These words help me decide how I would like the writing to sound—formal, direct, conversational, poetic, etc.
If you’ve looked for answers and are still unclear about anything—does the assignment sheet name the intended audience or the point of view to use?—it’s a great idea to ask your professor. This can be intimidating for a lot of people—I used to never do it—but most professors are more than happy to help, especially if you ask them ahead of the deadline (sooner than the night before). Matthew, a UWC consultant who plans to be a professor one day, strongly encourages asking for help: “Always—always, always—use the professor as a resource. Ask and ask again about anything that’s unclear.”
With the answers you’ve found and written down, you could still have a lot of information to sift through. If you would rather have something shorter and more direct to write from, you can use your answers as a starting point to summarize the assignment in one to two sentences. Even if there’s already a summary sentence in the assignment sheet, writing it in your own words will probably help you understand it better (plus, if you highlight the original, you’ll have two short and clear descriptions!).
Remember, the shorter the summary is the more likely you are to use it after you’ve started writing. Digging through blocks of text can drain a lot of energy, so try to stick to the essentials: type/format of the paper, citation style, audience, voice, and any others you find.
Maybe there are too many details and requirements to include in the summary sentence(s)—for example, acceptable types of sources, required number of sources, maximum or minimum word requirement. Listing these as bullet points below your summary will help to keep everything together and not too long. Matthew and I agree that sending a copy of your list to the professor doesn’t hurt. After all, asking your professor is the most important thing you can do to understand an assignment sheet.