Designing Effective Writing Assignments

  • The assignment helps writers imagine a sense of purpose for writing. When people write beyond school, their writing is driven by a need to communicate in order to evoke a specific response or to elicit a particular action or to otherwise convince an audience in some way. Therefore, it is helpful to think of designing assignments that help writers imagine writing in order to accomplish a specific aim. (Likewise, it is less useful to assign a random mode of writing: a description, a comparison, etc. It is more realistic to imagine that a writer will utilize a variety of modes-description in conjunction with narration and persuasion-to achieve her or his aim.)
  • Hand-in-hand with a sense of purpose is a sense of audience. If fact, real-life writing situations are often motivated first by the need to communicate with a specific group of people. Having a particular audience in mind when composing helps writers choose appropriate tone, style, and words, as well as to anticipate their readers’ needs. Assignments are usually more successful when they give writers a clear sense of audience. As teachers, you might provide opportunities (in different assignments) for your students to practice writing for different audiences.
  • Writers often have difficulty coming up with topics or imagining ways to expand upon a topic (what in classical rhetoric is referred to as the invention phase of writing). Therefore, it is helpful to provide questions and brainstorming techniques (invention heuristics) for writers to help them generate ideas.
  • Related to invention is reading. Precede writing assignments with readings that provide the rhetorical and analytical tools and vocabulary of the larger conversation; select pieces of writing (both student and professional) that can also serve as models. Emphasize the reading/writing connection: the notion that to be a good writer, one must be an avid reader. You can further cement this link by referencing the readings on the assignment sheet (even when the assignment does not require students to directly respond to a written text).
  • Emphasize that writing is a process, and when possible build revision and peer review into the assignment. If using a writer’s handbook, reference pages that offer advice on revision; if not, offer your own advice.
  • Clearly state length, formatting, and citation requirements, as well as due dates.
  • Provide evaluation criteria to better help writers understand your expectations.
  • Articulate learning objectives. Either in a separate category or within the purpose section, help students understand the pedagogical benefits of composing the types of writing that you are assigning (beyond simply getting a grade).
  • Use para-textual elements, such as bold, underlining, bullets, and numbers to help writers remember key steps and parts of the assignments.