Analyze the Prompt

Read Through All Sections of the Entire Assignment
When writing for high stakes writing exams, the first thing to do is to read through the entire writing assignment. Our school writing assignment will include the Directions, the Scoring, and the Writing Task.

Locate the Writing Prompt
Next, you will analyze the writing prompt. On our school writing assignment, the writing prompt is located under the section entitled, "Writing Task". The actual prompt is often made up of two parts: the set up and the task.

Let's consider this prompt:
Prompt Example: What are your favorite foods to eat for breakfast?  What do they look like?  How do they smell and taste?  Write an essay in which you explain what you like about your favorite breakfast foods.

The Prompt "Set Up"
Most prompts begin with the "set up". The set up is that part of the writing prompt that provides the background information needed to write the writing task. Lightly draw a line through the sentence(s) that is the "set up". The sentence(s) that is left is your prompt "task". In our prompt example above, the "set up" is, "What are your favorite foods to eat for breakfast?  What do they look like?  How do they smell and taste?"

The Prompt "Task"

The "task" is that part of the prompt that tells you what you are to write and the way you are to write it. In our prompt example above, the "task" is, "Write an essay in which you explain about what you like about your favorite breakfast foods."

Identify the Topic
When preparing to write, you will need to determine the topic you are being asked to write about. The topic is the subject you are writing about, and it is given to you in the writing prompt. Circle the word(s) that is the topic or subject of the writing task. In our example, the topic is breakfast foods, "Write an essay in which you explain what you like about your favorite breakfast foods."

Determine the Type of Essay You Are Being Asked to Write
Cue words in the prompt "task" specify the type of essay (genre) you are to write. Cue words such as explain, define, compare, contrast, inform, describe, tell, instruct followed by "question words" such as how or why (e.g. explain why, instruct how, describe how), are words that ask you to write an expository essay. Expository essays explain about things, explain how to do things, and compare and contrast things.

Now, look for the key word(s) in your prompt "task" and draw a box around it. Then, determine the type of essay you are to write as specified by the key word(s). The box around this word(s) will also act to remind you of the type of essay you are to write. In our prompt example above, the key word in the writing task is "explain", so this tells you that you are being asked to write an expository essay in which you will write to explain about a topic. "Write an essay in which you explain what you like about your favorite breakfast foods."

If your "task" asks you to compare and contrast or explain how two things are the same or different, you will be writing an essay about two or more subjects that you can identify in the task.

Determine the Type of Essay Main Ideas You Will Use to Discuss the Topic
Look to see if the "task" includes a question word such as why, how, or what?
If the question word is why, your essay main ideas will be reasons.
If the question word is how, your essay main ideas will be ways.
If the question word is what, your essay main ideas will be things.
Prompt Example: What are your favorite foods to eat for breakfast?  What do they look like?  How do they smell and taste?  Write an essay in which you explain what you like about your favorite breakfast foods.
Here the question word is "what", so the essay main ideas will be things.

Determine Whether the Prompt Topic is Singular or Plural
Prompt Example: Candy is a favorite food of children. Think about your favorite candy. Write to explain why this candy is your favorite.
If the topic is singular, the essay main ideas will all pertain to that single topic.
The prompt topic "candy" is singular, so there will be three main ideas about one favorite candy. (One candy)
Prompt Example: Candy is a favorite food of children. Think about three of your favorite candies. Write to explain why these three candies are your favorites.
If the topic is plural, the essay main ideas will each be about a different item for that topic.
The prompt topic "candies" is plural, so there will be three main ideas...each of three favorite candies. (Three candies)
This graphic organizer, while written for an informational expository essay and not specifically for a compare and contrast expository essay, shows the difference between the singular prompt main ideas and the plural prompt main ideas.