Understand instructions before writing paper

Before you even begin writing your paper, you need to fully understand what the instructor expects. Knowing that will help you focus your thoughts about what you’ll write and will prevent you from later having to rewrite when the instructor reviews your paper before you turn it in.

Hopefully, the instructor has given more than verbal instructions about what to write. If that’s all he does, though, make sure you take notes. If the assignment is unclear, ask the instructor to clarify. Even if the instructions are given in written form on a marker board, in a syllabus, or via email, always ask for clarification if some element is unclear.

From the instructions, you should be able to answer the following questions:
• What is the paper’s topic or thrust? You need to know the scope of what you can write about. This will help you determine what you should research and your thesis (or the main point of your paper).
• What is the paper’s length? You don’t want to write too little or too much. Usually the paper’s maximum length is given by page or word count.
• When is the paper due? Knowing the deadline will help you set up a timetable for completing the paper. The instructions also may include some pre-deadline dates, such as when you must meet the instructor for a conference to discuss the paper.
• What kind of paper do you have to write? Not every paper is a straight report in which you describe what you learned from your readings and research. In some papers, you must take a position and support it with evidence; in others, you might analyze an issue.

Also, watch in the instructions for any information about:
• How should the paper be structured? All papers follow a basic structure of introduction, supporting points, and conclusion. There are many ways, however, to organize that middle section of supporting points, which is the meat of your paper. Your instructor may have a preference for how you organize that section, such as three supporting points or using comparison and contrast.
• What style should you write the paper in? You’ll likely need footnotes and a bibliography for your paper, especially as you advance in your coursework. Knowing if the instructor wants you to use APA, the Chicago Manual of Style, or another format is key as this determines how your footnoting, bibliography and more will be done.
• What sources can I use? Your instructor may limit from where you can gather information to quote or reference in the paper (usually encyclopedias are a no-no). He also may require that you use specific sources, such as books read for class or experiences that you had while working on a class project.

There are many other instructions or bits of information that might be given (such as how many points or percent of your grade the paper is worth), all based on the paper you’ve been asked to write and the course you’re taking. It may seem like extra work to read or ask about all of these instructions, but fully understanding them will make planning and writing your paper considerably easier and in the long run save you far more time.


My name is Rob Bignell. I’m an affordable, professional editor who runs Inventing Reality Editing Service, which meets the manuscript needs of writers both new and published. I also offer a variety of self-publishing services. During the past decade, I’ve helped more than 300 novelists and nonfiction authors obtain their publishing dreams at reasonable prices. I’m also the author of the 7 Minutes a Day… writing guidebooks, four nonfiction hiking guidebook series, and the literary novel Windmill. Several of my short stories in the literary and science fiction genres also have been published.