Understand Your Assignment
Be sure to understand your assignment fully before you begin to work! One way to do that is to outline the specifications of your assignment first.
Recording the specifics of your assignment can help you to avoid misinterpreting it as you proceed. This is especially important if the assignment was given orally or written on the board. The specifications reveal your understanding of the assignment: if you are having difficulty with your paper, show your specifications to your professor or tutor along with the other preliminary work you have done.
In a file or on a piece of paper, record your name, the course title, and the paper's due date. Then try addressing these categories (click on the category to jump down to the description below):
Record the assignment. Capitalize or highlight any key words that are crucial to your aim and purpose in writing. Note any terms that you do not understand, and ask your prof or TA what they mean.
Record the required length of the assignment. Keep the length in mind when you plan your writing.
Consider some possible plans for development of your paper. The assignment might suggest a particular plan of development (e.g., compare and contrast, or cause and effect), or you may have to determine your own organizational format. What are your options within any given format? There may be many things you could compare and contrast successfully within the specifications of the assignment.
Is your plan feasible within the required length of the assignment?
Come up with a few possible plans at the outset. This will help you to understand the assignment better, and will suggest how you should approach further prewriting activities.
Consider the sources of information you will draw on as you write. Most assignments require you to search out material from the library. If your professor has suggested any sources, jot them down. Also record your own ideas for sources, such as additional books, journals, magazines and newspapers, or where you might look for bibliographies.
To develop your ideas for sources, try browsing the Library Tutorials and Research Guides—these key resources include the Library Research Roadmap Tutorial, a self-paced tutorial that leads you through the steps of the bibliographic research process, and Subject Research Guides that list important resources for getting started on research within various disiplines. As your writing progresses, don't be afraid to visit the library in person and ask questions of the Reference Librarians.
Most professors look for a clearly written and coherently organized paper that supports its key ideas with frequent examples. If you are asked to write for a more specific audience, or if you want to know how to design your paper to be "reader-friendly," consult Flower (130-145) or Kennedy and Smith (18).
Review your notes so far. Think about how you can narrow your topic down. Some frequently-used methods of narrowing a topic including restricting your research to one period in time, one geographical area, one demographic group, one social class, etc.
Try to form your thoughts into a preliminary statement describing your goals. Having a preliminary thesis early in your work can help you to direct your research along productive lines, but you must be prepared to revise or abandon your preliminary thesis as you learn more about your topic.
Is your preliminary thesis feasible within the required length of the assignment?
6 and 7 are fairly advanced steps. You may find that you can't complete them at this early stage of writing; however, your research and pre-writing activities should be directed towards narrowing down your topic and forming goals or a preliminary thesis. (See Moving from a Topic to a Thesis.)
Review your assignment specifications frequently, and revise them when necessary.
Proceed to "Unconscious" Pre-Writing Strategies