Developing Writing Prompts

A writing prompt introduces and focuses the writing topic. The purposes of a writing prompt are to encourage the student’s interest in a topic and encourage them to write about it in a thoughtful and creative way. While an effective prompt introduces and limits the writing topic, it should also provide clear instructions about the writing task.

An effective writing prompt includes two basic components;

  • A situation: The situation presents the general topic students are to write about. It is intended to spark the students interest and be consistent with their experience; and
  • Directions: The directions, describing the task students must complete, should be stated in a way that encourages students to share their knowledge and experience or inspires their thought and creativity.

When developing a writing prompt, the instructor should consider:

  • Essay type: The type of essay can influence the type and content of the prompt. When writing a prompt, first determine which type of essay the students will be writing. Common essay types include: argument, descriptive, expository (also known as evaluative, reflective, or analytic), narrative, opinion, and persuasive.
  • Prompt construction: One useful approach to prompt writing is to break it into three parts. The first part introduces the topic to the students; the second part encourages students to think about the topic, possibly with a pre-writing activity in which students brainstorm for ideas; the final part describes the writing task
  • Brevity: Writing prompt should be short and focused to avoid confusing students, but the instructor must ensure they provide sufficient information in order for students to clearly understand the assigned writing task.
  • Repetition: The parts of the prompt may be repetitive. Using parallel wording helps students remain focused on the specific writing task.
  • Bias and sensitivity: Topics should be inclusive of and equitable to all of your students. Prompts should be written in a manner that all students will have knowledge and experience to understand them regardless of cultural and other factors. Prompts should avoid cultural, ethnic, gender, or other stereotyping.

Writing prompt construction:

  • Part 1. Introduce the topic or writing situation with a statement or generalization to orient the student to the topic.
  • Part 2. Encourage students to brainstorm and to make a personal connection with the topic. The instructor might include specific ideas promote ideas.
  • Part 3. Describe the writing task, purpose, and audience. The instructor should provide sufficient information for the students to fully understand their task.

Before writing your prompt, be sure to determine the purpose of the assignment, how the assignment aligns with the learning objectives, and the criteria evaluate the writing, and, finally, which type of prompt will achieve those goals best. Writing prompts can be:

  • Descriptive: Asks students to create or describe an image or experience;
  • Narrative: Describes a real or fictitious scenario and invites students to tell a story about it;
  • Expository: Asks students to provide information about a topic. or
  • Persuasive:. Presents an opinion or viewpoint, requiring students to take a stance and defend it.

Descriptive Prompts

Descriptive prompts often contain cue terms, such as “describe in detail”, “describe how something looked/felt/smelled/tasted”, to help the reader to experience the same thing. This is in contrast to an expository prompt which would ask the student explain or tell “why”.

Example descriptive prompt

Many people have a favorite childhood toy. Sometimes these favorite childhood toys are not even expensive but were giving to you by someone special or as a reward.. Think about your favorite toy. It could be a stuffed animal or doll. It could even be the toy you made out of an everyday object, such as a blanket. Think about this favorite childhood toy, memories created with this toy, what it looked like, how it felt to have it with you. Write an essay that will be posted in your e-portfolio in which you describe your favorite childhood toy. Make sure you provide enough details so your readers can see it and feel what it is like to be there.

Narrative Prompts

Narrative writing recounts a personal or fictional experience or tells a story based on real or imagined events. Narrative writing is often characterized by insight, creativity, drama, suspense, humor, and/or fantasy. Narrative prompts use cue terms such as “tell about…”, “tell what happened”, or “write a story.” Similar to descriptive prompts, narrative prompts should avoid asking the students to explain “why.”

Example Narrative Prompt

Vacations can create some wonderful and not-so-wonderful memories. Sometimes vacations turn out to be funny, strange, scary, or weird. Think about a vacation with your family or friends that either became a favorite memory because it was the best, strangest, funniest, or worst vacation. Think about what you did, what else was happening at the time, where you were, who was involved, and the time of day or year it happened.

Write a story about the best, strangest, funniest, or worst vacation. Make sure you include enough details so the instructor can understand and follow your story.

Expository Prompts

Expository writing informs, clarifies, explains, defines, and/or instructs. Problem and solution, cause and effect, and how-to essays are subtypes of expository writing. Expository writing is guided by a purpose and with a specific audience in mind, therefore the voice and essay organization must align with the subject and audience. Expository prompts use the cue words: why, how, what, and explain.

Example Expository Prompt

Some animals have evolved to live and thrive under extreme climate conditions or to eat a very specific diet. Think about an animal that has evolved to live under extreme climate conditions or to eat a very specific diet. Think about where this animal lives, what the climate conditions are like, the types of food it eats, and how it gets its food. Think about the possible advantage and disadvantages for the animal of living in this habitat or eating this diet. Write an essay for your e-portfolio that identifies the animal and its unique habitat or diet and explains (with specific details to support your explanation) why it is an advantage for the animal to have evolved this way.

Persuasive Prompts

Persuasive writing is intended to convince the reader that a point of view is valid or to take a specific action. Persuasive writing should address the strengths and weakness of both sides of an issue but ultimately support one perspective. Persuasive prompts use the cue words “convince”, “persuade”, and “why,” rather than using terms like “how.”

Example Persuasive Prompt

Some parents are concerned about administering vaccines to their infants and children because they believe vaccines can lead to autism. Your sister who is currently pregnant is considering not vaccinating her child. Think about whether you agree or disagree with her plan to not vaccinate her child. Think about the advantages and disadvantages of vaccinating a child and what the scientific literature says. Write a letter to your pregnant sister in which you state your opinion on the decision to not vaccinate. Include enough specific details to support your opinion and to convince your sister that your position on the issue is correct.