Set the right balance in formal writing prompts

See-saw shows weight of total challenge changes its acceptability
The total challenge posed by a writing prompt lets students respond well — or not.

When preparing formal writing prompts, whether you’re creating them to use as learning assessments or as content teaching tools, it’s important to strike the right balance between how challenging the course content in them is and how challenging the required writing is.

If you’ve taught for more than 27 minutes, you know some content in your courses is a lot harder for students to understand than other content. Similarly, some kinds of writing tasks are harder for students to do than others.

By writing tasks, I’m not talking about surface features such as grammar and punctuation, but about whether a particular topic can be both thought about and written about following basic thesis-and-support pattern, which you might  call by the misleading term “five paragraph essay”. A topic that can be both thought about and written about using the thesis-and-support pattern is the easiest type of writing. Writing that requires modifying that basic pattern in order to plan a response using one of the vastly more complex presentation formats, argument or narrative, is much more difficult.

Getting the balance right matters

When using writing as a teaching and/or learning assessment tool, you want to avoid overburdening students with writing challenges that require such concentrated thinking that there are few little gray cells left over for dealing with the challenges of your course content.

However, being cognizant that students must learn to write prose several notches above Fun with Dick and Jane, you want to encourage students to master at least the most common types of informative/explanatory texts, such as comparisons, cause and effect, and how-tos, so you’re not embarrassed to admit they are your students. (On YCTWriting.com, I plot informative/explanatory texts on a continuum between argument and narrative. You will find it on this expository essay page.)

Visual representations of balance in prompts

Try to imagine that all the difficulties a student could tolerate in one assignment—both writing difficulties and course content difficulties— should fit in a single container. In the graphic below, writing challenges are indicated by pink boxes, course content challenges by green ones.

boxes indicate sizes of writing and content difficulties
The bigger the box, the greater the challenge.

Acceptable proportions of writing and content challenge

There are three ways of packing those three different sizes of two types of challenges in a single container. You can have a moderately difficult writing challenge and a moderately difficult course content challenge, like this:

medium sized pink and green boxes together rate a thumbs up
Moderately difficult writing and content challenges are a good combination.

Students can usually cope with an assignment that combines an easy writing challenge and difficult course content, like this:

together a small pink box and large green box earn a thumbs up
An easy writing challenge can be combined with difficult course content challenge.

They can usually also cope with a difficult writing challenge if it’s accompanied by an easy course content challenge, like this:

Small green box atop large pink box earn a thumbs up for good balance
Easy course content plus difficult writing challenge is a good balance.

What does not work is a writing prompt that poses both difficult writing challenges and difficult course content challenges. That combination earns a thumbs down.

equal-sized pink and green boxes earn a thumbs up
Too-heavy boxes representing writing and content difficulties earn a thumbs down

Plan all your formal writing prompts so their writing difficulty to content difficulty ratio earns a thumbs up.

(A version of this post appeared previously on the PenPrompts.com blog; the web host ate the graphics, so I moved the content here.)

©2018 Linda G. Aragoni

Word choices influence perceptions

I frequently use quotes from fiction to trigger nonfiction writing prompts. Using quotes from fiction helps me reach both those  students who think they don’t need to learn anything outside English class if they’re going to be writers, and those others who think fiction is just made-up stuff that’s irrelevant to their lives.

Today I have a formal writing prompt for you that uses a quotation from a Tom Wolfe novel as its starting point. (FYI, my review of the novel will be posted on my blog GreatPenformances.wordpress.com on October 27, 2020.)

The prompt: Payroll situations or people?

Charlie peeps out from the O in TomIn Tom Wolfe’s novel A Man in Full, Charlie Crocker’s extensive commercial enterprise is in deep financial trouble. Charlie finally sees the need to reduce expenses.

Although “The Wiz,” Charlie’s numbers-cruncher, tells him, “The food division is the engine that drives the whole corporation,” Charlie demands the food division payroll be cut by 20%.

The Wiz protests, “That’s 2,000 people.”

Wolfe writes,” The word people, as opposed to words they had been using, payroll and employment situations, jarred Charlie for a moment.… ‘That is a lot.'”

Here’s your writing assignment:

Find other examples elsewhere in print (fiction and/or nonfiction) in which changing the noun used to refer to something changes how readers perceive it. The “something” could be a person, a group of people, an object, activity, or action. For each example you identify, determine why changing just one word changes people’s attitude at least momentarily.

In a nonfiction text, explain how word choices influence people’s perceptions. Use examples from your research to support your analysis.

Format your response as a digital document, providing hyperlinks to your examples. Please confine your responses to no more than [750] words. The deadline for this assignment is [date].

©2020 Linda G. Aragoni

Is virtual reality in your head?

cover of Crichton novel that suggested the writing promptWhile reading Michael Crichton’s novel 1994 Disclosure for my blog of reviews of the 20th century’s bestselling fiction, I ran across a sentence that I wrote in my notebook of things to think about.

Here’s  the sentence:

“We all live everyday in virtual environments, defined by our ideas.”

The term virtual reality was first used in 1982 in a science fiction novel, so Crichton’s use of the term just over a decade later to describe people’s thought processes was really very insightful.

4 icons each representing virtual reality
Each icon reveals a different aspect of Virtual Reality.

Our students probably have more experience with virtual reality than Crichton had in 1994 and have probably given the topic far less thought. I’m going to suggest a writing prompt that will force students to think about both the meaning of the term virtual reality and about human behavior.

Each icon at the left represents some aspect of the concept of virtual reality. Thinking about why the artist chose particular elements to draw may help students define virtual reality.

You may need to use informal writing to force students to examine each icon carefully enough to note the similarities and differences.

(Note: All four icons are available from thenounproject.com.)

Formal writing prompt about virtual reality

In his 1994 novel Disclosure,  which is set in a company that is building a virtual reality application, Michael Crichton says this: “We all live everyday in virtual environments, defined by our ideas.”

Here’s the writing assignment:

Explain how a person’s ideas function like a technology-generated virtual reality environment. Illustrate how that process works by referring to three or more individuals whose ideas lead/led them to behave in ways that are/were significantly different from the behavior of people around them. Include an example drawn from at least two of these three categories:

  • A living individual
  • An person born in the 20th century who is no longer living.
  • A character from a literary work.

Try to avoid having all your examples be of individuals whose behavior most people would probably consider “good” or having all your examples be of individuals whose behavior most people would probably consider “bad.” (Too many similar examples are boring.)

One last note for teachers

Many students don’t complete assignments because they take too long getting started. For that reason, you might want to prepare the way for this assignment by having students write informally on several different days before you give this assignment about people whose behavior was significantly different from those around them.

You could start by having students think about a living individual whose behavior diverges from that of people around him/her. News stories provide plenty, ranging from Nikolas Cruz to Greta Thunberg.

For historical figures, students might find it easiest to think about prominent people in various fields: Thomas Edison, Richard Nixon, Neil Armstrong, Gen. Douglas MacArthur.

A formal prompt on word choices

A McDonald's in France
Service-au-volant. McCafé.  How do you say “Micky D’s” in French?

Since today’s a non-school day and Black Friday, rather than give you a long post, I’m just going to refer you to a formal writing prompt I posted earlier this week at PenPrompts. The prompt is how word choices even in the definitions of terms can influence people’s thinking.

The word students are assigned to work with is globalization.

If you teach journalism or an ELA unit on media, you may want to take a look at the prompt. And you might be able to get a social studies teacher to accept the assignment for credit there, too. Click here to see the prompt.

Jp Valery

Nobody minds. Or do they?

A formal writing prompt

As a writing prompt starter today, I have a quote from Jane Austen.  I was reminded of it while reading a John Grisham novel about a Klansman who bombed a Jewish lawyer’s office in 1967.

Sometimes the way my mind works is downright scary.

Introduction to the writing prompt

In her novel Mansfield Park, Jane Austen writes “Nobody minds having what is too good for them.” Think about that.

  • What does it mean to have “something that’s too good for you”?
  • What kinds of things might be said to be “too good for” another person?
  • What does the phrase “too good for you” imply about the relationship between the person speaking and the person being spoken to?

Identify situations in which person A had something that person B regarded as too good for person A. Choose three such situations including at least two of these three types:

  1. A situation in which you were personally involved
  2. A situation you saw in person or on a TV/movie screen
  3. A situation you read about in a piece of literature.

The writing prompt itself

In an informative/expository text, discuss whether Jane Austen is correct when she says, “Nobody minds having what is too good for them.”

Support your opinion by describing three situations chosen from the numbered list in the introduction in which the person who has “something too good for them” is either content or discontent with his/her situation. Be sure you include the correct titles of published works to which you refer.

Please limit your text to [number] words. Your assignment is due [date].

Suggestions for success

You have three options in responding to this prompt. You can:

  • Agree totally with Austen’s comment
  • Disagree totally with Austen’s comment
  • Say that circumstances determine whether she is right or wrong.

Be cautious if any of your examples that might be embarrassing to someone your readers are likely to know. Providing you tell your readers you changed the names, it’s OK to use fictitious names.

Suggestions for teachers

This prompt would tie in nicely with a discussion of figurative language.

Instead of hoping students read the complete prompt, you may want to give students the three questions in its introduction as informal writing prompts before you distribute the assignment. That way you can be sure the entire class read the introduction.

You may want to limit the students’ choices of situations to tie them more closely to your syllabus.

Applied creative writing

Outside the English classroom, there is little demand for people to write imaginative fiction. There is, however, a great demand for people who are imaginative enough to present dull, factual material in creative ways.

Photo of tree with twisted trunk
Not everything creative is imaginary. Sometimes facts are given a creative twist.

Students planning to be engineers, money market managers, or high school English teachers will need to be creative; they probably won’t be required to invent fictional worlds. Surprisingly, many students who recoil from writing fiction relish writing assignments that allow them to be creative without asking that they be imaginative.

Today I’m going to give you a formal writing prompt that requires students to write a literary character analysis using a rather unusual approach suggested by sports writers at a newspaper for which I worked who nicknamed one of the reporters, “Miss Center of the Universe.”

Here’s the material students see:

Writing prompt on literary characterization

You’re probably familiar with the practice of people who have advanced academic degrees putting initials after their names to indicate how they want to be known: MD, PhD, DDS, FNP, CG, DMA, MIS. In this assignment, you’ll apply a similar process to a literary character.

    • Pick a fictional work you have read.
    • Identify the protagonist in that work.
    • Create a “credential” that summarizes how the protagonist wants to be regarded. The credential must be able to be initialized in 2-5 characters.

In an informative/expository text, discuss why you think that credential is an accurate representation of the protagonist’s self-concept. Consider:

    • What the character says of himself/herself that supports your analysis.
    • Incidents involving the character that support your analysis.
    • What other characters say about the protagonist that support your analysis.

Be sure you give readers a way to find the information to which you refer in the work you are discussing. Depending on the work you chose, that might be a chapter number, a page number in a particular edition of a book, etc.

Please keep your analysis to no more than 650 words.

Note to ELA teachers

You may want to modify the prompt to confine it to just literature read for your class, or to just novels, etc.

To help students get into this writing prompt, it may be helpful to have students pick characterizing phrases for how athletes or characters in movies or TV shows see themselves and build credentials from those phrases. For example, “World’s Best Dad” and “Just a Cop” would become WBD and JC.

Photo by Jeremy Bishop on Unsplash

ELA writing prompt: Goal directed

This formal writing prompt is for use in an ELA course focused on teaching students to write. The prompt encourages students to draw upon their learning in their English courses and their other courses and upon their knowledge of current events.

Here’s the prompt

Many times in life, a short-term focus ignores long-term effects. Consider the implications of that statement by thinking about individuals who are (or were) goal-directed toward long-term payoffs.  In your analysis, include:

  • one literary character
  • one historical person
  • one living person.

In an informative-explanatory text, identify and describe the risks each person took in maintaining his/her long-term focus. What, if any negative consequences did each individual suffer as a result of adhering to a long-term goal? Identify via hyperlinks reliable information sources you consulted to support your assertions.

If you wish, in your final paragraph you may identify any relationship you see between the kinds of goals the individuals pursued and their success or failure at achieving their goals.

Please keep your text to under 650 words. Submit it as a digital text.

Extend the usefulness of this writing prompt

Writing a paragraph on a subject sometimes suggests to a student that there’s more to say on that subject. In that way, prompts that fall naturally into a three-point format, as this one does, are useful for getting students to identify a topic for a longer research paper. You might give students an informal writing prompt after they’ve done this assignment in which you ask them to:

  • identify the example they used which they think could be developed into a research paper, and
  • identify two or three subtopics that that paper might include.

Any time you can get students thinking about future uses of anything they are doing in your ELA class, milk the opportunity for all it’s worth.

Formal writing prompt: Cui bono?

Today, I’m going to give suggest a formal writing prompt that could be used in an English language arts course just about any time during the academic year, although February  and May are obvious choices.

You might want to collaborate with a social studies teacher in preparing students for this assignment, with you guiding students toward suitable literary fiction and your colleague handling the historical elements.

Cui bono injustice?

Americans traditionally celebrate their national political holidays— Presidents’ Day, Martin Luther King Day, Memorial Day, Independence Day, Veterans’ Day—as memorials of fights against injustice. While Americans bemoan the victims of injustice, as we should, we typically ignore the beneficiaries of injustice. If we want to prevent continued injustices, it is vital to identify the past beneficiaries of injustice and how those people were or are allowed to continue to benefit.

In an informative/expository text, identify and discuss three beneficiaries of injustice done to Americans. The targets of injustice may be individuals or groups; the beneficiaries also may be either individuals or groups.
Your discussion must include:

  • one example from history prior to your birth,
  • one example from literary fiction, and
  • one example from your personal experience or personal observation.

Be sure you define what constitutes injustice. Also identify why people who were not beneficiaries allowed the injustice to continue. Don’t rely on generalizations: Give specific information cited from reputable sources.

Please keep your text to under 750 well-chosen words.

Notes about this writing prompt

The title of this post uses a Latin legal phrase, cui bono, which means, “Who benefits?” The phrase is applied to a strategy for identifying crime suspects, since criminals usually commit crimes because they derive some benefit from those crimes. Students will come across the phrase in many different occupations, so teach it along with giving the writing prompt.

Before you use this prompt, I suggest you line up literary nonfiction that deals with injustices that you could have students read or that you could at least recommend. The most difficult part of this prompt for ELA teachers and students is making sure students present specific information about the benefits of injustice. To say, for example, that slaveholders got workers for a nominal investment is a generalization. Zora Neal Hurston’s Barracoon documents how much money was made by selling slaves from non-slavery states south to slave-holding states.

Nature and human nature: a writing prompt

In the last two weeks, Hurricane Dorian displayed the awesome power of Nature and triggered displays of human nature, some of which were less than awesome.

Thinking about what we’ve watched on the news suggests an English language arts writing prompt that is timely but won’t go out of date.

The formal writing prompt

Here’s the core of a formal writing prompt on natural and human-aided disasters:

John C. Mutter writes in his book The Disaster Profiteers, “It is human nature more than Nature that makes disasters so terrible.”

Thinking of a natural disaster that’s occurred in the last 24 months, use digital and print news sources to explore how human nature compounded the effects of the natural consequences.

Write an informative/explanatory text in which you support Mutter’s assertion that, “It is human nature more than Nature that makes disasters so terrible.”

Format your response for reading as a digital document. Please keep your text to under 650 words.

By way of additional help, I suggest you tell students they must:

    • include their definition of human nature.
    • use both print and digital sources
    • include live links to your sources
    • summarize information to which you refer except for brief quotation of strikingly effective language.

Appropriate uses for this formal writing prompt

This prompt would be appropriate for students reading Mutter’s book, a literary nonfiction work I’ve recommended here earlier. It would also be a good prompt for students studying research and source use.

©2019 Linda G. Aragoni

Literary writing prompt: real characters

Here’s the core of a formal writing prompt that uses a quotation from Pearl S. Buck to get students thinking about literary characterization.


Author Pearl S. Buck, the first woman to win the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction, was regularly asked by readers whether characters in her novels “were real people.” Here’s how she responded:

Of course they are real people, created from the dust of memory and breathed upon by love. Yet not one of the lived outside my books exactly as they do within them.*

Here’s your writing assignment:

Explain how the way you define “real people” affects how you personally understand and appreciate a novel.

Here are some issues to consider:

1.  Think about what Buck means when she says her characters are real people. Do you think her definition of “real people” is the same as her readers’ definition?

2. Identify an example of a novel in which the characters are “real people” as Buck defined the term, but not “real people” as her readers defined the term.

3. Do you tend to define “real people” as Buck does or as her readers’ did?


It might be interesting to have students respond to this prompt once near the beginning of a year and again near the end, using different novels as their examples, to see if their study of literature changes the way they view works of literature.

*the quotation is from Buck’s autobiographical work My Several Worlds: A Personal Record., New York: John Day, 1954, p. 250.