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Writing in Literature: Writing the Prompt Paper

Summary:

These sections describe in detail the assignments students may complete when writing about literature. These sections also discuss different approaches (literary theory/criticism) students may use to write about literature. These resources build on the Writing About Literature materials.

Contributors:J. Case Tompkins
Last Edited: 2013-12-06 10:29:39

Whether you are given a selection of prompts to choose from or just one, knowing something about the various sorts of writing prompts can help you understand what your teacher expects and how you should approach the project.

“Compare and Contrast”

This classic writing prompt can be quite challenging because it sounds almost as if you are being asked to compile a list of similarities and differences. While a list might be of use in the planning stage, this prompt asks you to use what you discover to arrive at a conclusion about the two works under discussion.

Example: “Compare and contrast the two endings for Dickens’ Great Expectations paying special attention to the situation of Stella at the close of the novel.”

Strategy:

  1. Find three or four elements from the texts upon which to base your comparison.
  2. Examine possible connections and determine a thesis.
  3. Base your outline around the elements you’ve chosen, remembering to give equal coverage to each side.

“Discuss the theme of x as it appears in works a, b, and c.”

This is an extended or re-named compare and contrast prompt. In this situation, you are given a general theme, such as “loss of innocence” or “self-revelation.” Your job is to use the instances of that theme to arrive at some general conclusions regarding how the theme works in the text you are analyzing.

Example: “Discuss the ways in which Shakespeare talks about the passing of time in three of the sonnets we read for class.”

Strategy:

  1. Re-read carefully the selected works looking specifically for the theme or motif in question. Then research the ways in which other critics have examined this theme.
  2. Determine your argument. Will you make a claim for similarity (“A, b, and c use x in much the same way.”), difference (“A, b, and c, when dealing with x, take highly individual approaches.”), or superiority (“While a and b deal with x, c clearly demonstrates a richer, more nuanced treatment.”)?
  3. Organize your paper around the works, making each point deal thoroughly with a discrete work. Remember that connections are of the utmost importance for this paper, so pay close attention to your transitions.

“What is the role of women/the role of class/the role of the Other as presented in this work?”

All three examples above serve as first steps to the larger world of literary theory and criticism. Writing prompts like this ask you to examine a work from a particular perspective. You may not be comfortable with this new perspective. Chances are that since your instructor has given you such an assignment, the issues in question will be at least partially covered in class.

Example: “Discuss the ways in which the outsider or Other is dealt with in James Joyce’s story “The Dead.”

Strategy:

  1. Categorize the persons or characters in the piece. What are they in the most general, stereotypical way? Male or female? Lower or upper class? Natives or foreigners? Strangers or friends?
  2. Examine the ways in which the characters you’ve categorized fit or don’t fit into the boxes you’ve assigned them. Do they support or undermine the categories, and what do others (including the author) say about them and their place in the world?
  3. Write your paper as if you were giving a new definition (or an amended definition)of the category in question using the text as your guide. Your main points should highlight the ways in which the text uses or discards the accepted categories.

“Critic A has famously said “B” about this work. In light of our study of the piece in question, would you agree or disagree, why or why not?”

This sort of question is often asked as an in-class essay, but can appear as a prompt for larger papers. The goal of a question like this is to give you the opportunity to deal with the critical voices of others in your own writings.

Example: “C.S. Lewis has said that Chaucer is “our foremost poet of joy” in the English language, and in this field he “has few equals and no masters.” Discuss how this applies to the ending of “The Knight’s Tale” from The Canterbury Tales.”

Strategy:

  1. Read and re-read the quote from the prompt several times. Ask yourself what seems to be the quote’s central claim.
  2. Apply that claim to the relevant passage or work. In a way, you are being asked not to examine the literature so much as the claim about the literature. Does it hold up to scrutiny in light of the actual text?
  3. Your instructor would be equally pleased whether you agree or disagree with the critic’s views as long as you do so in a scholarly fashion. Structure your paper around the claims made by the quote and use lines from the text to support your own reaction.

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