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Understanding Writing

Alphabetical list of Handouts & Guides

Words of Wisdom

People will give you all sorts of advice about writing, but if you are not writing something you like, no one else will like it either.

— Meg Cabot

Before you can begin any writing assignment, you need to know exactly what you are being asked to do. The first step is understanding the terms your instructor has used. Luckily, the same terms appear over and over in writing assignments, whether for research papers, lab reports, or essay exams.

Common Writing Assignment Terms

Analyze. Separate a subject into parts and then discuss, examine, or interpret each part and explain how the parts contribute to the whole.

Compare. Examine two or more items or ideas and explain their similarities.

Contrast. Examine two or more items or ideas and describe their differences.

Classify. Place a subject into a category with similar items. Defend or explain how you arrived at that category and how one category differs from another.

Define. Provide the meaning of a term or concept by giving examples, synonyms, antonyms (opposites), etymology (word history), or dictionary definitions. Explain the limits of the definition.

Describe. Give the physical or non-physical qualities and characteristics of an object or idea.

Discuss. Present the pros and cons of an issue. This is sometimes used more broadly to include other terms on this list.

Evaluate. Give a reasoned opinion, usually in terms of the merit of a particular work, idea, or person.

Enumerate. Make a list of a topic’s component ideas, aspects, or parts.

Explain. Clarify something by explaining how it functions, how to do it, or what its causes and effects are.

Identify. Indicate or describe what a thing is, what it’s composed of, or when and where it occurs

Interpret. Comment upon a subject or explain its meaning and significance, i.e., how or why it is important.

Illustrate. Give examples or a description, sometimes by offering a narrative or anecdote or providing a visual representation.

Outline. Give a historical overview, or describe a topic’s main ideas, parts, or structure.

Prove. Argue a position by supporting a claim with evidence.

Summarize. Give main points, highlights of a longer work, or a condensed account of an article, story, or event.

Trace. Give a historical overview or outline of change, or summarize a chronological/sequential order of events.

Also recommended for you:

Selecting a Topic

Creative Commons License This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 3.0 Unported License. You may reproduce it for non-commercial use if you use the entire handout and attribute The University Writing Center, Texas A&M University.

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