Skip to Main Content

Getting Started


Understanding Assignment Tasks

Look for task words in your assignment descriptions to gain clarity about what you need to do before starting to write. Review the definitions of several common task words below:

Task Word What You Need To Do
Analyze Break down a topic/issue into its parts and discuss them
Assess Consider the value/importance of something, discuss positive and negative aspects, and give your own opinion/judgement
Argue Take a position on an issue and support the position with evidence
Compare  Describe similarities and/or differences between things
Contrast  Look at the differences between things
Critique Identify positive and negative points and evaluate them
Define  Give a clear, detailed, and precise meaning
Describe Identify characteristics or qualities; often means to outline the main points
Discuss Identify and analyze important components of a topic/issue; often includes identifying how points relate to one another as well as the important questions/implications relating to the topic
Evaluate See assess
Examine See discuss
Explain Make a concept/topic understandable; often answers the questions 'why' or 'how'
Illustrate Make clear by giving an example, in words or a diagram/picture
List Present information in a series of short, discrete points
Outline Give the main points (not details) of a topic in a logical order; often is in point form
Reflect on Examine the personal impact of an experience/issue/information; often includes an examination of the positive and negative aspects as well as future implications
Relate Make or show connections between things
State Give the main ideas of a topic, referring to the examples and supporting ideas (without a lot of detail)
Summarize Provide a concise overview of something by identifying the main points; do not add your own opinion unless asked to by the instructor
Synthesize Group information from multiple sources into categories, themes, or concepts to examine the overall state of knowledge and/or varying perspectives on a topic


Brainstorming Strategies

An important part of the writing process is coming up with ideas to write about. Consider trying some of the brainstorming methods listed below:

What is it?

A list is a point form inventory of ideas.

Why is it helpful?

You can create a pro/con list to help develop an argument, or you can make a list of similarities and differences for a compare/contrast paper.

How do I do it?

  1. Write ideas down as you think of them.
  2. Don't worry about putting the ideas in a specific order.
  3. Colour code or create arrows to show connections among ideas.


sample pro/con list with similar ideas colour coded

What is it?

Mindmapping is a diagram composed of words and/or images linked to and arranged around a central key word or idea.

Why is it helpful?

Mindmaps are used to generate, structure, and classify ideas. They also help you see connections among ideas.

How do I do it?

  1. Start in the center of the page with the main word or image of the topic.
  2. Select key words and images related to the central idea. Draw lines out from that central idea and place each key word/image on its own line.
  3. You can keep building off the central idea, or you can build off the key words and images. Keep drawing lines to show how everything is connected.
  4. When you are finished adding key words and ideas, look at what you have and decide which ideas are useful for the assignment.
  5. Begin organizing and grouping the key words and ideas together.


Sample mindmap with colour coded notes in boxes around a central topic

What is it?

Freewriting is an unedited, uninterrupted period of writing. You set a time limit and then write until the time is up.

Why is it helpful?

Freewriting is useful if your thoughts tend to come from different directions or if you are overly focused on the structure of the writing assignment.

How do I do it?

  1. Set a time limit for yourself. A 10-minute limit is a good place to start.
  2. Don't worry about spelling, punctuation, sentence structure, or grammar. Don't worry about cohesion or unity of ideas. The goal is to simply get ideas onto paper.
  3. When the time is up, stop writing and read the page slowly. Underline the ideas that relate to the assignment you're working on.

What is it?

Questioning encourages an investigative way of thinking about a topic. The goal is to start thinking about your topic from different angles.

Why is it helpful?

Questioning is a great place to start when you have a broad topic to write about.

How do I do it?

For this type of paper Ask these questions

What are the main advantages/ disadvantages of your subject?

What are the reasons in favour of/against your subject?


What are the causes of your subject?

What are the effects or consequences of your subject?


What are the main kinds of your subject?

What are the component parts of your subject?

What are the significant features, characteristics, or functions of your subject?

Compare/Contrast What are the similarities/differences of your subject?
Description What does your subject look, feel, sound, smell, and/or taste like?
Narration How did your subject happen?

How is your subject made or done?

How does your subject work?


How did your subject make you feel?

What did you learn about your subject?



Binfet, J.-T., Trotman, M. L., Henstock, H. D., & Silas, H. J. (2016). Reducing the affective filter: Using canine assisted therapy to support international university students’ English language development. BC TEAL Journal, 1(1), 18-37.  

Creagan, E. T., Bauer, B. A., Thomley, B. S., & Borg, J. M. (2015). Animal-assisted therapy at Mayo Clinic: The time is now. Complementary Therapies in Clinical Practice, 21(2), 101-104. 

House, L. A., Neal, C., & Backels, K. (2018). A Doggone way to reduce stress: An animal assisted intervention with college students. College Student Journal, 52(2), 199-204.   

Pendry, P., Carr, A. M., Vandagriff, J. L., & Gee, N. R. (2021). Incorporating human–animal interaction into academic stress management programs: Effects on typical and at-risk college students’ executive function. AERA Open, 7(1), 1-18.  

Audience and Purpose

Before beginning any writing task, it is important to identify your audience and purpose. Audience and purpose can influence

  • the focus of your topic,
  • the format (email, essay, report, etc.),
  • the language you use, and
  • the level of detail needed.  

Students often assume their audience is their instructor; however, sometimes you will need to write to a more general audience as well (e.g. future nurses, small business owners, current early childhood educators, etc.)

Why is writing to a specific audience important?

You want to make sure readers will understand your ideas. For example, an article on the importance of proper hand-washing written for doctors would be very different than one written for children.


How can I address my audience effectively?

Ask yourself the following questions:

• Who is my audience?

• How will my audience use the information?

• What will likely be my audience's attitude toward the topic?

• How much does my audience already know about the topic? Is background information needed?

• Is there any terminology that needs to be defined?

Look for task words in assignment descriptions to help identify the purpose.

Why is knowing your purpose for writing important?

Knowing your purpose for writing lets you think critically about the information you need and how to format the information in an effective way.


How can I write effectively for different purposes?

Consider the following questions for your assignment's specific purpose:

Purpose Questions To Help You Get Started
To inform What details are needed for the reader to understand your topic/message?
What is the best format to present the information?
To persuade What details or evidence is most convincing?
What language is most convincing?
To entertain How can you make the information interesting?
To instruct What details does the reader need?
How can you break down the information so it is manageable for the reader?
To reflect What details have the most significance?
What have you learned?


Overcoming Writer's Block

Have you ever sat down to write an assignment and had trouble getting words onto the paper? This is a common situation for many students. It's so common, in fact, there's a special name for it: writer's block.

Types of Writer's Block

In order to write, you need to have an idea of what you want to say. Idea blocks make it difficult to generate, organize, or focus on ideas. This, in turn, makes it difficult to write.

Reasons for an Idea Block

  • You are censoring yourself. Negative self-talk, such as "I never have anything good to say," or "My readers will think that's stupid," gets in the way of putting words onto the page.
  • You have too few ideas, and you may feel like you've run out of things to say.
  • You have too many ideas, so you may find it hard to narrow down your ideas. Alternatively, you may also have trouble focusing on one idea at a time.

Tips to Overcome an Idea Block

  • Try some more brainstorming and invention strategies to generate new ideas.
  • Do a bit more research to narrow down your ideas to those with the strongest evidence.
  • Allow for mistakes. First drafts are meant to be edited, so they don't have to be perfect.
  • Do something mindless or active to trigger new ideas.
  • Keep a distraction journal to jot down distracting thoughts (e.g. the laundry to do this weekend or an idea for another assignment) in a notebook and then continue writing.


Even if you have clear ideas of what you want to write, you may still have trouble getting them onto paper. There is a misconception that good writing is the result of inspiration or talent and that without these, there is no point trying to write anything at all. This mindset creates production blocks.

Reasons for a Production Block

  • You don't have a writing routine. Instead, you simply write when you have spare time or when you feel like it.
  • You don't have clear writing goals. While the ultimate goal may be to complete the writing assignment, each writing session should be focused on a particular task.
  • You are surrounded by distractions.

Tips to Overcome a Production Block

  • Schedule your writing time. If you use a caborrowar, block off specific time to write. When that time comes, commit to writing.
  • Set goals and track your progress. Set daily, weekly, and/or monthly writing goals, depending on the scale of the writing project. Write these goals down, cross them off when met, and reward yourself when you complete major goals.
  • Identify distractions and plan how to avoid them. If you're distracted by Instagram, commit yourself to not checking it until you finish your writing session.