“Shredding” Assignment Sheets: One Thing a Writing Instructor Can Do to Prepare Future Proposal Writers

Kathryn Meeks, PhD Student, Professional and Technical Writing Instructor, GMU

When George Mason University decided to move its classes online last Spring semester following the disruption of the COVID-19 pandemic, that meant—with just a week of prep time—my professional and technical writing class would be online too. Almost immediately, I was overwhelmed with emails and messages from my students. I knew that moving online and facing a worldwide health crisis meant that my students would have lots of questions and need some time to adjust to our new teaching and learning format. However, I also expected that my upper-level university students would take care to read all my instructions and assignment sheets, especially because we were no longer meeting face-to-face. This was not the case.

I don’t know how many hours I spent responding to questions that I had already answered in my assignment sheets. “How long should my white paper be?” “What font should my assignment be in?” “Double-spaced or single spaced?” “My margins are at 1.5, is that ok?” “Should I use section headers?” “Do I need a cover sheet?” “Where should the page numbers go?” “What do I put in my running header?” “Should I use footnotes or a references page?” For a class filled with students who were either graduating and entering the professional world, or beginning professional summer internships, I felt that this was unacceptable. How am I training my students to become the compliant, detail-oriented professional writers they need to be? How am I teaching my students to be compliant to the constraints, directions, and guidelines of my assignments? (Or any of their assignments for that matter.)

In my Advanced Proposal Writing graduate course we practiced shredding RFPs. I found this exercise to be very helpful. The act of creating my document and paying detailed attention to the compliance requirements of an RFP early on in my writing process pushed me in a positive, productive, forward direction. So, I began requiring my students to critically read their assignment prompts. I ask my students to “shred” their assignment prompts.

Five Components of Shredding

My students must identify five necessary components in their assignment prompts:

  1. The main purpose of their assignment.
  2. The target audience of their assignment (who they might be writing for within the assignment) and the true audience of their assignment (usually the professor or whoever grades the assignment).
  3. The genre of their assignment (what style and form of writing they will be doing and what will their reader be expecting from their writing).
  4. The formatting requirements including length, font, margins, arrangement or structure, formatting style, required sources, and any other formatting details.
  5. And finally, the deadline(s) and due dates.

Once my students have identified these five components, they must set-up their document, with the proper formatting, so they are ready to begin writing. Sometimes this activity even pushes my students past the “I have no idea how to start” feeling.

My students quickly learned that even an “assignment prompt” is a genre, one that may look very different across disciplines and spaces, but one that they can expect to have the above listed components. My students also quickly learned that if they start their assignment by identifying each of the above components, they start their work with a clear vision of their end product. More importantly, I impress upon my students that compliance to the assignment sheet is absolutely essential to their success the same way that compliance will be expected and essential to their success in writing for proposals.

While I have asked my students in previous semesters to shred their assignment sheets, that activity has now become critical in the virtual learning environment. This attention to detail and dedication to compliance is one more tool I can put in my students’ writing kit before they head into the professional world. If I can encourage a practice of “shredding” assignment sheets—that’s one small way I can contribute to the shaping of future proposal writers.