How to understand the essay question
As your ﬁrst step in preparing for the essay, take some time to think about what the question means and what you are being asked to do. You may think that the question looks straightforward and want to charge straight in and begin reading, or even writing a ﬁrst draft of your essay.
Although some people take this approach, it is likely that they will fail to grasp the full implications of the question and not produce a good essay. If you work in the way suggested below, your essay should take the right approach to the topic from the outset.
Essay questions are usually worded in one of a number of standard ways: they often start with words and phrases such as discuss, analyse, assess, and to what extent? which give you a hint as to how to deal with the question. Here are some typical instructions and what they mean:
|analyse / examine / investigate||break down an issue into its main features and look at them in detail|
|assess / evaluate / how far? / to what extent?||present your judgement as to how far something is the case, supported by evidence|
|compare||identify the similarities between the stated items|
|contrast||identify the differences between the stated items|
|define||give the exact meaning of; explain in detail|
|describe / give an account of / state||present a detailed account of|
|discuss / do you agree?||present the arguments for and against something|
|explain / what? / why? / how?||show that you understand something fully; display your factual knowledge of an issue|
|explore||look at the issue from different points of view|
|illustrate||present the main features, giving relevant examples|
|outline / trace||present the main aspects of an issue|
|summarize||sum up the main aspects of an issue|
One way to get to grips with a question is to write it out and highlight or underline these instructions and any other words which seem important. Make sure you understand all the words you have highlighted: look them up in a dictionary or your lecture notes or ask your tutor if you are not sure what they mean.
For instance, if answering an essay question which asked you to ‘Assess the risks of global war during the Cuban missile crisis’, you might highlight the key words as follows:
Assess the risks of global war during the Cuban missile crisis
Once you have thought about or investigated each highlighted word, then you should be able to make sense of the question and understand exactly what is expected in your essay. In addition to thinking about the key words, another useful strategy is to write in your own words what you think the question is asking you to do.
Read more about essay preparation in:
How to plan time for essay writing
How to do research for an essay
How to organize material for your essay
Back toWriting essays.
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A side note on titles and abbreviations: This abbreviated title rule does not always apply for the body of your paper. The OED may be called the OED in the body because, although it is an abbreviated form, people actually call it this (at least this is my explanation). Generally, abbreviated titles are only acceptable within citations, e.g. a paper on Love's Labour's Lost, while referring to the entire title in the prose, may, after the play has been identified, thereafter cite simply by using LLL followed by the act, scene and line number(s). However, the author would not say, "When the acting company first performed LLL?"-this is too informal, and while I have seen it done, it is rare and best avoided for our purposes. When we get into writing papers that compare and contrast multiple texts from this course, you'll be able to abbreviate Fight Club as FC and The Talented Mr. Ripley as TTMR in your citations, after the first time you've identified the text by its full name. In general, one word titles are not truncated to a single letter, so we won't be representing Vertigo as V.
Sympathy, as defined by the Oxford English Dictionary, canbe a "favourable attitude of mind towards a party" (OED, n. 3.d.).OR, if you've already mentioned the OED:sympathy can be a "favourable attitude of mind towards a party"(OED, n. 3.d.).OR, if you haven't yet mentioned the OED, and choose to deferidentifying the source until the citation itself, then:sympathy can be a "favourable attitude of mind towards a party"(Oxford English Dictionary, n. 3.d.).
I've attached the OED's entry for sympathy as a noun; as you'll see, there are four main definitions, and #1 and #3 have sub-definitions. The citation I use above shows my reader that I am referring first to the entry for sympathy as a noun, secondly that it is definition number 3, and thirdly that it is sub-definition d. Citing so specifically is crucial, especially since differences between various definitions can often be maddeningly subtle on first examination. If you are using a definition to shape or support your argument, you want to eliminate any possibility of misunderstanding on the part of your reader.