Wednesday, 13 November 2013

Essay writing: the question

When answering an essay question it is important that before you start writing
you know exactly what the question is asking, so as to be able to answer it appropriately. I read a lot of essays that are either: too descriptive,  answer another question, start by answering the question and then move off target, provide a thorough background to all the issues raised by the question but never actually answer it. This is always difficult for me to see because their authors have spent a lot of time and effort in the research and writing, being let down only by the failure to fully understand the question.

There are a number of methods for analysing questions that I will recommend to you here. Some of them only work for certain question types (or certain students) but most of them have been useful to me at one time or another:
1.           Rewrite the question: Begin “This question is asking me to . . .”, use your own words to complete (translate into your own language if you prefer) and then use this for writing your plan (Planning) and as a check as you write the essay.
2.           Write out the question and: highlight ‘topic’ words to help you recognise the content required in the essay – list the sources you might use to answer and summarise your existing knowledge (briefly); highlight ‘restricting’ words so you know where the limits lie in relation to the topic – this should insure against going off on a tangent; highlight/underline the instruction words (discuss (Discuss), identify, examine, evaluate, explain, analyse, compare, contrast, criticise etc.) – check you know what each of these requires you to do (see future posts on this blogspot) and be aware that questions that are not specific may: imply the need for a comparison and /or contrast; ask for cause and/or effect relationships to be exposed; imply that an opinion needs to be given; imply the need for evaluation;
3.           Be aware that questions may involve more than one task, meaning that you will need to separate the question into sections and respond to each one;
4.           When you have time, visit the library and look at questions on past exam papers to practice your analytical abilities.
Once you have analysed your question to your satisfaction this forms the basis of your plan and introduction (and eventually your conclusion). The notes you have made for point 1. combined with your restricted topic summary point 2. will need minimal rewriting and becomes your introduction – it will be an introduction to an essay that answers the question!

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