Understanding the Essay Question

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It is important to understand what you are being asked to do before you begin writing an essay.

All essay questions can be broken up into the following components:

  • instructional verb (the approach you must take eg discuss, evaluate, assess)
  • topic (the context of the discussion)
  • specific aspect of the topic (this helps you to narrow down your topic)
  • restrictions imposed on the topic (this will limit your discussion).

The instructional verb is crucial. It will tell you how to approach your writing.

For example, you might be asked to do the following:


Investigate or examine by argument, and look at all the evidence and give reasons for and against.


Decide on the importance of something and give reasons for your decision.


Appraise the worth of something, make your own value judgements, and back them up with argument and justification.

Once you understand the task, you should identify the broad topic and the aspects of the topic you have been asked to write about. This will help you to stay focussed when you start searching for information.