Questions in essays

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1. Any essay questions you have been asked to answer should be written out – both accurately and in full:

  • on the rough notes for your essay plan
  • on the first and final drafts of the essay itself

2. Doing this will help you to understand its key terms and its instruction terms and to keep the essay topic(s) in mind whilst you are planning and writing the essay.

3. It should also help you to relate each part of your argument to the question whilst you are in the process of writing the essay.

4. Some people find it useful to write out the question on a card. This is then kept propped up before them as a constant reference point and a reminder whilst they are planning and writing the essay.

5. When writing an essay, you should repeatedly refer back to the question and ask yourself – "Is my argument relevant to what has been asked for? Am I answering the question and following its specific instructions?"

6. Essays which do not start with the question written out in full are almost always those which wander off the subject in question. The reason for this seems to be that without the specific topics (and limits) set by questions before them, many students feel free to change the subject or treat it in a different way to that required. Do yourself a favour – always write out the question.

Asking questions

7. When writing an essay, try to avoid presenting your argument in the form of questions or ‘queries to yourself’. This too often has the effect of subtly changing the subject of the essay.

8. Avoid expressions such as – ‘but is this really true?’, ‘can we tolerate this any longer?’, or ‘but what would have happened if Thatcher had not ordered the invasion at that time?’

9. Remember that you have been asked to answer the question or discuss the issue which the essay rubric poses. It is your task to provide a response or an answer. You should be generating an argument which puts forward ideas and observations of your own on the topic(s) in question.

10. If you wish to make the point that something is a problem or that differences of opinion on the subject exist – then just say so. You should also say what those differences are, and go on to relate them to the question.

11. Be prepared to explain the problem or explore these differences of opinion, giving examples and explaining their relevance to the original question.

12. Do not include any observations on how difficult the essay question is to answer. Even if this is true, your task is to provide an answer. Remember that you should not normally include within an essay any comments on how you came to compose it. [The only exception to this is a report in which you have been asked to include such comments.]

13. In almost all cases, the golden rule is as follows:

Do not be tempted to raise questions in essays – unless you are going to answer them.

© Roy Johnson 2003

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