Interpretation of the Question


Often, and for the best of motives, our problems in essay writing begin the very moment we are given the question. Anxious to get on with the work and not fall behind, we skip the interpretation stage and launch straight into our research. As a result, we read sources and take notes without a clear idea of what’s relevant, beyond some very general idea of the subject of the essay. Then finally, after hours of toil, tired and frustrated, and no clearer about what we’re doing, we’re left with a pile of irrelevant, unusable notes.


Take the first of these: the structure. In the following chapters you will learn how to unwrap the meaning and implications of the question, so that, before you go off to do your research, you will have prepared for yourself a clear structure of the issues that the question raises, so you know what you’re looking for. In many questions this will develop out of your analysis of the key concepts in the question. Most of us struggle to do this well, but the skills involved can be easily learnt. You will be shown a simple three-step technique for analysing the most difficult concepts.

Range of abilities

Then, once you’ve brainstormed your ideas and know what questions you want your sources to answer, there’s just one more thing you need to be sure about before you begin your research. You must be clear about the range of abilities the examiner wants to see you use. Otherwise you may find yourself tackling the essay in a way that doesn’t answer the question, and noting information that is irrelevant.

Revealing the Structure

Obviously it’s important to realise that you’re not embarking on a piece of open-ended research. You’re answering a particular question that raises particular sharply focused issues. You must, therefore, be rigorously selective in collecting your material in the research stage, and in planning and writing the essay. You should use only material that is relevant to answering this question

Analyse the key concepts

With these warnings in mind it’s essential to pin down two things: how many parts there are to the question and what weight you will need to give to each part. With many questions these structural problems can be solved by analysing the key concepts used in the question. Indeed, in most, if you fail to do this, the examiners will deduct marks: they will expect to see you show that you can analyse difficult abstract concepts and allow this to influence, if not determine, the structure of the essay.

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