Writing essays

Understanding essay questions

Identify key words & process words

The ‘key words’ in an essay question allow you to identify what you are supposed to write about. Use the strategies below to break questions down in to manageable chunks.

Introductory question or statement

Example 1

Full question: “What is meant by shock advertising? Evaluate the arguments for and against the use of shock advertising by marketers.”
Extract the basic question:
Evaluate the arguments for and against the use of shock advertising by marketers.”
Remaining words introduce the topic and give focus. They are not key to the question.

Example 2 

Full question: “Popular magazines for men and women are selfish, superficial and obsessed with sex. Discuss, making reference to at least one magazine.”
Extract the basic question:
“Discuss, making reference to at least one magazine.”
The process word ‘discuss’ refers back to the topic in the initial statement.
The initial statement is vital to understanding the question in this case.
Possible actions: Take out the introductory/initial question or statement to see what effect it has on your question.
If the question feels like it has missing information, look for what is missing in the initial statement.

Example 3 - Identify the meaning words

Question: "What is meant by shock advertising? Evaluate the arguments for and against the use of shock advertising by marketers."
Analysis: The initial question is struck out because it is not vital to understanding the essay question.
Green indicates the process word (in this case 'Evaluate'). This tells you how to approach the paper.
The words in blue carry all the meaning. Work out their significance. Use your knowledge of the subject to help you do that.

Remember:

'Arguments’ carries the same meaning as ‘for and against’ so it doesn’t add anything further to the question.

The concept of ‘use’ is implied by the topic ‘shock advertising’. Check whether you need to distinguish ‘use’ from ‘concept’, as this could be a key word as well.

Examples of essay titles (Word doc)

Understanding process words

The process word tells you what structure your essay will take: linear, two sided, argumentative?

Remember to:

  • Pick out the verb in the question – the word that tells you what to do in the paper
  • Understand what that word means (download our list of process words below)
  • Structure your essay around that word

Go to chapter on 'Structuring your essay' to help you structure your essay based on the process word.

List of process words and their meanings (word doc)