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Understanding what the essay question/topic means and what it is asking you to do are important for the essay writing process. Making an error here will mean your essay will probably fail to meet your marker's expectations.

Essay questions can have a number of different parts. For example:

  1. a statement of fact or a quotation to direct the student to the topic

  2. a question (or several questions)

  3. instructions to the student

  4. guidelines for the scope of the essay

Look at the sample essay question below to see how the above 4 points are included.

Punishment is often used by people trying to change the behaviour of children.(1) What are some of the positive and negative results of using punishments? (2) Based on the evidence you present, make your own conclusions about whether punishment is a useful strategy for altering children's behaviour. (3&4)

Rephrasing the question

A great help in analysing an essay question is to rewrite it into your own words. This is a good way of ensuring that you fully understand the question and can be a good starting point for writing a draft introduction. When rephrasing, be very careful that you keep the original meaning of the question; otherwise you may end up with an essay that doesn't answer the question. If you are in real doubt about the meaning of an essay question, check your understanding of what it means with the lecturer concerned.

Here's an example:

Advertisers spend millions of dollars to get famous people to talk about their products. Review some of the psychological research evidence on what makes a person an effective source of persuasive messages.

Rephrased version:

Psychological research evidence documents the factors which make some famous people good as a source of persuasive messages. Review this evidence.

Analysing the essay question

Directive Words

Directive Words are words in the essay topic that give you a clue about the way you are expected to answer the question. Below are some definitions of directive words.

Directive word




Critically analyse







Show the meaning of something, by breaking it down into its separate parts and examining each part in detail

Present the case for and/or against a particular idea/topic/point of view

Look for similarities and differences between ideas/topics

Investigate and explain the nature and relative importance of the different parts, definitions or concepts of a question and explain why they are interrelated. Also discuss the strengths and weaknesses of the definition and concepts

Give your judgement about the merit of theories or opinions about the truth of facts, and back your judgement by a discussion of the evidence

Investigate or examine by argument, sift and debate, giving reasons for and against

Make an appraisal of the worth of something, in the light of its apparent truth or usefulness; include your personal opinion

Present in depth and investigate the implications. Draw conclusions

Make plain, interpret, and account for in detail.

Explain and make clear by the use of examples, or by the use of a figure or diagram

Show adequate reasons for decisions or conclusions

Highlight main features without going into considerable detail

Give a concise account of the chief points or substance of a matter, omitting details and examples

Adapted from Marshall & Rowland (1996). A guide to learning independently.

Melbourne: Addison Wesley Longman Australia Pty. Ltd.

It is most important that you remember what the directive word is in your essay tropic and structure your answer around that. If you don’t, you risk failing your essay.

Content Words

Content Words in essay topics give you a clue about the topic/area you need to be researching and writing about. For example, Content Words might be:

  • computer security

  • higher education

  • global warming

Often words can have more than one meaning. Make sure you use a dictionary to find out the appropriate meaning of the Content Words in your essay topic.

Limiting Words

Limiting Words in essay topics provide you with a boundary, or a limit, for your research and writing. In other words they give you a clue about how broad or narrow your research for the topic needs to be. For example, an essay topic might ask you to investigate the experience of first year university students. ‘First year’ are the limiting words. This means you should read and write about first year students only, not second, third or fourth year students. Knowing what the limiting words are can help save you time in researching and helps ensure you answer the exact question. Doing exactly what the essay topic asks is essential in essay writing.

Example of an essay topic:

Fire is a vital influence on Australian biotic patterns. Discuss the adaptations that allow Australian plants and animals to survive in periodically burned landscapes.

Directive Word = Discuss

Content Words = Fire, adaptations of plants and animals

Limiting Words = Australia, periodically burned landscapes

You can probably see how important it is to spend time thinking about the Directive Words, Content Words and Limiting Words before you begin reading and researching. In the example above you could waste a lot of time researching the adaptations of plants and animals in countries other than Australia if you forgot to focus on the Limiting Words.

Understanding the essay topic/question is important because it helps you to have a focus for your reading/research.

For more help with ‘understanding the task’ in essay writing, go to the Library’s e-tutor site ‘Learn how to start researching – topic analysis’ at the following address:




A good essay is based on your evaluation of evidence from dependable texts and authorities in the subject area. It is not based solely on your opinion.

The research process is one that should provide you with an understanding of the topic covered in your essay question and enough information to construct an answer to your question.

Before you begin researching, ask yourself:

  • Do you know what the question means?

  • Do you know what your essay must do?

Reading broadly (getting the ‘big picture’)

Sometimes when you start reading for an essay you can end up feeling confused by too many facts or too much information. This can happen when you read material that is too detailed, before you have an overall 'picture' of the topic. The early stages of reading in preparation for an assignment should be about getting the 'big picture' of the topic by reading broadly.

Reading broadly will allow you to:

  • begin to understand the key issues involved in the topic;

  • see possible answers to the essay question;

  • get an overview of theories related to the topic;

  • get an idea of who the most important writers are in the field; and,

  • decide what issues/books/journals to read in more detail.

To get this big picture, you need to read things like:

  • your lecture notes (which will probably give you a brief overview of the topic);

  • an introductory text in your discipline of study, such as Introduction to computing. This will give you a very detailed overview of the full range of topics in your discipline; and,

  • very general texts.

Reading narrowly (getting the detail)

Reading narrowly is about making sure that the point of view you have developed is an appropriate one. It means you have to search for texts that detail some of the finer issues that you identified as being part of the big picture. To find these more detailed texts, you'll find that the bibliography in the introductory text you read will be a good start. It will point to:

  • texts that are dependable (because they appear in a standard introductory text this suggests they are dependable)

  • more detailed texts on the specific topic

  • texts that relate to the points you still have to research

  • writers in the subject area who are valued

Remember that you will need to use some of the strategies suggested in the sections of this booklet titled ‘Academic Reading’ and ‘Critical Thinking’ as you carry out this narrow reading.

You will reach a point in reading broadly when you feel that you have an understanding of the overall topic. To move forward, you will also need to have identified the key issues that require more detailed research. This identification of issues to be researched will allow you to read more narrowly and in a way that will help you gather information around important themes.

For example, you may have read broadly for the question:

'When an emergency situation occurs, people watching often fail to help. Research into this phenomenon refers to the Bystander Effect. Explain what this effect is, what causes it and how it can be minimised'

and have decided that the following factors are important in any discussion or argument about this topic:

  • definition of the Bystander Effect

  • classic examples of the effect

  • factors leading to this situation

  • factors which can minimise it

To gather detailed information, you may need to read:

  • texts referenced in your unit outline

  • the library's reference collection

  • electronic databases and journals

  • reference lists in your introductory text or relevant books or articles.

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