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Writing Guide: Step 1: Understanding the essay question

This guide covers: understanding the essay question; searching databases and organising research; the writing process: critical thinking and note-taking; referencing and citing in text, and using academic language.

Before you start, answer the following critical questions:

  • How does the title link to what I have heard in lectures or read? 
  • Why is this necessary? 
  • What are the important issues to include? 
  • Are there controversial viewpoints that need to be included? 
  • What type of essay is this? (process essay; cause/effect essay; comparison / contrast essay; argumentative essay).

Identify Task, Content & Limiting Words in the Essay Question

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Essay topics contain key words that explain what information is required and how it is to be presented.  Using the essay question below indentify task content & limiting words.  Regardless of your topic or discipline, if you can identify these words in your essay topic, you can begin to consider what you will need to do to answer the question.

Task words: These are words that tell you what to do, for example “compare”, “discuss”, “critically evaluate”, “explain” etc.

Content words: These words in the essay topic will tell you which ideas and concepts should form the knowledge base of the assignment. Refer to subject specific dictionary or glossary.

Limiting words: These words will help you limit the scope of your assignments so that you only discuss those aspects of the topic that have been asked for. Which words limit the subject in some way?

Words, words, words...

Task words are usually verbs and they tell you what to do to complete your assignment.

You need to identify these words, because you will need to follow these instructions to pass the assignment.  As you research and write your assignment, check these words occasionally to make sure you are still doing what you have been asked to do.

Here are some definitions of different academic task words.  Make sure you know exactly what you need to do for your assignment.

Don't try to use them in your research - they aren't things to find, only things to do.

The task words from our sample question are:

Effective communication is considered a core skill in higher education and is usually conveyed through the medium of academic papers and essays. Discuss the process of writing academic essays and critically examine the importance of structure and content.

  • Discuss means to "consider and offer an interpretation or evaluation of something; or give a judgment on the value of arguments for and against something"
  • Examine means to inspect something in detail and investigate the implications

So, you would need to give a short description of what essay writing is all about, and then offer an evaluation of the essay structure and the way it presents content.

The content words are the "meat" of the question - these are things you can research.

Effective communication is considered a core skill in higher education and is usually conveyed through the medium of academic papers and essays. Discuss the process of writing academic essays and critically examine the importance of structure and content.

You will often be asked to talk about "the role" something plays or "processes", "importance", "methods" or "implementations" - but you can't really research these things just by looking for those words.

You need to find the keywords - the most concrete concepts - and search for those.  The information you find about the concrete terms will tell you about the "roles" and "methods", the "process" or the "importance", but they probably won't use those words exactly.

One of the core skills of academic research is learning to extrapolate:  to find the connections in the information you can find that will help you answer the questions which don't have clear, cut-and-dry answers in the books and articles.

So, the core keywords/concepts to research are:

  • "academic writing"
  • essays
  • "higher education"
  • structure and content

Limiting words keep you focused on a particular area, and stop you from trying to research everything in the history of mankind.

They could limit you by:

  • Time (you may be asked to focus on the last 5 years, or the late 20th Century, for example)
  • Place (you may be asked to focus on Australia, or Queensland, or South-East Asia)
  • People groups (such as "women over the age of 50" or "people from low socio-economic backgrounds" or "Australians of Asian descent")
  • Extent (you are only to look at a particular area, or the details you believe are most relevant or appropriate).

Effective communication is considered a core skill in higher education and is usually conveyed through the medium of academic papers and essays. Discuss the process of writing academic essays and critically examine the importance of structure and content.

In this example, you have two limits:

  • "higher education" is the industry focus. This could be expanded to include the tertiary or university sector.
  • Essays - we are concentrating on essay writing as the aspect of communication.  Note that this is also a content word. There can be (and usually is) some crossover.

Sometimes it can help to add your own limits.  With health sciences, you almost always limit your research to the last five or six years. Social sciences  are not as strict with the date range but it's still a good idea to keep it recent.  You could specifically look at the Australian context.  You may decide to focus on the private sector within that industry.

With the question above you could limit yourself to only looking at first year university students.

Sometimes an assignment task will give you phrases or sentences that aren't part of the task at all:  they exist to give you some context.

These can be ignored when you do your research, but you should read over them occasionally as you are writing your assignment.  They help you know what the lecturer was thinking about (and wanted you to think about) when they set that task.

Effective communication is considered a core skill in higher education and is usually conveyed through the medium of academic papers and essays. Discuss the process of writing academic essays and critically examine the importance of structure and content.

You don't have to do anything with the first sentence of this question - but it does get you to think specifically about the "using essays to communicate knoweldge" - something that isn't mentioned in the task itself.

Obviously, whoever wrote the task wants you to think about the assignments as a form of writing and communication.

It is easy to get distracted and go off on tangents when doing your research.  Use the context words to help you keep your focus where it should be.

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Step 1

Topic

Effective communication is considered a core skill in higher education and is usually conveyed through the medium of academic papers and essays. Discuss the process of writing academic essays and critically examine the importance of structure and content.

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