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How to Analyse an Essay Question

When writing an essay, it is crucial that you actually answer the essay question. To do so effectively, you must first analyse the essay question thoroughly so that you fully understand it. This includes working out which kind of essay you are expected to write. There are two main types of essays: explanatory essays and argumentative essays.

An explanatory (or informative) essay, as its name implies, is an essay that explains or presents a certain topic in a descriptive way, conveying the information in detail. This type of essay is intended to educate readers and perhaps enable them to see the topic from a different perspective, but it is not intended to change their opinion.

In an argumentative essay, the writer’s opinions are needed. In this type of essay, you must include information about the topic as well as your own argument, personal ideas or viewpoints on the topic. When writing an argumentative essay, you need to demonstrate both your knowledge of the topic and your analytical skills.

Essay questions usually contain ‘task’ or ‘command’ words that will tell you whether you need to write an explanatory or an argumentative essay, and more specifically, how to go about it.

Explanatory essay questions may include the following task words: account for, analyse, clarify, compare, contrast, define, describe, elaborate, enumerate, explain, explore, how far, identify, illustrate, outline, prove, relate, state or summarise. They may ask also what, why or how?

In argumentative essay questions, possible task words include analyse, argue, assess, comment on, criticise, discuss, evaluate, examine, explain, interpret, justify, reconcile, review and to what extent. Or you may be asked a yes or no question, in which case you will need to justify your answer.

Note that some of the task words are included in both categories, depending on how much argument or assessment is required.

But what if you have tried to analyse the question and you still do not understand what it is asking you to do? First, check your course information booklet or website. Textbooks, lecture notes and recommended books may help you to get some ideas. And if you really do not understand what the question is asking you to do, your tutor or lecturer can help you. Do not hesitate to consult with them right away so you can address the problem before researching and writing your essay.

Updated 21 October 2018

Dr Ellen McRae,

Managing Editor,

Elite Editing.