Examining the topic
The first step in writing an essay involves examining the topic so that you understand exactly what is required of you in researching and writing it. Most essay topics include a key word which indicates the approach you are asked to follow. The following explanation will help you to understand what approach each of these key words requires you to take.
Account for: Explain how something came about.
Compare: Look for similarities and differences.
Contrast: Set in opposition in order to bring out differences.
Criticise: Give your judgement about the merit of theories or opinions or about the truth of facts, and back your judgement by a discussion of the evidence.
Define: Set down the precise meaning of a word or phrase. Show that the distinctions implied in the definition are necessary.
Describe: Give a detailed or graphic account.
Discuss: Investigate or examine by argument, sift and debate, giving your reasons for and against.
Evaluate: Make an appraisal of the worth of something, in the light of its truth or utility; include to a lesser degree your personal opinion.
Explain: Make plain, interpret, and account for.
Illustrate: Use a figure or diagram to explain or clarify, or make clear by the use of concrete examples.
Interpret: Expound the meaning of, make clear and explicit, usually giving your own judgement.
Justify: Show adequate grounds for decisions or conclusions.
Outline: Give the main features or general principles of a subject, omitting minor details and emphasising structure and arrangement.
Relate: Show how things are connected to each other, and to what extent they are alike, or affect each other.
Review: Make a survey of, examining the subject critically.
State: Present in brief, clear form.
Summarise: Give a concise account of the chief points or substance of a matter, omitting details and examples.
Trace: Follow the development or history of a topic from some point of origin.
Source: Harry Maddox, How to Study (rev. ed.). London: Pan Books, 1980.
The key words above may be placed into two major categories according to the difficulty of the task:
define, describe, illustrate, outline, review, state, summarise, trace.
With expository writing, you are asked to find the main and supporting ideas and write them down in logical order, giving examples where necessary.
compare, contrast, criticise, discuss, evaluate, explain, interpret , justify, review.
With essays which have these key words in their topics, you will be expected to do more than present information. You will need to look critically at the topic and present an argument of your own.
Below is a basic guideline for planning and structuring your writing. Use the list below to help you to develop a structure for your essay. Note that a well-organised essay consists of an introduction, a main body and a conclusion.
• Introduce subject of essay and confidently assert thesis or viewpoint
• Clarify and define key terms and concepts by discussing the main ideas that will be addressed
• Begin each paragraph with a topic sentence
• Link ideas logically
• Provide evidence to support ideas
• End each paragraph with a summary sentence that links to the next paragraph
• Sum up argument and main ideas
• Leave readers feeling convinced