Breaking Down the Essay Question

September 30, 2016

Many people do not realize how important this is, and that is why they become so lost in the process of trying to write an essay. In my years as an essay writer, I have come to learn the importance of being able to break down an essay question to figure out exactly what is being asked of the writer. When you know exactly what you are being asked to accomplish, you will know how to approach the research process, and how to structure the writing.


Most essay questions are very specific in terms of what they ask, and the trick is to figure out what it is that is being asked. I suggest you make a list. Here is an example of an essay question that I got in one of my undergraduate political science classes:


What are the principles underlying the use of boycotts and why are they seen as appropriate in some circumstances and not in others? Answer this question by addressing the UN imposed economic sanctions against Iraq, and if these sanctions were used as a tool of American diplomacy.


This question might seem difficult, but in fact it is very straightforward. Let us make a list of what is being asked:


1. What are the principles underlying the use of boycotts?

2. Why are they (the boycotts) seen as appropriate in some circumstances and not in others?

3. Use examples from the UN imposed sanctions against Iraq (in the 1990s and early 2000s).
4. Were these sanctions used as a tool of American diplomacy?


By creating a list like this, you have literally created the outline for your essay, and now it can be completed in manageable parts. You can basically use these four points as topic sentences for your body/supporting paragraphs, and your essay will flow very well, with each part leading into the next part.
Here is another example. This is from a philosophy essay that I was assigned in my undergraduate studies:


Consciousness is a process of the body that makes the mind-body problem difficult to settle. There are many accounts that have resorted to reductionist principles to attempt to explain the workings of the conscious, but these according to Nagel are flawed. With reference to Nagel’s theory of consciousness and perception, is it impossible for us to know what it is like to be someone else other than ourselves?


Once again, we need to break apart this question: 

1. The first two sentences put the question into context, but they tell us some very important things that we will need to know: the essay is dealing with the philosophical concept of consciousness, many philosophers have weighed in on this issue, but this essay question will focus in particular on the account presented by Nagel.
2. With the context laid out for us (part 1 tells us that we need to research Nagel and his theory), we then just need to determine what it is that Nagel is arguing, and how his argument compares to others who have also weighed in on the issue (why does he think the others are flawed?).


It can be seen again that by breaking the question up into manageable parts, the essay question becomes much easier to handle and to approach because we now know exactly what is being asked of us. This is important because quality essays do not waste words; it is important to always stay on topic and make an argument in the most concise way possible. By understanding exactly what is being asked in the essay question, it is much easier to be concise and focused throughout. Every essay question is different, but I have yet to come across one that cannot be broken down in this way. Remember to just make a list of what you are being asked to do, and then use that list to figure out how to approach the research, and how to structure the essay.


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