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Essay Writing
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Most university essay questions include an instructional word in the question. These are the words that tell you what your essay should do. It is important that you understand exactly what these words mean so that you don't misinterpret a question. Below is a list of terms describing actions you may be asked to undertake in your assessment tasks.

You should print this page for future reference because it will help you to analyse the key instruction terms in your future essay questions.

Printable version of the list of instructional words

Analyse Separate or break up something into its component parts so that you discover its nature proportion, function, relationship, etc.
Comment Make critical observations, even if they are fairly open-ended. Your texts, learning guide, lecture and discussion notes should provide sufficient guidelines and your own commonsense should prevail.
Compare Find similarities and differences between two or more ideas, events, interpretations, etc. Ensure you understand exactly what you are being asked to compare.
Contrast Find similarities and differences between two or more ideas, events, interpretations etc. Focus on the differences.
Critical
Analysis
Examine the topic or argument in terms of its strengths and weaknesses.
Criticise Express your judgements regarding the correctness or merit of the factors being considered. Discuss both strong and weak points and give the results of your own analysis. Student insights are expected and arguments must be justified.
Define Provide concise, clear, authoritative meanings. In such statements, details are not necessarily required, but briefly cite the boundaries or limitations of the definition. Remeber the 'class' to which a things belongs and whatever differentiates the particular object from all others in that class.
Describe Recall facts, processes or events. You are not asked to explain or interpret. Try to provide a thorough description, emphasising the most important points.
Diagram Present a drawing, chart, plan or graphic representation in your answer. Generally, you are also expected to label the diagram and a brief explanation or description may be required.
Discuss Present a point of view. This is likely to need both description and interpretation. Your opinion must be supported by carefully chosen and authoritative evidence.
Enumerate Provide a list or outline form of reply. In such questions you should recount, one by one, but concisely, the points required.
Evaluate Present a judgement of an issue by stressing both strengths and advantages, and weaknesses and limitations. The emphasis is on assessing the value, worth or relevance of the matter under scrutinty.
Explain Your main focus should be on the 'why' of a particular issue, or on the 'how' with the aim of clarifying reasons, causes and effects. You are being tested on your capacity to think critically, to exercise perception and discernment.
Illustrate This asks for an explanation; you may clarify your answer to a problem by presenting a figure, picture, diagram or concrete example.
Interpret Explain the meaning of something and give your own judgement of the situation.
List Give an itemised series or tabulation; such answers should be concise.

Outline This asks for an organised description. Give the main points and essential supplementary materials, but omit minor details. Present the information in a systematic arrangement or classification.
Prove To conform or verify. You should establish something with certainty by evaluating and citing experimental evidence, or by logical reasoning.
Relate When showing relationships, your answer should emphasise connection and associations in a descriptive manner.
Review Re-examine, analyse and comment briefly (in an organised sequence) on the major points of an issue.
State Express the high points in brief and clear narrative form. Details, and usually illustrations or examples, may be omitted.
Summarise Provide a brief statement or an account covering the main points; omit details.
Trace Give the development, process or history of a thing, event or idea, especially by proceeding from the latest to the earliest evidence.

Source: Adapted from Bate, D. 1979, Essay Method and English Expression, Harcourt Brace Jovanovich Group, Sydney.

These are very important words and you must be clear about their meaning. For example, an essay that asks you to describe a topic is very different to an essay that asks you analyse a topic. Use this table to help you analyse the instructional words in your essay questions.

 




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