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Structuring essays: the answer is in the question 

Structuring essays: the answer is in the question 

Structuring an essay is one of the things most students are likely to struggle with. A lifesaver in this case is analysing the essay’s question: coming up with a solid structure is easier when you know exactly what it is you have to do. In turn, your structure can further support an effective answer to the question.     

There are various ways of breaking down a question, but the following, adapted from ‘Essential Study Skills: The Complete Guide to Success at University’ by Tom Burns and Sandra Sinfield, is especially useful as it starts with the basics.     

Read the question carefully and distinguish the following components:     

  • Topic: what should the essay be about?   
  • Focus: which aspect of the topic do you need to focus on?   
  • Limits: what things are in and out of its scope? You are never expected to write everything you know or can find on a topic.     
  • Instruction: what sort of argument is the question telling you to make?    

The topic, focus and limitations will tell you what you will write about. The key instruction word(s) will tell you how to do it.     

Instructive or directive words are words like analyse, evaluate, discuss, to what extent…, etc. They tell you the approach you should adopt when answering your question, and so give you hints for the structure (i.e. whether you need to provide arguments and counter-arguments, an in-depth analysis of a point, provide context, etc.). Common directive words include:     

  • Analyse: break the focus of the topic into parts and examine in detail to see how they fit together.    
  • Discuss: this is a bit tricky because it could mean describe (a situation or process), or debate (present the evidence for and against a particular point).    
  • To what extent: consider how far something is valid or accurate and the ways in which it is not proven and/or supported by evidence.    

To bring this all together, consider the example essay question of “To what extent do lecture recordings contribute to a positive student experience for undergraduate students?”:    

  • The instruction is “to what extent, so you need to provide and discuss findings, and their complications, and decide what they suggest for the topic at hand. There may be controversy, or aspects which have not been researched enough. In order to conclude the extent of the contribution of lecture recordings, you will need to present a balanced overview of the evidence for and against. You need to come to a clear conclusion that needs to be justified by the evidence you have presented.  
  • The topic is lecture recordings
  • The focus is their contributions to a positive student experience“.   
  • The limit is undergraduate students” (note that there is no mention in the question of where these students are (e.g. location or educational system). This is where you would need to think critically about what evidence and points are relevant to this essay).    

For more resources, visit the Study Hub Academic writing page, which also includes the Directive words handout with common directive words and their definitions.


Burns, T. and Sinfield, S. (2016) Essential Study Skills: The Complete Guide to Success at University: Fourth Edition. London: SAGE.     




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