Essay Writing - Analysing Questions & Brainstorming


1 Introduction


1.1 Overview of the Unit

Many university students and/or exam candidates write poor essays due to a lack of preparation. Two fundamental problems are:

- not understanding the exact meaning of the question

- not having enough relevant ideas before beginning to write


To overcome these problems, students need to:

- analyse the question in sufficient depth

- brainstorm' - i.e. produce sufficient relevant ideas


This unit aims to help you practise these essential pre-writing tasks.


1.2 The Writing Process

The process of writing varies depending on a number of factors, including:

- time available (e.g. writing academic essays to a deadline, writing in exams)

- the type of writing required (e.g. a 5000 word essay, a 250 word IELTS essay)


Successful academic writing involves moving through a number of stages:


- Pre-Writing

- analysing the question

- brainstorming (thinking of ideas: what you already know; what you need to know)

- conducting research & making notes (collecting arguments & data - statistics, facts, quotes, references)

- planning your answer


- Writing

- writing a first draft

- re-writing

- completing a bibliography


- Post-Writing

- proofreading (checking for mistakes, omissions, etc)


This process will change depending on the kind of essay being written.

For example:

- IELTS Writing Part 2

1 - Analysing the question

2 - Brainstorming (thinking of around 4 relevant ideas / arguments)

3 - Planning

4 - Writing

5 - Proofreading


(Stages 1, 2 and 3 can be carried out in just 2 or 3 minutes; if possible 1 or 2 minutes should also be devoted to proofreading)


- Writing in Academic Exams


1 - Analysing question

2 - Brainstorming (thinking of / recalling relevant facts, arguments, references)

3 - Planning

4 - Writing (including facts, statistics, key arguments, quotations, references, etc)

5 - Proofreading


(Ideally sufficient time should be devoted to stages 1, 2 and 3 in order to produce a brief written plan)


2 Analysing Questions & Brainstorming


2.1 Analysing Essay Questions


2.1.1 Themes & Propositions

Every title is made up of two parts:

a. A theme

b. A proposition or propositions (a claim or claims the writer makes about the theme)


Take the following essay title:

“Should Governments Introduce a Pollution Tax?”


For the above title:

- the theme is 'pollution tax'

- the proposition is 'the question of whether the government should introduce one or not'.


This way of looking at a question is especially useful when it is long and complex, for example:

“Bosses of large corporations earn far too much money. They are making employees redundant while giving themselves pay rises. The government should do something to stop this.”


- The theme is 'bosses who give themselves pay rises'.

- The propositions are 'this is unfair when they are firing employees' and 'the government should act against them'.


2.1.2 Exercise: Themes & Propositions


Find the theme and proposition (s) of the following essay titles:

i. Smoking should be banned from the workplace. It is unfair to make non-smokers suffer.


ii. Traditional ways of thinking about men and women are old fashioned. Men should be expected to do the housework and look after the children.


iii. The unemployed should be forced to accept any type of job. They cost taxpayers far too much money and often do very little to deserve it.


iv. Women must be paid the same as men if they do the same work. Any companies who fail to offer equal pay ought to be sanctioned by the government.'


2.2 Producing Ideas

To write an interesting and coherent essay you must ensure that you have thought of at least four distinct ideas.


2.2.2 Brainstorming

'Brainstorming' is a process whereby we freely write down any ideas which come into our head on a subject. All that is required is to write any ideas you have in any place on a piece of paper. Once you have written several ideas down, you can edit : i.e., discard the weaker ideas, and concentrate on the stronger ones.


2.2.3 Four-Sentence Essays

One way of practising the skill of generating ideas is to write an essay in four sentences . Take the following essay title:

“The richest industrial nations should cancel third world debt”

  The theme is ‘third world debt' and the proposition is ‘the richest industrial nations should cancel it'.

You could write the following four sentences:

  It could be argued that all countries, developed, developing or underdeveloped, should pay back what they owe, otherwise the whole international system of borrowing and lending may collapse.

So-called rich industrial nations are themselves in debt and can ill afford to lose out on money owed to them.

You could say that, at the start of the new millennium, third world countries deserve a second chance and cancelling debt would enable them to build up stronger economies.

It should be noted that a large portion of the money lent to third world countries has ended up in the pockets of corrupt politicians and has in no way benefited the poor and needy.


2.2.4 Exercise: Four-Sentence Essays

For each of the four essay titles in section 2.1.2 above, write a four-sentence essay.

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