Essay Directive Words: The Secret to First-Class Essays

Essay question words, also known as directive words, are the specific words or phrases used in an essay question that tell the writer what approach they should take when answering the question. These words help to guide the writer and ensure that they focus on the specific task required. Understanding the meaning of these words and how to apply them to an essay question can help writers write a more focused and organised response.

Here are some common essay question words and their meanings. Those marked with ( * ) are particularly important for law students.

Advise*
Write down a suggested course of action in a given situation. Support the course of action with case law and statute law.

Analyse*
Examine in detail to show meaning. Identify elements and the relationship between them. Break an issue into all its parts. Look in depth at each part using supporting arguments and evidence for and against as well as how these interrelate to one another.

Assess*
Make an informed judgement. Weigh up to what extent something is true. Persuade the reader of your argument by citing relevant research but also remember to point out any flaws and counter-arguments as well. Conclude by stating clearly how far you are in agreement with the original proposition.

Clarify
Literally make something clearer and, where appropriate, simplify it. This could involve, for example, explaining in simpler terms a complex process or theory, or the relationship between two variables.

Comment
Pick out the main points on a subject and give your opinion, reinforcing your point of view using logic and reference to relevant evidence, including any wider reading you have done.

Compare
Identify and comment on the similarities and differences between two or more phenomena. Say if any of the shared similarities or differences are more important than others. ‘Compare’ and ‘contrast’ will often feature together in an essay question.

Consider
Say what you think and have observed about something. Back up your comments using appropriate evidence from external sources, or your own experience. Include any views which are contrary to your own and how they relate to what you originally thought.

Contrast
Similar to compare but concentrate on the dissimilarities between two or more phenomena, or what sets them apart. Point out any differences which are particularly significant.

Critically evaluate*
Give your verdict as to what extent a statement or findings within a piece of research are true, or to what extent you agree with them. Provide evidence taken from a wide range of sources which both agree with and contradict an argument. Come to a final conclusion, basing your decision on what you judge to be the most important factors and justify how you have made your choice.

Demonstrate
Show how, with examples to illustrate.

Define*
To give in precise terms the meaning of something. Bring to attention any problems posed with the definition and different interpretations that may exist.

Describe*
State the points of a topic and give characteristics and main features. Provide a detailed explanation as to how and why something happens.

Discuss*
Write about the issue or topic in depth in a structure way. Essentially this is a written debate where you are using your skill at reasoning, backed up by carefully selected evidence to make a case for and against an argument, or point out the advantages and disadvantages of a given context. Remember to arrive at a conclusion.

Elaborate
To give in more detail. Provide more information on.

Explore
Adopt a questioning approach and consider a variety of different viewpoints. Where possible bring together opposing views by presenting a final line of argument.

Examine*
Investigate closely in detail. Look in close detail and establish the key facts and important issues surrounding a topic. This should be a critical evaluation and you should try and offer reasons as to why the facts and issues you have identified are the most important, as well as explain the different ways they could be understood/interpreted.

Explain*
Set out purposes or reasons. Make the relationships between things evident. Clarify a topic by giving a detailed account as to how and why it occurs, or what is meant by the use of this term in a particular context. Your writing should have clarity so that complex procedures or sequences of events can be understood, defining key terms where appropriate, and be substantiated with relevant research.

Evaluate*
Judge or calculate the quality, importance, amount or value of something. See the explanation for ‘critically evaluate’.

Give an account of
Means give a detailed description of something. Not to be confused with ‘account for’ which asks you not only what, but why something happened.

Identify
Name. select, and recognise. Determine what are the key points to be addressed and their implications.

Illustrate
A similar instruction to ‘explain’ in which you are asked to show the workings of something, making use of definite examples and statistics if appropriate to add weight to your explanation.

Interpret
Demonstrate your understanding of an issue or topic. This can be the use of particular terminology by an author, or what the findings from a piece of research suggest to you. In the latter instance, comment on any significant patterns and causal relationships.

Justify
Support a case with evidence or argument. Make a case by providing a body of evidence to support your ideas and points of view. In order to present a balanced argument, consider opinions which may run contrary to your own before stating your conclusion.

Outline
Communicate the main points placing emphasis on global structures and interrelationships rather than minute detail.

Review
Look thoroughly into a subject. This should be a critical assessment and not merely descriptive.

State
To specify in clear terms the key aspects connected to a topic without being overly descriptive. Refer to evidence and examples where appropriate.

Summarise
Give a condensed version drawing out the main facts and leave out unimportant information. Brief or general examples will normally be sufficient for this kind of answer.

To what extent*
Demands a similar response to questions containing ‘How far...’. This type of question calls for a thorough assessment of the evidence in presenting your argument. Explore alternative explanations where they exist.

Understanding and effectively responding to essay question words is a key skill in academic writing. By identifying and addressing the specific requirements of each question word, you can ensure that your essays meet the expectations of your professors. Therefore, it is important for you to carefully consider the question words in the essay prompts and use them as a guide to structure your essays and arguments.
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