Unit 1: Answering the Right Question
How many Vulcans does it take to change a light bulb?
How many Klingons does it take to change a light bulb?
None. A warrior is not afraid of the dark.
How many Vorlons does it take to change a light bulb?
Setting Your Goals
The first step in writing anything is to determine the point or purpose of your effort. This is even more important for an assigned essay than it is with a freeform creative writing assignment, because with an assigned essay, part of your task is to show that you understand the question and its implications. If you do not correctly interpret the essay question, you may write a well-organized, carefully substantiated, grammatically correct essay, and still miss the point of the question entirely. This is frustrating for both you and your teacher!
main points for this unit
- identifying the nature of the question
- defining the terms of the question
- restating the essay question
- limiting your topic to address the question precisely
- writing a good thesis sentence to summarize your response
How to Analyze the Question
Let’s look at the problem of the essay subject, a particular kind of expository writing. There are two things you need to do on an assigned essay, especially on an examination. You must, of course, answer the question that’s been asked, by supplying the information (ideally something you learned in the course) that is relevant to question. It must be properly organized and show an appropriate degree of analysis. Along the way, you also need to give your teacher the second “answer” every test question seeks: you need to show how well you understand the material of the discipline itself and how well you can use the methods of the discipline. Keeping in mind this second part of the test’s agenda will help you address the first part properly.
Here are the basic steps you need to follow:
- Identifying the nature of the question
- Who is the audience and what is the context of the question? A teacher may look for one thing on a homework assignment (did you understand the most recent textbook reading?) and something else on an end-of-semester exam (do you remember all the different material in the course that applies to this subject?). Your parents may want to know if you can explain what you are learning in terms that they can understand (can you translate your teacher’s statements into our experience?). Your aunt who isn’t sure about the whole homeschooling thing may want to know if you are actually learning something, according to her own standards of learning. Various other acquaintances may want to challenge your information, beliefs, and methods. Your friends (a group that might actually include your parents, teachers, and aunt) may want to know what you actually think, as well as what you’ve learned, about the subject at hand. Each of these audiences is looking for a different answer, however — so the context of the question is important (and we’ll look at suiting the answer to different audiences in another unit). For the moment, we’ll assume that the question you must answer appears on a cumulative or end-of-term examination.
- What type of essay is required? Different types of essay questions expect different kinds of answers. In the next unit, we will look in detail at the types of essays you might be called on to write: definition, analysis, description, explanation, summarization, evaluation, and compare and contrast essays. Each type requires its own kind of organization and a particular level of supporting evidence.
- Does the question have more than one part? In giving you the essay subject, the teacher may ask several questions. Sometimes these are to help you focus the essay (see the next point) and sometimes they ask for specific additional information or the application of your answer to the main question. Be sure that you answer all parts of the essay question.
- Is the question already focused? The teacher may make comments about a particular work, event, or issue covered in the course. This should act as a clue that the teacher wants you to concentrate on a particular point, rather than dealing with the broad generalities of the original question. On the other hand, if there is only one broad general question, you will have to determine how to limit your subject, and then explain those limitations in order to adapt your answer to the given time frame or essay length.
- Defining the terms of the question
- Are specific terms used that require definition or explanation? Obviously, in a definition question, the term or terms to be defined are explicitly given. But in many other kinds of questions, you must establish the terminology and assumptions you make to answer the question. For example, the question “Compare the religious culture of Egypt and Mesopotamia,” may require that you first address what “religious” and “culture” mean in this context, before moving on to how they are the same or different in the two civilizations listed.
- Are there specific references that require explanation? A question may refer to people, events, documents, incidents or episodes in a literary text, scientific theory, while asking about some general issue. If you also use the reference, you must provide the reader with enough information about it to follow the rest of your argument. Usually in an examination question, you can count on your teacher knowing the general terminology of the field, though, so it is not necessary to explain everything — an excessive preoccupation with this, rather than getting down to the actual terms of the question, begins to look like evasion.
- Restating the essay question
- Rephrase the question in your own terms. Add more detail if necessary. Your goal is to restate the question in terms that the original asker would accept. If you can’t do this, you either don’t understand the question or are turning it to suit your own purposes. Changing or evading the question is intellectually dishonest. This is, it should be pointed out, different from challenging the question. In confrontational situations like political debates, the question itself may be slanted...in which case your restatement of it should still play fair, but show the internal discrepancies or prejudices inherent in the question.
- Check your restatement. Does it really mean the same thing as the original question? Frequently our own prejudices may cause us to misread or slant the answer to a question; if we do this, we may miss answering the original question altogether. For example, one question we have used in the past is “What is Classical Education”? A student with a particular point to make may restate the question as “What is better about classical education than other forms of education?” and start the essay with “Classical education is better than public school education because....” Such an essay will fail in at least two ways: first, it never gives the definition of the term requested, but assumes that the reader and the author agree (as they may not); second, it fails to consider the possibility that a public school system may be able to deliver a classical education, depending on the actual terms of that definition. In either case it has not really answered the question that was being asked.
- Limiting your response so that it addresses the question precisely
- What subject matter (types of supporting evidence, time frame, geographical location, events, works, people, etc.) must be covered? If the question has specific references, the limits for the essay may already be given. Some examples may help:
- In “Compare the religious culture of Egypt and Mesopotamia”, you will have to cover the religions of these two civilizations. What were the religious practices? How did they affect the other aspects of the culture (literature, trade, social practices, laws, etc.) of each of these two civilizations?
- In “What is civilization?” you will have to give a definition, but any examples of applying that term will need to come from you. You can limit it however you like: you could work by example from comparison of two civilizations and the characteristics that make them civilized; you could look at the linguistic origins of the term and how it has been used by different authorities; or you could frame up a more purely philosophical approach to the question.
- What subject matter (supporting evidence, events, authorities, etc.) should be avoided? Once you have determined the limitations of the question, you must avoid bringing in extraneous information. If your essay will focus on the ancient world, references to events in the 20th century could confuse your reader and weaken your argument; it will also raise serious questions in the examiner’s mind about your grasp of historical chronology.
- Writing a good thesis sentence as a summary of your response to the question.
- A good thesis statement answers the exam essay question in one sentence that establishes the limitations for the essay, and hints at the approach you will take in providing your answer.
- Your thesis statement may or may not appear verbatim as the topic sentence of your essay’s introductory paragraph, but everything in your essay must be a direct part of the elaboration of that thesis statement. Anything else will be irrelevant.
Putting those Steps into Practice
Let’s apply each of these steps to a real question. Here’s an overly broad question to serve as an example:
What is literature? How does it affect our lives?
- Identify the nature of the question. What are you really being asked? Is there more than one part to the question? (If so, you must be sure to answer all parts, or you may miss points on completeness.)
Define the terms of the question. This requires that you ask yourself a series of questions:
- The first part of the question asks you to give a definition of an abstract concept. This means you need to think about the term, what literature is and what it isn’t. A definition has to clearly state the boundaries as well as describe what lies within the boundaries.
- The second part of the question asks you to show how this thing you’ve just defined affects the lives of “us” — that is, the general public. This means you have to give examples of actual effects of literature on a wide range of people. If you use generalizations such as, “Literature gives us common experiences that unite us, even when the experience is fictional”, they must be common enough that the reader will recognize and agree with your claim.
Restate the question. Be sure that your answer addresses the question asked and not some other question.
- Is literature only what is read, and therefore limited to written works?
- What kinds of written works are literature? Is poetry (certainly)? Is a novel (usually)? Is a drama (almost always)? Is a newspaper editorial (rarely)? Is a textbook (not generally)? Is a film literature (depends on whom you ask!)? So what is the difference between these types of written works? Is longevity as a work important? Is addressing a common topic? Is particular form important?
- What is the function of literature in society? What does “function” mean here? Since the question doesn’t define it, you should! Does your definition make literature descriptive: does literature reflect a common experience of the people in a given culture? Or is your definition of it prescriptive: should literature reflect that experience? Does a written work fail to be literature if it doesn’t reflect a common experience?
Limit your essay. Pick something manageable!
- What kinds of creative works are literature? In particular, what kinds of written works are literature and what kinds of written works are not literature?
- How are people who read them (and perhaps even those who don’t) affected by the ideas and stories in such creative works?
Write a thesis statement. Try to state your answer to the question in one sentence. It is important to do it in just one sentence, because that medium forces you to focus on the single central point of your essay. If there is more than one part to the question, the thesis statement should address the main question first. The thesis statement is the claim that you intend to defend. This statement may or may not make it into your actual essay verbatim, but you should have it firmly in mind before you start to write. Here’s a possibility:
- This question itself poses no limitations, so you must limit the scope yourself. You should clearly state this limitation somewhere in your introduction, and if it is pertinent, why you are choosing this limit rather than another. In this particular case, you might claim that examples from English literature are adequate to show how literature affects society in general, and then you only need to give examples from English literature. Or you might choose to show how literature from three different genres and cultures affected their contemporary societies, and choose Latin epic poetry, a drama by Shakespeare, and a novel by Victor Hugo.
- Where the question itself poses limitations, you need to follow the instructions in the question. If the question were “What is English literature? How did it affect the development of England and English culture?” you would not be able to use examples from French or classical literature. Regardless of how good or pertinent such examples might be to “What is literature?”, such examples would show that you don’t know what constitutes English literature.
Literature, which includes those stories passed orally or in print from generation to generation, provides a society with examples of common experiences and suggests answers to issues that face every human being.
It’s worth considering what this thesis statement does and does not accept or convey. It assumes that any given work qualifies as literature only when it has been passed from one generation to another — and hence that Shakespeare’s plays, for example, were not actually literature until some time after he wrote them. It would also exclude non-narrative poetry (most of Shakespeare’s sonnets, haiku, etc.), while it might well include some bad jokes that have been around for several generations. It is not much like my own definition of literature, in fact, but it is an example of a strong thesis statement, precisely because it categorically offers what the question has asked for: the abstract definition of the term, followed (according to the terms of the question) by the discussion of the consequences of literature in society. Accordingly, it’s one that I as a teacher would take seriously on an exam, whether I agreed with it or not.
You aren’t going to write an essay yet. The hardest part of writing an essay is getting a crystal clear idea of what you are going to write, and even with the information and process above, you need to spend time really thinking about the question in order to come up with a good thesis statement. So your first assignment is actually harder than writing one essay:
For each of the following three essay subjects:
- Copy the essay subject exactly as presented.
- Restate the essay subject in your own words. Try to identify any “agendas” in the question that will require you to provide specific kinds of information.
- Try to identify the type of essay requested (definition, analysis, description, explanation, summarization, evaluation, compare and contrast). [You’ll get more practice at this next unit.]
- Give two different possibilities for limiting the scope of the essay and state how each one will affect your essay.
- Write a thesis statement that directly answers the main question or addresses the central issues raised in the essay subject. [If you do not know the material well enough to answer the question properly, make up an answer in the appropriate form.]
- Note any terms you will need to define in your introduction.
- Do not write an essay.
- Many non-homeschoolers voice concern that homeschooled students, especially those who receive their education online, don’t have the opportunity to interact with their peers or learn to work in groups. Can homeschooling provide the instruction and practice in social skills necessary for a person to be effective in later education and in the workplace?
- Which of the five most recent presidents of the United States (excluding the current one) best exemplified the attributes required of the job?
- Should drivers under 18 years of age have their driving privileges restricted to daytime only? Why?
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