A ‘next action’ is not something like ‘write essay,’ or ‘research Victorian literature’ (unless you enjoy being overwhelmed and miserable). Rather, these are specific and achievable tasks that will assist you in making progress towards a definable goal (i.e. writing a well-structured essay that your tutor will want to reward). Don’t try to eat the whole elephant in one go: make elephant sandwiches instead.

So, here’s what I suggest your action list should look like at this point of the process:

  • Shortlist the essay questions you’ve been given to choose from. Start by crossing out the ones that you wouldn’t touch if your life depended on it.
  • Select a question from the shorter list (but recognise that you are allowed to change your mind later).
  • Read the question again.
  • Analyse the question: underline key words and look for an angle, while following the instructions contained in the question.
  • Make a mind map/plan.
  • Keep the question in view (stick it to your computer, wall, dog/cat).
  • Read the question again.
  • Gather information.
  • Make a more detailed plan.
  • Read the question again (can you see a theme emerging?).


That was easy, wasn’t it? Job done. Thanks for reading.

Sorry? Oh right, yes, there’s a bit more to it.

‘I’m still confused. Where do I begin?’

The instructions and clues found in the essay question, that’s where.

An effective essay will focus on the key issues identified in the question. Don’t begin to answer a question until you are sure that you understand what is being asked of you. This means you need to keep reading it – over and over again. Draw boxes, scribble around it, say it out loud, and emphasise different parts.

You need to deconstruct the question. Take it apart: forwards, backwards and sideways. Write it out; cut it up; make a poster out of it or turn it into a piece of contemporary dance. Whatever you like, just make sure that you understand the question.

You are not required to write about everything that is known about a particular topic. However, you are expected to consider the topic from a variety of angles and then to focus on specific elements in order to construct a clear and logical argument.

Book pile

All essay questions contain key words. These aren’t random. They are used to draw out certain responses. It would probably be useful to know what they mean so you know what you’re being asked to do, right? You’re a genius. Let’s have a closer look.


Please note that you don’t need to copy these definitions into your essay. Your tutors know what is being asked of you – just make sure that you do.

Analyse: pull a topic apart to show its constituent parts and criticise these in detail.

Argue: make a case for something, using evidence and examples, and draw a clear conclusion.

Assess: weigh something up and consider how valuable it may be.

Comment: explain something, giving a brief judgment, with reasons.

Compare: show the similarities and differences between two items or ideas.

Contrast: show the differences between two items or ideas.

Criticise: show the good and bad points of something, looking at any implications.

Define: give the precise meaning of.

Describe: give a detailed account of.

Discuss: explain and analyse various sides of a topic, showing which is most reasonable.

Evaluate: explain the worth of something, giving reasons.

Explain: make clear with reasons, showing any implications.

Explore: examine thoroughly from different viewpoints.

Illustrate: give fully explained examples of something in order to make it clear.

Justify: give good reasons why something has been said or done, answering possible objections.

Another pile

Outline: give a broad description of the main issues of something.

Review: give a general survey, noting key features and commenting on their value.

Trace: set out the history or development of something, explaining the stages.

Verify: check out and report on the accuracy of something.


In the next post, we’ll look at how to deconstruct essay questions effectively.