Writing Better University Essays/Delimiting the question

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First of all, it’s necessary to state to the reader how you understand the question. Not only raises this expectations, but also can you demonstrate that you’re focused. Furthermore, you’ll avoid that your reader will misunderstand you, or think that you have left out critical aspects. For example, if your question is about crime, you may want to delimit this to contemporary white-collar crime in Britain. Your reader will not be puzzled not to read about the dungeons in medieval France, since you stated that these will not be addressed here. By explicitly delimiting your answer, you also demonstrate that you’re aware of the greater picture, or the other possible interpretations. This bit should be as short as possible, but never leave it out.

In an exam situation, it’s very important to delimit your answers. Sometimes a particular question is, to a certain extent, tied to a particular module or even a single lecture. By delimiting your answer, you demonstrate that you’re aware of this link. In other cases questions are much more open. In these cases you also need to delimit your answer. The limits of your analysis are both in terms of content (the medieval dungeons in France) and theories (such as feminist perspectives on consumption). Delimiting works in two ways: saying what is in, and stating what is out.

You may imagine that the essay question is a brief for a job. You have landed the task described, but have not the time to do it yourself. As you are in charge, you decide on a contractor. Think about which contractor is best suited to fulfil the task. In the social sciences, the contractors often are theories or schools of thought. Once you decide who is best suited for the job, you should state so, and also include a brief justification. It’s not uncommon that you’ll want to hire out different parts of the job to different contractors.

For example, take the following question: “What kind of mechanisms can explain sudden changes in collective action?” As a typical essay question, it leaves lots of scope. Practically, we can never write everything we know about the topic. Just like we can’t try out all the contractors to build a house and decide later on which one was best, we need to make decisions here, too. We want to quash diversions before they develop, and signal to the reader that we know what we are writing about. Answering this question, I might want to focus on tipping models. However, I am aware that there are alternatives, and will state that these will not be ignored completely. By stating, for example, “this essay will focus on tipping models, but alternative approaches will also be outlined briefly,” I signal that I know that tipping models are not the only way to go.

Guiding the Reader[edit | edit source]

After delimiting the answer, we will need a short outline. On the one hand this gives the reader some sort of direction. This can be really useful, if we are not so successful at linking the different sections later on. The reader will already have an idea what comes up, and not get lost, even if a paragraph diverts a little bit. An essay with an outline will almost always come across as more coherent. On the other hand, the outline will make sure that you—the writer—know where you’re going. In other words, an essay with an outline will almost always be more coherent.

Such an outline can be understood as guiding the reader. It should be short, because it does not actually answer the question. It should, however, be long enough, to include all the main sections that will be included. Because the guide will be kept general, it acts as a guide to you as the writer, too, not as a straitjacket. The following is an example of such an outline:

This report describes the experience of carrying out a survey in order to measure cultural capital. The actual questions used in the survey are discussed, as are the sampling process and the data collection method. This is followed by an examination of the scale building, with a focus on reliability and validity. At each step, the actual work done is critically examined with regards to how it could have been done better. A short discussion about whether anything was learned about cultural capital completes this report, but first the definition and conceptualization of cultural capital needs to be addressed.

Such an outline gives an idea of what is going to be addressed in the answer, and also roughly in what order. The length of the guide will depend on the essay. A much shorter version is just as good in a different context:

This paper critically reviews an article by Katz-Gerro (2002) that examines this link. In order to do so, there is a focus on research design and the persuasiveness of the results, but other aspects such as the mechanisms included will not be ignored.

There is a simple trick to make your outline a little bit more interesting: keep the first topic you’ll write about until the end of the outline. So in your outline, you state in order what you’ll do, only that the first topic is mentioned last. The longer example just above makes use of this trick. Use phrases like “firstly, however, it is necessary to”, or “but before these are discussed, it will be useful to consider first of all.” Not only does this raise expectations, but also does this give you a chance to demonstrate the relevance of the opening section after the introduction. This sense of direction is something your readers will appreciate.

When to Write the Introduction[edit | edit source]

There are different views on when it’s best to write the introduction. Many write it first, because they write the essay from beginning to end. This is not a good justification as such. It’s a good idea to write the introduction first, because the introduction will delimit the answer, and provide an outline. As such, by writing the introduction, you commit yourself to a plan. It also helps you to stay focused.

This view is countered by those who argue that you never really know where you end up when writing an essay. This is the case, because writing the essay itself is a process by which the outcome—or conclusion—is not always known. Even where you have an idea, where the essay will take you, you might not know the precise details. For these reasons, some write the introduction last: after completing the essays and writing the conclusion. The benefit is that the introduction is about the essay as it exists, not about the essay as it was initially intended. As a consequence, the introduction will never make false promises and be tightly focused.

Probably the best alternative is to combine the two, especially when using a word processor where you can change what you wrote. Start with writing the introduction. This will help you stay focused, and make sure you think about the structure and order of the answer before you start writing. This is a good way to make sure the answer is relevant. However, after completing the essay, you come back to the introduction, and modify it as necessary. Maybe the focus has changed; maybe there is now an extra section. Having a careful plan before writing will mean that such changes are often of minor nature.

Next: Defining key terms