Writing Better University Essays/Process words

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On this page you find a list of process words that are often used. This list is in part based on Jordan (1999). The process words are given in alphabetical order. Probably the most common process words are: discuss, describe, explain, compare, evaluate, and criticize.

Account for asks for an explanation. Even though it looks similar to give an account of, this process word is rather different. You should give a description with details. The description should clarify the concept, and don’t forget to give reasons.

Analyze calls for an outline of the components. Take the issue, and break it down (divide) into the parts that make up the issue. Your task is not only to describe the different parts of the issue, but also to show (examine) how they relate to each other.

Argue is about making a case. You’re often asked to argue for or against something. In order to make a good case, your answer will need to include convincing evidence. Your argument will be more convincing if it’s logically structured. Even though the question often asks for a one-sided case, don’t forget the arguments against: even if it’s to dismiss them. If you don’t agree with the proposition, this is fine: what counts is the case you present.

Assess asks you to make a judgement of the value or importance of something. Your answer should focus on both sides of the coin, weighing up the positive and negative aspects. It’s often necessary to spend much time on the areas that are disputed. In order to provide a credible answer, back up your answer with references and good examples. Even though you may have a good example from your own experience, it’s usually better to choose a more authoritative source.

Calculate asks you to estimate the extent of something. You should take great care to define the key dimensions and determine how they are measured. Weigh up different reasons carefully. In the social sciences, the estimate itself is often secondary to how you evaluate the key dimensions.

Characterize is mostly another word for describe. You’re looking for the key dimensions (characteristics) of a concept. Often it’s necessary to compare to other concepts to make clear the limit.

Classify is very similar to analyze. The key difference is possibly that this process word explicitly asks you to come up with some sort of classification: a way to divide. You probably want to spend a bit more time on the boundaries, on how the identified dimensions are different.

Comment is similar to the content words analyze and assess. It’s indeed often considered a combination of the two. Be careful not merely to summarize the issue, but include some form of evaluation. This process word asks you to explain the importance of something. Your ability to describe an issue is usually only appreciated in conjunction with a critical argument.

Compare always involves two or more issues. Focus on what characterizes the issues, and your answer will include both the similarities and differences. This content word often occurs in conjunction with contrast. Technically, compare is about similarities, but for a balanced answer you’ll need to include the differences, too. Your conclusion may include a statement of which of the issues or options discussed you consider preferable.

Consider asks you to think carefully about something. This process word is sometimes followed by an example or case study, but also a theoretical perspective. Take great care to include these aspects, because you’ll be (partly) marked on how well you apply whatever the question is to this particular example or theory.

Contrast is like a twin to compare. Two or more issues or options are involved, and your answer should focus on the differences. Technically, contrast does not ask you to include similarities, but a balanced answer will include these, too. Your conclusion may include a statement of which of the issues or options discussed you consider preferable.

Criticize asks for a careful judgement of a statement or point of view. You’re often asked to make statements about the value or truth of a statement. Make sure you point out faults. It’s important to state by which criteria of evaluation your answer is guided. Your illustrations should not be of general nature, but specific. If the illustrative examples are not general in nature, too, then say so. Your answer will judge the merit of the views included in the statement. Often you can—and should—link to underlying theories and approaches. These should be included in the evaluation, too. Your answer also needs to discuss the nature and quality of evidence you cited for and against the different views. Always back up your argument with evidence and reasoning.

Deduce asks you to reach a conclusion based on something. Make clear how you reach this conclusion.

Define may look innocent, but the devil is often in the detail. Similar to analyze, you’re after the components of an issue of concept. You don’t want just any definition, but one that discusses the different meanings of a concept, the different ways it can be interpreted. Often, you can link the answer to how different schools of thought use a term. In this case your task is to tease out the different understandings and state the different meanings. Your answer necessarily includes an appreciation of the different components, but you should also pay attention to the differences to other concepts: how is it distinct from something else. Precision is important in your answer, and your answer should always go beyond common-sense interpretations. Sometimes you’re asked to write for a specific audience, such as a student encyclopaedia, and you should bear this in mind.

Demonstrate asks you to show something as clearly as you can. You’ll need to use an example (illustration) to this extent. Make sure the illustration is relevant and state clearly how it is relevant.

Describe is one of the most straight-forward tasks. You’re asked to outline the main aspects of an issue or point of view. Say what something is like. Sometimes the order of events is important. Your answer should always include illustrative examples to bring the argument alive. The structure of the answer is important: don’t jump around, picking up bits and pieces on the way. Instead, plan a logical and coherent way in order to cover all the main aspects. This process word often occurs together with others, such as in describe and criticize.

Determine asks you to find out something, maybe to calculate or estimate something. You should always describe how you arrive at the answer, including an appreciation of how not to proceed. Be open about the shortcomings or potential dangers of your approach.

Differentiate between something and something else is a combination of describe and define. You’re asked to focus on the differences. Often it’ll be necessary to discuss the similarities, too.

Discuss. It’s very common to be given a quote or provocative statement, followed by just this word: discuss. Your answer should include an outline of the problems and then evaluate the different arguments or points of view. Weigh up the points for and against. It’s important to illustrate your argument, and refer to established work. Very often your own opinion is asked, usually in form of an evaluation of the different points of view. Look out for key debates that are involved. The statements that come with this process word are often deliberately provocative.

Distinguish between is just another process word for differentiate between.

Elaborate asks for a discussion in great detail. Always give reasons and include illustrations. Think carefully about which aspects of a theory or concept are worth exploring in great detail. In this sense, this question often asks you to—implicitly—determine the key components of something. Avoid repetitions of the same point.

Elucidate is very similar to explain. You’re asked to make clear something. This often involves a clear line of argument, and usually a number of illustrations to bring the argument alive.

Enumerate in principle asks you to put a number to something. In practice you’re normally asked to name and list different aspects, giving an explanation. You should always try to estimate the extent of something, having outlined how you reach this estimate.

Estimate is a close relative to calculate, but you’re also asked to judge and predict. State clearly how you reached your conclusion or estimate.

Evaluate is similar to discuss, but it asks you to focus more on the value or importance of a certain argument or point of view. You should weigh up the different aspects, illustrate the argument, and refer to established works. You’ll usually be able to make a statement of the worth of something. Also see the box on persuasiveness on page 22.

Examine is a process word that asks you to have a close look at something. Consider the different components and parts. Often you can examine an issue using different theoretical perspectives. Always make explicit which perspectives you use.

Explain asks you to focus on how things work. Rather than focusing on things as they are, this process word asks you to focus on how things got there. So you’ll always need to give reasons. The answer will include some describing and analyzing. It’s important to make explicit the workings and mechanisms.

Express is just another word to say describe.

To what extent is similar to assess or criticize. You’re asked to explore a statement or view. Look out for theoretical and practical limits to the statement, but also include evidence in favour. The typical conclusion highlights the limits of the proposition, but will neither be total acceptance nor total dismissal. Watch out for changes over time and across space: Is the proposition also applicable in other cultures? Was the proposition also applicable in the past?

Identify is a process word that allows you a great deal of liberty. You’re expected to choose the examples, features, or arguments for a proposition that you regard the most important ones. It’s usually a good idea to point out and list the features first. The choice of these key aspects, however, is often secondary to your answer. Instead, you should focus your attention to the criteria of evaluation: why a feature is central. You should defend and justify your choice of picks.

Illustrate is similar to explain, but the person writing the question appears to be very keen on illustrative examples. Make sure you have a relevant example, and include enough details to make clear the relevance. Sometimes, you may illustrate the argument with statistics. What is important is that the examples support the argument, and you therefore demonstrate how exactly the examples are relevant. Sometimes a question will ask you explicitly about a figure or diagram to explain or clarify. Take care to follow such instructions carefully. Where nothing is stated, assume that you should include concrete examples.

Indicate asks you to show and explain. Usually you’re expected to use a good illustration. Make sure you demonstrate how the example is relevant to the question.

Infer is a process word that asks you to conclude based on facts or a clear line of reasoning. It’s important that you state clearly how you reached the conclusion, not just what your conclusion is.

Interpret asks for a clarification and explanation. Rather than just describing, you should also give your judgement. An interpretation often highlights how an issue or point of view relates to others, or outlines the different meanings and interpretations there are to it. Usually you’re expected to give your own judgement as part of an evaluation of the different aspects.

Justify on the surface asks for a defence of a particular statement, theory, or point of view. You should cite evidence and give examples that support the case. However, for a balanced answer, it’ll be necessary to look at the arguments against. The justification thus is a form of evaluation. Your conclusion may be that the statement can’t be justified (in the light of certain evidence), or outline limits.

List probably looks as innocent as describe, and is in fact closely related. You’re asked to classify or catalogue something. Make sure you include how you decided to classify, what criteria you used to put the list in sequence. This process word may mean that you have to list the key components of a concept.

Mention asks you to describe something briefly. This process word usually is used together with others, but do make sure you don’t skip this part of the question.

Name is another word for identify.

Outline asks you to indicate what the main characteristics or features of a topic or point of view are. Sometimes you’ll need to indicate the key events in a sequence. It’s very important to follow a clear and logically coherent structure. Your answer may focus on how the different features relate to each other, rather than just describing them.

Prove is a rare process word in the social sciences. You should try to demonstrate that something is true and certain. On the one hand you should provide convincing examples and evidence that something is the case. On the other hand, you should also demonstrate that the opposite is not the case either. Your conclusion may well be that it’s impossible to prove something, but make sure your answer is relevant to the question, not just a philosophical treatment of whether we can prove things.

Quantify is another word for enumerate.

Relate is similar to giving an account of. You’re usually particularly asked to relate one thing to another, demonstrating how they link.

Review is very similar to assess. The key difference is that you’re asked to write about a topic or area rather than a specific case or statement. The answer will thus include a selection of everything about a topic. Usually it’s a bad idea trying to include all the different angles and all the different authors. Instead, you should try to organize your answer, such as into schools of thought, or key proponents. Leaving out less relevant contributions is often the key to a successful answer. Take care not merely to describe who said what, but also to assess the merit of their argument.

Show asks you to indicate something. Make sure you use appropriate evidence and examples to back up your claims. Make clear what something means.

Speculate is similar to prove, but different in that you’re not asked to come up with a definite answer. The very word used indicates that there will be many different explanations, and you’ll have to evaluate the different possibilities. You’re thus asked to form an opinion. Very often this process word is given where you don’t have complete knowledge of the circumstances. You should suggest the most likely case.

State asks you to express something carefully. Make sure you cover the different components and be clear. Often you’re asked to illustrate something, or demonstrate how two different things link.

Suggest is somewhat similar to speculate. You should mention the different possibilities, and choose the most likely one. Make sure you include in the essay the criteria how you evaluate the different possibilities: how you can say that one is the most likely possibility.

Summarize is about the identification of the key points and aspects of an issue or topic. Details can often be omitted, as can be illustrations. However, depending on the tasks, illustrations may be necessary: try to identify the key examples. This process word often occurs together with others, such as analyze. It’s often easier to first summarize and then move to the second task, but make sure the different parts of the answer link.

Trace asks you to provide a narrative that outlines the progress or sequence of an issue or certain events. Often, a chronological order is the easiest form of structure. Sometimes you’ll be asked to write from a particular point of view. Usually, however, you can include the different points of views. The same sequence of events may be interpreted or experienced in different ways by the different participants.

Verify asks you to make sure that something is the case. You’re looking for evidence and examples for and against the case. Evaluate the evidence and provide a judgment whether the statement is true or accurate.