Understanding the title Know what you need to write

For another look at the writing process, check out YouTube » or Youku », or this infographic ».

The first stage of the writing process is to understand the title. This is a key stage. Get this wrong, and your whole essay may be worthless, meaning hours of wasted time. A common complaint by course tutors is that their students do not answer the question. By taking the time to understand the title, you can be more confident that the content of your essay or report will be relevant, which will earn you a higher grade. It will also ensure that your background reading, if it is a researched assignment with references, will be more focused. The most important aspects of understanding the question are identifying the key words and the command words in the title. Both of these are considered below.

Key words

The first thing to do when looking at the title is to underline the key words. Some of these may need defining in your answer. Pay special attention to command words (see below), which give you a clear indication of how to answer the question. Read through the question several times to make sure you understand exactly what it is asking. If it is a researched assignment, rather than an exam essay, you may also want to discuss the question with your tutor to make sure you completely understand it.

Command words

Command words, also called directive words or instruction words, are words (usually verbs) in the title which tell you exactly what you need to write in your answer. Below are some of the most common command words and their meaning.

Command wordMeaning
Account forGives reasons for the subject of the question. Note: this is different from give an account of, which looks at 'what' rather than 'why'.
AnalyseBreak an idea or issue into parts, looking at each one in depth and considering how they relate to one another. This type of answer needs to be very logically organised.
AssessWeigh up how important something is, using evidence or reasoning. Conclude by saying how far you agree with the original question.
ClarifyMake something clearer, e.g. explaining a complex process or theory in simpler terms.
Comment uponState the main points and give your opinion.
CompareIdentify the similarities and differences. The answer should be balanced, and may comment on which similarities or differences are more important. Note: technically, 'compare' means to show how things are similar, but in essay titles you are expected to look at both similarities and differences; some titles may make this more explicit by asking you to 'Compare and contrast...'.
ConsiderSay what you think about the subject, using evidence from your own experience or from external sources.
ContrastSimilar to compare, but considers only the differences.
CriticiseIdentify weaknesses or disadvantages, as well as favourable aspects. The answer should be balanced.
DefineGive a definition, i.e. the precise meaning. This answer may include problems with the definition and alternative definitions which may exist.
DemonstrateShow how, using examples to illustrate your answer.
DescribeSay what something is like, how or why something works or happens, etc.
DiscussArgue for and against, or point out the advantages and disadvantages, using evidence. You must argue both sides, and come to a conclusion.
DisproveLook at the 'con' points (those against) to show why something is not true. Requires a logical answer with evidence.
ElaborateTo give more detail/information on the subject.
ElucidateMake the subject clear (i.e. lucid) by explaining what it means.
EvaluateSame as assess. Some questions use 'Critically evaluate', which means the same thing.
ExamineLook at the topic closely by establishing the important facts and issues. You should give reasons to say why you think those facts and issues are the most important ones.
ExplainGive a detailed explanation of how and why something occurs, or what is meant by a particular idea or principle. Will often require definition of key terms.
ExploreConsider a topic from different viewpoints. The topic should be explored thoroughly, and opposing views could be reconciled in the final argument.
Give an account ofGive a detailed description of something, i.e. explain 'what' it is. Note: this is different from account for, which looks at 'why'.
IdentifyShow what the key points are, and what they imply.
IllustrateUse examples or statistics to explain the subject of the question.
InterpretSay what you think something means, in order to demonstrate your understanding. You may be asked to interpret terminology used by a writer or the findings from research. If you are interpreting findings, you should comment on patterns or causal relationships.
JustifyGive reasons for a position (e.g. 'Justify the use of corporal punishment in schools'). Try to include counter-arguments to make your reasons more balanced.
OutlineSame as summarise
ProveLook at the 'pro' points (those in favour) to show why something is true. Requires a logical answer with evidence.
ReviewLook thoroughly at a subject. An answer to this question will be critical and not just description.
Show howGive the stages or factors which give rise to something. The answer should be presented in a logical order.
StateGive the relevant points. These points should be clear and brief; avoid long discussion.
SummariseSum up the main points, usually with brief or general examples. Do not give details. Often requires a short answer.
To what extentSimilar to 'Discuss', in that both sides of the argument will be presented, with evidence. This type of essay, however, may be less balanced, depending on what extent (or 'how far') you think the proposition is true. It is commonly used as an IELTS Task 2 essay question, usually in the phrase 'To what extent do you agree or disagree?'
TraceDescribe the stages (e.g. in the development of a theory, of a person's life, of a process) in a logical or chronological order. Usually found in historical questions.


Like the website? Try the books. Enter your email to receive a free sample from Academic Writing Genres.



Below is a checklist for this section.

Item OK? Comments
I have identified the key words in the title and I know what these mean.
I have identified the command word(s) and I know what I have to write in my answer.


Gillet, A. (2015) Understand the question Available from: http://www.uefap.com/writing/question/question.htm (Access date: 15 June, 2016).

University of Leicester (n.d.) Essay terms explained Available from: http://www2.le.ac.uk/offices/ld/resources/writing/writing-resources/essay-terms (Access date: 15 June, 2016).

University of Reading (n.d.) Planning and structuring your essay Available from: http://www.reading.ac.uk/internal/studyadvice/StudyResources/Essays/sta-planningessay.aspx#answering (Access date: 15 June, 2016).

Next section

Read about brainstorming for ideas in the next section.

Previous section

Go back to the previous section about the writing process.


Sheldon Smith

Author: Sheldon Smith    ‖    Last modified: 02 March 2020.

Sheldon Smith is the founder and editor of EAPFoundation.com. He has been teaching English for Academic Purposes since 2004. Find out more about him in the about section and connect with him on Twitter, Facebook and LinkedIn.

Popular pages in the writing sectionMost viewed pages