There are three types of essay title. If you can identify the type of response that is required by each, then it may help you to find a direction in your writing, and create a structured argument to reach your goal. The three types of essay title are:
- 'Real' questions
- Implied questions
There is further relevant material in the resource How might I interpret an essay title? It might be useful to explore the strategies suggested there in more depth.
'Real' questions (or grammatical questions) offer more concrete direction, and are less likely to result in aimless discussion, unless the student has lost sight of the question. Where there is a question, there is an answer implied. If you pay attention to the type of question you are set, this might give you a sense of the type of answer you are aiming for in your conclusion. Once you can envisage the sort of answer required, then you may be able to formulate a more specific, detailed response as a 'thesis statement' to work towards. You might then have a clearer idea of how your structure should look, to take you and your reader from the question to the answer. There are essentially two types of question, each requiring different sorts of answer:
Closed questions are posed in such a way that they imply a limited range of potential answers, between which the respondent must choose.
- In Shakespeare's dramatic works, are royal bodies different to other ones? (Yes/No/Yes and no)
- How useful is the notion of rhetorical self-fashioning for understanding the literature of the Renaissance period? (Very useful / quite useful / not very useful)
- To what extent is it helpful to consider medieval texts as working by mirroring, whether real or metaphorical? (To a greater extent / to some extent / to a lesser extent)
Closed questions can be very simplistic, if they are interpreted as a request for facts or information, or a simple black-and-white decision. They are perhaps not the most common form of question used at university level. However, they can equally encourage a high degree of subtlety and argument. At this level, they require you to recognise the complexity of a debate and evaluate the respective positions, arguing for your own stance. Despite the seemingly limited range of responses, there is wide scope for the evidence, examples and arguments you muster. In English, the response you will offer in practice is ultimately somewhere between the implied responses, on a scale between "yes" and "no", or "useful / helpful / important in some ways, but not in others".
Open questions leave the range of possible answers unrestricted. Typical question words would be 'how' or 'why'. The answer is usually a way or reason, or list of ways or reasons. Examples might be:
- What does Moll Flanders want in a gentleman?
- In what ways have poets tested the scope for lyric poetry after Auschwitz?
Many essay titles are phrased not as questions but in the form of instructions to the student. These types of title offer less concrete direction as there is no implied 'answer' that you are trying to reach. It may help you to orientate yourself if you consider what the end result might look like, having followed that instruction. Might the resulting conclusion be agreement or disagreement, a list of ways or reasons, a statement summing up the author's position or intention? If this is too intangible, you could try reformulating the instruction as a question, and then think about what your answer might be, plotting the stages of argument needed to reach that answer.
- “Courtly poetry is vivid colour and utter desolation”. Discuss.
- Critically consider the view that courtly poetry is both “vivid” and “desolate”.
The following are essentially equivalent titles, but reformulated as questions:
- Why might courtly poetry be described as “vivid colour and utter desolation”?
- Is it accurate to describe courtly poetry as both “vivid” and “desolate”?
- To what extent might courtly poetry be considered both “vivid” and “desolate”?
Implied questions offer only a topic or theme, and little concrete direction at all. Their advantage is that they allow you to explore the topic in any way you wish; the disadvantage is that you may end up with a rather aimless, inconclusive discussion of the topic, with little structure. It is up to you to determine the direction you will take. In this case, a good approach is to find an implied question, instruction or problem; that is, reformulate the implied title into a more concrete question or problem which has a definite answer, end result or case to be made. Once you know where you are going, you will be able to structure your argument more clearly. Two other questions that will help you to find a direction are: "what about it?" and "so what?"
Examples of implied questions:
- Write on the significance of one of the following in the literature of the period, referring to the works of at least two authors. (a) natural philosophy; (b) empire; (c) education; (d) spiritual autobiography; (e) temptation; (f) blood; (g) Ireland; (h) monarchs; (i) echoes
- Sleep and sleep-walking in The Tempest
- Chrysogone and chastity in The Faerie Queene
Rephrase the following title in as many different ways as you can - as closed and open questions, instructions and implied questions:
"In The Canterbury Tales, Chaucer is constantly concerned with subverting expectations of genre". Discuss, taking your examples from two or more genres used by Chaucer.
Now click here to access some examples, to compare your answers.