4. Step Two: Read the question

It is stating the obvious, but you must read the rubric. These are the instructions at the top of the paper (in an examination) or given as part of an essay assignment. You may, for example, be given a word limit. Please keep to this although not precisely. If you have been told to write 1,000 words and you submit 999 or 1,001 you will not be penalised. The word limit is a guide. Unless told otherwise, a 10% margin is usually acceptable. (For those of you who are not good at sums, for a 1,000 word paper anything from 900 to 1,100 falls within range.) Please follow these limits. Your teachers are busy people and may have lots of essays to mark. Also it becomes difficult to make a fair comparison between students if they are working to different word limits. A student who presents a 3,000 word essay when 1,000 was asked for will be able to answer in far more depth and detail than the student who has given the correct amount. This is also good practice for the real world. If a magazine editor has asked you to submit a 500-word article and you give him (or her) 1,000 words, your piece cannot be used as there will not be space for it. Or if you have been invited to speak for ten minutes at, say, a school assembly you would be considered very rude if you over-ran by a significant amount (and I, as a teacher, have been in an assembly where a guest speaker has over-run by so much that the Head-teacher has interrupted in order to get the pupils into lessons on time).

You must answer the question set and not what you hoped would be set. It is an easy mistake, especially in an examination, but, no matter how good your essay, if it does not answer the question set it cannot gain a good mark. At University I had been set an Old Testament essay on Moses, the Exodus and the Giving of the Law. I misread the instructions and wrote an essay on Moses and the Exodus, thinking the title was Moses and the Exodus or the Giving of the Law. (To be fair, our Old Testament lecturer often set either / or questions. But not this time.) I was mortified to get my essay back with a grade of 45% – my lowest mark in a three-year course. My pain was assuaged somewhat when the lecturer explained his mark scheme: 50% for the Exodus and 50% for the Giving of the Law so I had achieved 45 out of 50 for my detailed account of the Exodus but 0 out of 50 on the Law. So read the question carefully and note how the question can shape your answer. “Write an Account of the Life of James” is different to “Write an Outline of the Life and Explain the Significance of the Letter from James.” The first essay (“The Life of James”) will need to say something about the Letter and the second essay (“The Letter of James”) will need to say something about his life but the two titles are not different ways of asking the same question.

The rubric will help you to focus. A 500-word limit means you must “cut to the chase” and get the main point across as quickly and clearly as possible. A 1,500-word limit allows you to develop your ideas or follow up side-issues that you could not include in a shorter piece. The title “Write an Account of the Life of James” should immediately cause you to ask: which one? Of course in the Module on the Letter of James it is obvious which James but in a general or introductory module such as this one it is a poorly worded question and you would be wise to make contact and ask for clarification.

The example we are going to look at together is an essay entitled: “The Life and Career of the Prophet Amos.” Hopefully you know that there is only one prophet Amos in the Bible and he is not the same man as Amoz, who was the father of Isaiah. I am not, at this stage, giving you any other instructions.

< Step One: Pray   Step Three: Start >