The key to making sense of essay topics is very simple:
Read the topic with care! —It tells you what you need to do.
The first thing to note about essay topics is that most of them are not formulated as questions; most instructors put them in the form of commands. You're won't often see a topic like What were the causes of the War of 1812? because a question like that invites a simplistic response, a mere list of the war's causes. You're much more likely to see something like Discuss the causes of the War of1812, because "discuss" requires you to work on the topic in a more complex way.
The basic command-form topic has two components: the prompt and the subject. "Discuss" is the prompt in the example used here, and "the causes of the War of 1812" is the subject. The prompt tells you the kind of work you need to do: "Discuss" (the prompt used most frequently by instructors) generally means roughly analyze the topic, examine its constituent parts, evaluate their relative importance (i.e. answer the question "So What?"), then formulate a thesis and argument presenting your findings persuasively. The subject, "the causes of the War of 1812, " defines the area of research to/on/in which you must do the work specified by the prompt. It's important to note that this limits what you need to do: in the example here, you're not to discuss what happened during the War of 1812, or who won the War of 1812, or the effects of the War of 1812—only the causes of the War of 1812.
Essay topics become more complex when instructors add other instructions to the basic prompt-subject command. We'll call these additional instructions riders, like the "fine print" points on a legal document (which is an appropriate analogy: when you choose an essay topic from an instructor's assignment handout, you're agreeing to a kind of contract, undertaking to do as the topic requires). Riders come in a number of forms. Sometimes the prompt-subject command is prefaced by a thought-provoking quotation:
"The War of 1812 was a conflict that neither side desired; it was an historical accident" (Mahon). Discuss the causes of the War of 1812.
It may be prefaced by a general observation or proposition regarding the general field of the topic, or some aspect of the discipline to which the topic belongs:
Several of the historians and philosophers of history we have studied this term have debated the problem of causality in interpreting historical events. Discuss the causes of the War of 1812, assessing the research sources you use in the light of these debates.
Often the prompt-subject command is followed by one or more subsidiary riders that draw your attention to particular issues the instructor wants you to cover, or that specify requirements with respect to sources:
Discuss the causes of the War of 1812. Be sure to consider the geopolitical context of the War in the course of your discussion. Make reference to at least 12 research sources, at least 6 of which should be journal articles.
Notice that in some cases the rider's relationship to the prompt-subject command is explicitly spelled out, while in other cases it's not (this is particularly common with the thought-provoking quotation rider, which is often intended to raise a very broad issue or general idea which you should treat as a kind of background theme in your essay). It is your responsibility to work out what each component of the topic requires you to do and how they relate to one another, and then follow through in the course of your work on the essay. This can get quite complicated: some elaborate topics include several commands and many riders, and you need to balance and integrate all of them in the appropriate way.
Take your time figuring the topic out! Many students' essay-writing problems begin with failing to analyze the topic carefully at the start of the project. A visit to your College Writing Centre can help. It's also a good idea to refer frequently to the topic as you go along, to ensure that you stay on track.

The key to making sense of essay topics is very simple:
Read the topic with care! —It may not tell you what you need to do.
Although careful analysis of essay topics will usually help you work out what your instructor wants you to do with a particular assignment, it's not an infallible approach. Several factors complicate the situation.
First of all, what works in one discipline may not work in another. Each discipline has its own way of thinking and writing, and you may not be aware of the particular requirements of the particular discipline in which you're working (especially in courses outside your major). Instructors sometimes assume "everyone knows" what is meant by certain instructions, and so they may not spell out everything you need to know in the assignment handout.
Furthermore, what works for one instructor may not work for another. Even within a single discipline, individual instructors sometimes have distinctly individual requirements and expectations. What Professor A means by the prompt "Discuss" or even the word "essay" may be quite different from what Professor B means, even if both professors are in the History department.
So what can you do about this? Ask questions—lots of questions! Whenever you get an essay assignment, don't assume it tells you all you need to know. Think about what the instructor may be leaving out or assuming that you already know, and find out more—as much as you can—at the start.
Here are a few key questions you can ask:
1. What is the purpose of the assignment? Is its purpose to allow you to demonstrate what
you can do or what you know? How does it relate to the overall objectives of the course?
2. How does the instructor want you to do the assignment? What kind of process does the
instructor suggest you use (i.e. with respect to prewriting, writing, and revising)? Is the
subject clear? What form should the essay take? ("Essay" can mean a number of different
formal structures, each of which represents a different approach to the writing process, so
you should never assume the formal requirements are a given.) Should it be mainly
expository, analytical, comparison/contrast, critical, or some other mode or combination
of modes?
3. For whom are you writing? Who is the audience? Just the instructor? Your peers?
Everyone in the field of History? The so-called "man in the street" or general reader? The
audience for whom you write determines many aspects of your essay, particularly with
regard to the inclusion of background information and the citation of sources; it is
essential information, and is seldom specified in essay topics.
4. What are the deadlines for the assignment? How does it fit into the structure of the course
and the sequence of assignments (if there is one)? What sort of help will the instructor
provide at the various stages of the project?
5. How will the assignment be evaluated? What would constitute a successful response? An
outstanding response? A merely adequate response? A failure? What does the instructor
think are the major challenges the assignment entails?
Questions adapted from Erika Lindemann, A Rhetoric for Writing Teachers (1982)
The more you know about all these aspects of the assignment, the better equipped you will be to produce a successful paper.
Prepared by W. Brock MacDonald of the Woodsworth College Writing Centre for use at the University of Toronto; revised January 13, 2002.
This article originally appeared on

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