Process Words In Essay Questions

Understanding the question

The first and most important thing to do is pay close attention to what the assignment guide says you have to do. It gives you the assignment question and extra things that might help such as notes on the writing style and the format you should adopt.

  • Make sure you know what type of assignment is needed. Is an essay required? Do you have to write a report or a series of short answers to questions?
  • Check the word limit and keep to it.

OU tutor, Eulina, explains the importance of closely examining the assignment question and what it is asking of you.

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All assignment questions have key words or phrases that indicate how and what you should write. There are two types of key words to be aware of.

  • Content words
  • Process words

You will be able to focus your ideas much more clearly if you identify the content and process words in the question or title of your assignment.

Content words

These tell you what topics the question requires you to focus on. For example, look at this assignment question.

Compare your own education to date with that of one of your parents, one of your children (if you have any) or a friend from a different generation. Which points of comparison seem important to you and why?

The content words are in bold and tend to be nouns. There are plenty of content words there. The question asks you to choose between three groups of people against whom you should compare your education. The key word 'important' indicates that you must pick out a number of main points of comparison (not everything you can think of).

Process words and phrases

Process words and phrases tell you what to do with your material and are often expressed as imperatives: 'Assess the impact of ...' or 'Explain the importance of ...'. So in the example question above the key words 'Compare' and 'why' are process words (rather than content words). The word 'why' indicates that you must give reasons for selecting particular points of similarity and difference.

In the assignment question below, the process words are in bold.

With particular reference to Reading A of Chapter 9, English: history, diversity and change, discuss and evaluate the grounds on which judgements are made about ‘correctness’ in English.

Once you feel confident that you’ve identified what you are being asked to do for your assignment, you can turn to finding the relevant books, etc.

The ‘key words’ in an essay question allow you to identify what you are supposed to write about. Use the strategies below to break questions down in to manageable chunks.

Introductory question or statement

Example 1

Full question:“What is meant by shock advertising? Evaluate the arguments for and against the use of shock advertising by marketers.”
Extract the basic question:
“Evaluate the arguments for and against the use of shock advertising by marketers.”
Remaining words introduce the topic and give focus. They are not key to the question.

Example 2 

Full question: “Popular magazines for men and women are selfish, superficial and obsessed with sex. Discuss, making reference to at least one magazine.”
Extract the basic question:
“Discuss, making reference to at least one magazine.”
The process word ‘discuss’ refers back to the topic in the initial statement.
The initial statement is vital to understanding the question in this case.
Possible actions: Take out the introductory/initial question or statement to see what effect it has on your question.
If the question feels like it has missing information, look for what is missing in the initial statement.

Example 3 - Identify the meaning words

Question:"What is meant by shock advertising?Evaluate the arguments for and against the use of shock advertising by marketers."
Analysis: The initial question is struck out because it is not vital to understanding the essay question.
Green indicates the process word (in this case 'Evaluate'). This tells you how to approach the paper.
The words in bluecarry all the meaning. Work out their significance. Use your knowledge of the subject to help you do that.


'Arguments’ carries the same meaning as ‘for and against’ so it doesn’t add anything further to the question.

The concept of ‘use’ is implied by the topic ‘shock advertising’. Check whether you need to distinguish ‘use’ from ‘concept’, as this could be a key word as well.

Understanding process words

The process word tells you what structure your essay will take: linear, two sided, argumentative?

Remember to:

  • Pick out the verb in the question – the word that tells you what to do in the paper
  • Understand what that word means (download our list of process words below)
  • Structure your essay around that word

Go to chapter on 'Structuring your essay' to help you structure your essay based on the process word.

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