Accessible version | Skip to content | Change your text size

Table of contents

Previous pageNext page

Topic analysis

Click on the highlighted text to see the comments.

A central concern for lecturers when marking a student's essay is whether or not it actually answers the question that was asked. While it may seem to you that university questions allow for a broad range of responses, you still need to ensure that you do not stray too far from the central issue in question.

The following tasks are designed to help you further develop the topic-analysis skills you have already learned at school or in other university subjects.

Please note that information in the comments should not be taken as any definitive answer to the task question; instead it represents one interpretation only by the authors of these materials.

Analysing a topic fully means that you need to read an essay topic very carefully, identifying key words and phrases and noting how these different parts of the topic relate to one another.

This usually involves:

  • Breaking down a topic into its constituent parts
  • Reading the wording of the question closely

When dealing with complex topics it is sometimes difficult to put this into practise, so let's have a look at an example of an essay topic from the subject, Reading Writing Literature.

Read the following essay topic on the novel Jane Eyre:

Mr. Rochester describes in Vol. 3, Chapter 1, the circumstances in which he was married to Bertha Mason, and how he came to incarcerate her in the attic at Thornfield. What do we learn about him from this and how far does the novel endorse his claim that he has acted for the best?


Breaking down the topic

The first step is to break the question down into parts.

Consider the following questions, then check your answer.

What is the purpose of each sentence? What are the different elements you would need to address in order to answer this topic appropriately?

Check the answer

Reading the topic closely (Sentence 1)

The second step is to examine what each section of the topic requires of you.

In this topic, the first sentence refers specifically to Vol. 3, Chapter 1. Do you think that a good response to this topic should:

a. discuss the relevant information from this chapter, but also bring in other parts of the novel

b. concentrate only on Rochester's explanation in this specific chapter, to avoid going off the topic

Please make a selection before continuing.

Check the answer

Reading the topic closely (Sentence 2)

Let's now look more closely at the wording of the second question.

What do we learn about him from this and how far does the novel endorse his claim that he has acted for the best?

Can you identify key words or phrases that will affect how you answer?

Tick the box of key words from the question.

Check the answer

Feedback on breaking down the topic

Mr. Rochester describes in Vol. 3, Chapter 1, the circumstances in which he was married to Bertha Mason, and how he came to incarcerate her in the attic at Thornfield. What do we learn about him from this and how far does the novel endorse his claim that he has acted for the best?

The key sections of the topic are highlighted above.

The first sentence introduces the particular element of the novel to be considered: Rochester's explanation of his actions.

The second sentence contains the specific question to be answered, which consists of two parts. The words " this" and " claim" in this sentence both refer to Mr. Rochester's " explanation".

We can rewrite this question, then, as:

  1. What does Mr. Rochester's explanation tell us about him?
  2. And how far is his explanation endorsed by the novel?

A good paper would answer the two questions in the second sentence, relating them in particular to Mr. Rochester's explanation of his actions (the first sentence).

Working out how many sections there are to a topic is just the first step, however. We have to read a little more closely still. (See the next two questions.)

Feedback on reading the topic closely (Sentence 1)

A is the better response.

While a particular chapter is specified, you would need to do more than examine that single chapter in your answer. This is because the second sentence of the essay topic asks you to consider how far the novel (that is, the whole novel) supports the view presented in this chapter.

Therefore, when preparing to write an essay, much of your time should be spent reading and re-reading the text.

Now go to the next question on Sentence 2 of the topic.

Feedback on reading the topic closely (Sentence 2)

What do we learn about him from this and how far does the novel endorse his claim that he has acted for the best?

The important words or phrases for working out what the topic is about are highlighted above. Compare these with your response.

The first part of this question is reasonably straightforward; it asks, what can be said about Rochester's character, based on his explanation?

  1. The second part of this question contains the important phrase, how far.

    Note that this topic is not asking you to say whether the novel does or does not endorse Rochester's view that he acted for the best. Rather, it is asking you how far the novel endorses this view.

    This means that you are not likely to have a 'yes' or 'no' answer. Instead, you will need to look at those elements that might be seen to support Rochester's view and then look at those elements that do not. You will then need to make a judgment about how far the novel endorses Rochester (i.e. not at all, partly, mainly, completely) and how it does so (e.g. through the narrator's voice, through events that happen to Rochester, through symbolism, and so on).

    Writing such a qualified argument is not always easy. See the Annotated Assignment, Claire's Essay, for one student's explanation of how she tried to address this topic.

    See also the task on 'Writing a clear but qualified answer', in Topic 2, 'Structuring an argument'.

  2. This part of the question also contains the phrase, the novel endorses...

    Note that the question is asking how far the novel endorses Mr. Rochester's claim; not whether or not you endorse his claim.

    What do you think is meant by the word "endorse", and how can a novel "endorse" something? Here is what lecturer Alan Dilnot had to say about it:

    "An aspect of the topic that might give difficulty is the idea that the novel 'endorses' a character's behaviour. Students should consider how such an endorsement might be conveyed. It could come as a direct declaration from the narrator. However, the narrator is Jane Eyre and the reader must allow for the possibility that she is an interested party. Or endorsement could come through demonstration: the novel might indicate that certain kinds of behaviour have inevitable consequences, pleasant or unpleasant. Or the degree of endorsement could be indicated through rewards or punishments handed out just prior to the end of the novel."

    See also the task on 'Frameworks for analysis', in Topic 3, 'Making judgements'.

word outputDownload a printable version of this page (.doc)
Problems? Questions? Comments? Please provide us feedback.