Sometimes it's a case of just connecting into the spirit of the question. What does it mean? What does it REALLY mean? What are the hidden implications? Etc. To try and cozy up to your question, go down the following list and see what happens.
What kind of essay is it going to be?
Narrative? Opinion? Reaction? Expository? Analysis? Comparison/contrast? If you're not sure -ask your teacher. If you are sure - then you know the road you will have to take to find the answer. Don't write an expository essay if you're being asked for a personal reaction etc.
Does the question want a yes or a no?
A maybe even? If it does - well - what do you think? WHY?
Does the question want you to take a side on an issue?
Which side do you want to take?
Does the question require an opinion from you?
If you have one - great - start writing it down! If you don't keep going down the list - you'll be surprised at what might be lurking...
Do you know enough about the specific subject matter to understand the question?
If the essay question is about literature - have you read the stories/poems/novel etc. that have been required? Will you have to read extra? Perhaps your notes from class will suffice? Be honest with yourself - are you familiar enough with the stuff to write about it? Does the question ask you find other, unfamiliar stuff? Go find it. The same goes for art history or any other discipline. Do you know the area you're supposed to be writing about? If not - go study! Work out first what you need to do - don't study blindly Look carefully at what the question is asking for - if the question wants a discussion of Kandinsky's spiritual life, don't go and read up on Matisse's jazz period - unless you have a fabulous theory to expound! Otherwise you're just getting off track, and you may lose the focus you'll need to answer the question properly.
What do you know about the subject in general? Does it remind you of anything you've seen or heard?
If it's a general opinion question - have you heard about the subject somewhere? In the papers? On TV? From friends? What do you remember about it? What do you think?
Does the question relate to you in any way?
How does it affect you? This is useful for opening up the question, but be careful not to write an essay about how something effects you - if that's not the required answer. Instead, use this idea of relation to try to help you understand the ideas and subject area involved. If the question does allow for it - do you have personal experiences that you can use as examples to help prove your point?
Does the question have any hidden implications?
Think about the question itself - is it written with assumptions? Are there deeper nastier issues hiding under the smooth shiny veneer of an innocent question?
Is the question bigger than it looks?
The answer to this is usually YES and NO at the same time. Just because it's a little question, doesn't mean it doesn't require a HUGE response. If you're supposed to give such thought to it - what is going on in that question? What deeper issues and ideas does it raise? What are you supposed to explore through the door of this small question? The NO means that you shouldn't treat the question as if it's a trick - it's simply an entry way into bigger things.
Does the question refer to stuff you did in class?
Often teachers will get you to expand on ideas talked about in class lectures and discussions. Think back to what you did in class. If your teacher taught you how to discuss or analyze a poem or painting in class, then asks for you to write an essay where you analyze a poem or painting etc., chances are the teacher is looking to see what you learned, absorbed, and how much further you can take the ideas. Put together your analysis and knowledge with your class experience. It'll also help you understand the track your teacher is on - remember, after all, it's his or her question you are answering!
Does the question require you to do research in order to find an answer?
Sometimes a research question will be very open ended. For example: Write about Walt Whitman's relationship with New York. In order to find something to say - you must do the research first. What kind of research? You'll have to find out about what contact Whitman had with New York, and you'll also have to read various poems. You may also like to find essays about Whitman and this subject area to read. Once you have a clear picture in your head and have formed an opinion, only then can you work out what you want to say. Of course, you can work backwards too - you may have a strong idea about Whitman and New York already
Is the question specific or open ended?
Sometimes a question will be phrased in a way that it requires definite, specific answers with logical reasoning, justification and discussion to back them up. Other questions, however, are more open than that. They may ask for general discussion of a topic or ask for you to explore in different directions. If it is open ended there is plenty of opportunity for you to find something you're interested in to say. Use that opportunity! Explore!
Does the question ask you about something you're interested in anyway?
Sometimes you will be asked to write about a subject you are really interested in. You may have a great answer to the question, but also other related things you'd like to say. Go for it! Write away! But make sure you answer the actual question while you're at it! Don't get lost in your enthusiasm, but do feel free to really explore and discuss - this is something you know about and are interested in. If you're interested - your reader will be interested! You are likely to write a great paper if you remember to keep your focus.
If it asks for your opinion, can you really give it?
YES! Write what you really think and feel, not what you think your teacher wants to hear. Just make sure that you clearly justify your point of view and that you discuss and develop your ideas. It's your opinion - don't expect your reader to understand it right away. Stateit, explain it, discuss it, prove it, and be prepared to defend it!!!!
What if the question is really a series of small questions?
Sometimes assignments (especially art history assignments) are phrased as a series of instructions and questions. In order to write the final paper you have to follow through the whole set, and then write a response that incorporates answers to all of the parts. The challenge here is to cover all the bases, but to also write a cohesive essay - rather than lots of bits and pieces. Write your answers to the individual parts, find the connections, and then think about what you think overall. What ideas will hold it all together? What did you find out and think over all? When you know that you will be able to write a full, cohesive essay that will answer all of the smaller questions while providing a larger, interesting answer. You will find an art history assignment at the bottom of this page that is a good example of this kind of questioning. Sample assignment #1 is a good example of this kind of essay question.
Does it ask you to compare and contrast?
Compare and contrast essays are common. In them you have to find real issues and ideas that you can discuss that connect or separate two or more artworks or stories etc. If you are asked to compare and contrast, study your material carefully - the key to writing this kind of essay is finding things of interest and importance, not surface similarities of differences. You may have to do research or use your notes from class to write this kind of essay - it's asking you to use real skills of analysis and extrapolation in order to give an opinion.
Is the question open to interpretation?
Sometimes a question could be viewed several ways. Think about the different angles. Is there a set direction you think you should go in? If you know from class that the teacher is looking for something specific, even if the question is ambiguous - go the way you know you're supposed to. BUT if the question clearly could send you different ways - yes, the question is open to interpretation. Go for it! Interpret! What interesting things could you find? Where could you go with it? If, however, you're worried about going off in the wrong direction - do the best thing of all - ASK YOUR TEACHER.
Do you have to answer EVERY SINGLE question if there are a lot of them in the assignment?
Hmmm... I want to say yes, but often teachers include questions designed to make you THINK about the subject and to send you in certain directions that will help you answer the over all question. Look for the main idea of the assignment, and then when brainstorming and freewriting answer all of the little questions, then see what they add up to. Use them to explore and to find a bigger, deeper answer. Sample assignment #2is a good example of this style of essay question.