Writing Workshop:  Writing Good Answers to Essay Questions

Dr. Laura L. Runge

October 6, 2005


Why is an “essay answer” important?


This particular genre of writing is quite restricted in its use and audience, given that you will only be called upon to write an essay answer on exams or applications of one type of another.  Its limited presence, however, is indirectly proportional to its power; the ability to write a good essay answer frequently affects the outcome on important exams and, hence, could affect your grades, your admission into programs or schools, or, possibly, future jobs. 



What makes a good essay answer? 


It should be informative, to the point, organized, precise, intelligent, accurately and, if possible, eloquently written and directed to the appropriate audience.


  • Informative:  Answer the question directly and provide detailed support.  Many students fail to answer the whole question.  Sometimes a question has more than one part to answer; double-check to make sure you answer the whole question. 


  • To the point:  Be concise in your writing, and do not stray from your main points. The scattershot method is seldom effective.  Wasting a reader’s time does not engender mercy or goodwill.


  • Organized:  Approach your answer with a plan of action and present your information in a way that makes sense and follows a reasonable order.  It is helpful to jot an outline of ideas beforehand to organize your thoughts.


  • Precise:  Your answer should contain correct information and avoid making unsubstantiated claims and generalizations.  Errors, of course, will detract from your effectiveness, as will vagueness and oversimplification.  When dealing with literature, you need to represent the literature accurately, using paraphrase, summary and quotation. Avoid general statements; use details from the literature for precision.


  • Intelligent:  Your answer should reflect a firm knowledge of the material in question, and it should treat the subject with as much sophistication and nuance as you can.  In other words, rather than hammer home a single viewpoint on a complex issue by repeating it in different words, develop the view to incorporate the complexity of the issue, generally by raising alternative possibilities and arguing persuasively.


  • Accurately written:  The language of your prose should be grammatically correct.  You should incorporate standard spellings and sentence-structures.  Anything less draws attention away from the information and can also obscure your point and render the information of your essay confusing.


  • Eloquently written:  If possible, write your essay in fine and delightful prose, and it will only add to the value of your answer.  Whereas grammatical confusion and spelling errors detract from your answer, eloquence, clarity and verbal acuity enhance the information and make the reading enjoyable, thereby increasing goodwill.


  • Directed to the appropriate audience:  It is always wise to target your writing, when possible, to a known audience, incorporating suggestions made by this known audience (i.e. your teacher) and avoiding gratuitous insults. Remember the person who writes the questions and instructions generally is the person who grades the answers.





  1. Read through the sample essay questions and answers.  Determine which is the better essay answer.  Spend some time describing why it is a better answer.  In small group share your responses and choose examples from the essay to support your points.  We will discuss this in large group and brainstorm lists on the board.


  1. Read through the sample essay questions and answers.  Choose the worse of the two answers and “correct” it.  That is, mark the places in the answer that are “wrong” or require changing.  In small group compare answers and discuss how you would “fix” the problems.  We will discuss this in large group and work on constructive ways to improve the writing.


  1. Read through the sample essay questions and answers.  Discuss in small group what problems the writers face in answering the question.  Make a list of problems or obstacles that prevent the student from writing a perfect essay answer.  We will discuss these in large group and posit ways to minimize the problems.

Sample Essay Questions and Answers


A.                 Woolf argues that for genius to flower, a woman needs a room of her own and an independent income.  What is the significance of these conditions?  Apply the argument to two writers from the syllabus and determine its strengths and weaknesses.


Answer One:


A woman must have a room of her own in which to write in order to minimize the distractions that are part of her lot as a woman.  An independent income is important for several reasons.  First, because one does not have to sell one’s writings, which could easily corrupt them, by forcing one to write what will sell rather than as genius dictates.  Second, one does not have to find some other paid employment, which takes away time and energy from writing.  Third, an income gives a woman independence from the support of someone else (presumably a man) who will then dictate how she must spend that time and energy. 

            When discussing Aphra Behn, one is hampered by the lack of knowledge of her life in particular, and the lives of women in her time and society in general.  As she is famous for her independence, I will assume that she had a room of her own.  However, she did not have an independent income, and made her living through her writings.  Even Woolf agrees (over) that this did not corrupt Behn’s writings, and she spends most of her time in the “white light of truth.”  On the other hand, Charlotte Brontë had neither of these requirements.  She wrote in a common sitting room surrounded by family, and was dependent on her family for support until her writings began to profit (and even then, she was not financially savvy enough to profit much).  Woolf points to many instances of Brontë’s lapsing into the “red light of emotion” and suggests that she could have been a better writer if her circumstances had been different.

            Woolf’s argument is difficult to prove one way or another.  In hindsight, one could say that Behn’s room benefitted her, and her genius was such that she could still write as Woolf requires despite her lack of an income.  But this theory cannot be tested, and it could be that Woolf is simply wrong.  Perhaps the passion in Brontë’s writing comes from her less-than-ideal circumstances, and her eye for character interaction could not have developed shut away from that busy sitting room. (In addition, one could argue that better writing comes from the ‘red light of emotion,’ but that is the subject of a different essay.)


Answer Two:


Woolfe advocates for independance and freedom because back then it was less common for women to work and have there own ideals and life independant of a man such as father, brother husban ect.  To be considered a lady with good values from good family you must be connected to a respectable gentleman.  A room implies having your own space to call your own therefore free to create without interruptions and family obligations.


Independant income, so that you can do as you like, thoughts independant of family or others opinion.  Jane Eyre for example made her own money as a governess and had her own room, however lived in someone elses house, who she was employed by.  She felt someone stiffled and trapped being in that house, one could argue it was she was not free to create at her own leisure and she had obligations and responsibilities to her job.  However she does meet the criteria of having her own space and her own money.


Harriet Jacobs on the other hand was a slave therefore trapped in a different type of way.  It was not until her freedom that she was able to write, creat and help others.  So what do we deduce from that it has to be a freedom of mind, body and spirit.  You can not feel trapped in your surroundings in order to create.  However it was only due to her enslavement and lack of freedom that indeed allowed her to create and write the work she did to appear to so many people.  Also the lack of freedom forced both authors to use pen names.


B.                 In Jane Eyre powerful emotions are dangerous but also liberating.  What are the consequences of expressing female passion for Jane Eyre and Bertha Mason?


Answer One:


In Bertha Mason’s case, her powerful emotions have entirely negative consequences.  To stop her from acting out, she is forced into marriage with a stranger.  When he does not approve, she is labelled  insane.  and locked up.  This enforced isolation only contributes to her downward spiral into madness and sub-humanity (or triggers the spiral in the first place, depending on how one chooses to read the text.).  She is only liberated when she sets fire to her prison and takes her own life.  This final act is the first time in fifteen years she has been able to take control of her life.


Jane Eyre’s powerful emotions lead her down a different path.  At Gateshead, she is locked up for not behaving as a child should, and her own spiral begins.  However, she is saved by being sent to Lowood, where her friendship with and admiration of Helen Burns teaches her to control those emotions that have gotten her into trouble.  At Thornfield, her relationship with Mr. Rochester begins to bring her out of her self-imposed shell, culminating with the proposal (and refusal) on midsummer’s night.  Though she retreats again (over) into emotionlessness, it is her time with Rochester that makes her realize that she does not want to have to repress that part of herself for the rest of her life.  For this reason, she refuses St. John River’s proposal.  When reunited with Rochester, Jane pledges her life to him specifically because he will not make her forgo her passions.  In fact, those passions, and her willingness to express them, are a major part of what he values in her.  The lesson that Jane learns is that powerful emotions are acceptable when one is surrounded by people who understand. (It is interesting that this understanding comes from the same man who very obviously did not understand Bertha Mason’s passions, but again, that is the subject of a different essay.)


Answer Two:


In the time period that Jane Eyre was written in, women were on a similar level of children.  They were beautiful creatures to love that could be seen and not heard.  Therefore the idea of a woman stepping out of what was considered the ‘norm’ was seen as offensive.  The idea a woman would or could have her own thought much less express them in a public arena was some what ‘tabu’.  By Jane confronting and facing her true emotions that probably scare her the most causes her to become liberated and grown up.  Coming to to terms with, something frightening that hindges on the emotion of love would be overwhelming for anyone, it causes her to face the situation and make the only decission  she can which, was to leave the home she grew to know and love along with the only man at that point she had ever loved.  It was some what of a pheric victory for her because she grew up and became liberated but lost her love in doing so.


C.          Making the proper marriage choice is central to Pride and Prejudice.  Compare and contrast Charlotte’s rationale for marriage with Elizabeth’s.


Answer 1:

Charlottes rational was different from Elizabeth’s for many reasons.  Charlotte was twenty-seven years old and might not have more time to get married while Elizabeth was only twenty.  Charlotte had a different view on love in marriage.  Elizabeth believed there should be love and compatablity in marriage.  Charlotte believed that compatability was luck because people may or may not change before or after marriage.  Charlotte also didn’t believe in to much romance or love as Elizabeth did.  Elizabeth wouldn’t accept any offer that wasn’t respectful and meaningful because of her witt and age.  Charolette would accept an offer of marriage that may have been unrespectful because of her age and her witt or lack of.  The two woman came from different families also.  Charlotte was older and probably didn’t want her family to take care of her anymore, while Lizzy thought she would have another chance for marriage.


Answer 2:

Jane Austen makes the goal of marriage a clear theme in Pride and Prejudice from the first sentence.  Her main character, Lizzy, is the dominant character whose point of view we see.  She reject two lovers before she accepts an offer of marriage.  Her rejections tell us a lot about her rationale for marriage.  On the other hand, her best friend Charlotte takes the first offer that comes her way, and that from Elizabeth’s first rejected suitor – Collins!  While the threat of becoming an old maid is more real for Charlotte, who has reached the old age of 27 (where Elizabeth is not yet one and twenty), her motives for getting married are really pragmatic.  She doesn’t look for Mr. Right, only Mr. Marriageable.  She tells Elizabeth, “I am not romantic, you know.”  And that is a good thing, because she accepts as her husband one of the most foolish and longwinded of eligible bachelors.  But she achieves her “establishment” and she gets to dine at Rosings at least once a week.  Elizabeth, on the other hand, will not accept a proposal of marriage without giving her heart, and she has very high standards.  She doesn’t want to be insulted or condescended to during the proposal.  When Darcy first proposes, and expects her to be grateful and say yes, she rejects him.  It is only after he learns to value Elizabeth and to treat her and her family with good manners and respect, that she realizes that he is everything she wants in a husband.  It doesn’t hurt that she sees the “beautiful grounds at Pemberley” and finds out what a wonderful landlord, master and brother he is.  Austen shows us two very different rationales for getting married in the figure of Charlotte and Elizabeth.  For Charlotte it is mostly a pragmatic decision; for Elizabeth it is a decision that takes care of the mind, the body and the heart.


D:         What is an entail and how does it affect the fates of Mrs. Bennet, Jane and Mr. Collins?


Answer 1: 


An entail is the willing of property to the next male of kin, to keep the property within the family.  If Mr. Bennet died, because he had no sons, his estate would go to Mr. Collins.  During the whole novel Mrs. Bennet is trying to marry her daughter to wealthy husbands so she and the other sibbling would have a place if Mr. Bennet died.


Mr. Collins asked Elizabeth Bennett to marry him, but she refused.  Mrs. Bennet (mother) was very angry because if Elizabeth married him she wouldn’t have  a worry about where to live, if Mr. Bennet should die.  This was a major consern of Mrs. Bennet because she was selfish.  She didn’t care how loathsome Mr. Collins was, she just didn’t want to be kicked out of her home for the entailment.


Answer 2:

Mrs. Bennet often worries about the entail in Pride and Prejudice, and her inability to understand the logic of the entail indicates its unfairness and its importance.  Mrs. Bennet is not the smartest character in the novel, and so the fact that she complains of the entail is not alarming.  But it does suggest that it is a threat to her, which it is.  The entail is part of a gentleman’s will that leaves the estate to the next male in line of inheritance.  It is a legal process that keeps the estate together in the paternal family.  If it were to descend to a daughter, who loses all rights to her property when she marries, the estate would go out of the family.  Thus the fact that Mr. Bennet has no sons to inherit creates a problem for Mrs. Bennet.  When Mr. Bennet dies, her house and its belongings will go to the next male in line, which in our case is the original Mr. Collins.  Mr. Collins is Mr. Bennet’s brother’s son, and he will inherit Longbourne on the death of the current owner.  Despite his general denseness, Mr. Collins is aware that this creates feelings of hostility toward him, and he hopes to make the Bennet family feel better toward him by marrying one of the many daughters.  This plan appeals to Mrs. Bennet because not only would she get to keep her house and belongings – assuming her daughter would let her stay after Mr. Bennet’s death --  but she would also marry one of her daughters, and marrying her daughters is her primary job.  The plan appeals to Mr. Collins, too, because he was told to get a wife, and he believes these poor daughters will be likely to marry him because of the entail.  Jane is affected because as the oldest Bennet daughter, Mr. Collins picks her first to be his wife.  Fortunately for Jane, Mr. Bingley’s attentions save her from having to hear Collins’ proposals.  Unfortunately for Mrs. Bennet, Collins next tries to get Elizabeth to marry him, and since this doesn’t work out, he marries outside of the family.  Mrs. Bennet laments the fact that Longbourne will go to Charlotte Lucas (Collins) until Jane marries, which gives her some financial hope when Mr. Bennet dies.  The best line in response to Mrs. Bennet’s worries about the entail is Mr. Bennet’s when he slyly hopes that he will “outlive her.” 


E.  In what ways did Paradise Lost influence eighteenth-century literature?  Choose one of the following works and explain the role that Paradise Lost plays in the style, subject and themes:  Rape of the Lock, Ode to Evening, Washing Day.


Answer 1.

John Milton’s “Paradise Lost” has been and still is quite influential and really a quality/timeless piece of literature. It has inspired all kinds of semblances from serious to jovial; one of the greatest satires inspired by the eloquence and loftiness of “Paradise Lost” is Alexander Pope’s “The Rape of the Lock” in which Pope borrows the premise that “mighty Quarrels rise from trivial Things” as is the case in “Paradise Lost” because the entire state of existence as we know it has been altered by the eating of the fruit of knowledge.

            Pope constructs the premise on the same level of thought as Milton, however, his form varies; Pope uses couplets whereas Milton used free verse. Despite this small difference, they are indeed share a variety of similarities. Pope adapts Milton’s lofty style and shapes his poem into a five canto epic of grand proportion. He also borrows from Milton’s portrayal of Eve to give life to his character Belinda whose beauty/chastity is attended to not by God, but similarly by other magical creatures called sylphs. The congruence of like-events and similar depictions of Milton’s grandiose epic come into play. Belinda is in a number of ways similar to Eve in a range of ways from her narcissism to the nearly heavenly way she steps into the world as compared from her sleeping to the beginning of Eve’s existence. Finally, Belinda’s innocence has a direct tie to ignorance, as does Eve’s. Pope writes:


                        Whether the Nymph shall break Diana’s Law,

                        Or some frail China Jar receive a Flaw,

                        Or stain her Honour, or her new Brocade,

                        Forget her Prayers, or miss a Masquerade

                        Or lose her Heart, or Necklace at a Ball;

                        Or Whether Heav’n has doomed that Shock must fall.


            Milton’s “Paradise Lost” has been not only influential in a number of his emulated devices ranging from his epic form, style, and detailed description of human nature, but he has been influential to a number of different authors and works on so  many different levels that he has inspired a swerve from the original to create something wholly new and profound.


Answer 2.

John Milton’s Paradise Lost is one of the most important literary influences of all time. This is by means of literary achievement and of influence on the history of the literature which follows. Ode to Evening was written, as it is believed, to illustrate the beauty of Eve. Paradise Lost is the narrative of ‘the fall’ to evil and darkness. Eve is portrayed as naïve [niEVE]. However William Collins chooses to personify ‘Evening’ (the time of day) as a beautiful woman (Eve). 

            This proves that Paradise Lost had an impact on people because they expanded upon, or got there idea’s from.  Not only does it speak avidly about Eve but it also is in blank verse… like Milton’s Paradise Lost.     

            The Rape of the Lock, by Alexander Pope, like PL portrays the woman as naïve. This is a very common thread amongst male writes of the time. They both portray women as vain, the most beautiful women are envisioned with long blonde curls.


Answer 3.

Paradise Lost is definitely the most important work that we studied this semester and it has affected much of the literature since it has been published.  One work that has been influenced is Alexander Pope’s The Rape of the Lock.  There are several instances where Pope parodies Milton in several lines.  In The Rape of the Lock, Pope writes, “A heav’nly Image in the Glass appears” (line 125).  This is a reference to Eve in Paradise when she sees herself for the first time in the reflection of water and likes what she sees.  Another work that has been influenced is Anna Barbauld’s Washing Day.  She uses repetition in the way that Milton did; for instance, in line 20, Barbauld writes, “Cast at the lowering sky, if sky should lower.”   She also used enjambment, as did Milton.  Enjambment offered a contrast to end-stopped lines and it continued the grammatical structure of a line.  Paradise Lost also includes some inversion and this is also present in Washing Day.  Barbauld writes in line 2, “Or tart of pudding-pudding he nor tart that day shall eat.”  Milton writes in lines 62-63, “draw me to his part, his side.”  It is very distinctive and it showed up frequently because of Milton’s use.  William Collin’s Ode to Evening is one more work that was influenced by Milton.  The second line and much throughout the work alludes to Eve.  He writes, “May hope, chaste Eve, to soothe thy modest Ear.”  It is not a coincidence that Collin’s uses “eve” as the word for evening in his poem.  Collin’s also uses blank verse.  Blank verse was made well known and popular by Milton, who used it for Paradise Lost.  Up until Milton used it and even when he did use it for his work, it was seen as something used for people that couldn’t rhyme.  Milton influenced many writers of his time and his influence is still seen today.