Welcome back to our step-by-step guide to the Extended Essay! So far in this series we’ve covered how to choose your topic and get on with your research. Here in Part 3 I want to talk all about how to make sure you have the perfect question.
I know. I’ve mentioned the question before. Some of you might have had a version of a question before you even started the research phase. But I want to go into more depth now because I think the research question is something that a lot of IB students underestimate.
It’s tempting to get excited at this point and to dive straight from the high, high ladder of research and into the pool of planning the essay. But how do you know you’re going to hit the water smoothly? How do you know you won’t end up like this:
So let’s take this opportunity to pause, reassess, and make sure you’re absolutely, ABSOLUTELY certain your question will help you to sail all the way through to Extended Essay success.
1. To start: draft your question
“The title should provide a clear indication of the focus of the essay. It should be precise and not necessarily phrased in the form of a question” – Extended Essay Guide
The only way to work out if your question is good enough is to have a question to begin with. So if you haven’t yet tried to formulate your topic into a research question, do this now. Don’t worry about writing the perfect question down yet. Just think of it as a draft.
If you aren’t sure what a research question should look like, use the Guide and past examples of titles to help you. We can see from the way that the EE Guide defines the question that the important things to consider are:
Examples of essay titles include:
How are the distribution and growth of lichens affected by sulfur dioxide and ozone levels in the atmosphere?
Will the recent policy of cutting bakery prices lead to increased revenue for the Safeway supermarket in Ryde, Sydney?
Themes and stylistic devices from Dante in T.S. Eliot’s The Waste Land and Four Quartets.
All of these are very specific, very detailed and very concise. In other words, clear and precise.
Exercise 1: draft three different versions of your question. If there are different angles you could take in the question and different words you could use to express it, write each option down. Keep these three options to hand throughout the rest of the process, but for now just pick the one which you think is clearest and the most precise.
2. What is your question actually about?
“A good research question is one that asks something worth asking” – Extended Essay Guide
It can be easy, after digging through mountains of research and writing an elegantly worded question, to forget what the original point of your topic was. It’s also easy to let the research and information take you far away from your original intention. This is absolutely fine, and even to be expected; often in-depth research and thinking takes us to a more interesting place than we ever could have reached originally. Except that it’s important to take a step back from all of that work and really question whether the place you have ended up is what you want to be writing about.
The first step is to know what your question is really about, beneath the fancy words and clever ideas.
The second step is to ask yourself if your question is truly interesting. Does it present a possibility that intrigues you?
If you either can’t pin down the point of your question, or you admit to yourself that actually that point is rather boring, it’s time to reassess. A good way to refine your question in a way that will solve this, without throwing away all the work that you have done, is to start picking the question apart. Work out the different elements being addressed in the question so that you will be able to dig as deeply as you can into the situation being examined. If this feels like effort, the thing to remember is that a good question will make it a lot easier to score points when you are answering the question in your essay.
Exercise 2: take your draft question and pick out the keywords. Combined, do they make a good summary of your topic? More importantly, do they point towards just one topic? The keywords of your question should encompass all the main things you will address in your essay, so keep these to-hand throughout the writing process and use them as a guide for what you should and shouldn’t include in your plan.
3. Is your question specific enough?
“The Extended Essay is an in-depth study of a focused topic” – Extended Essay Guide
Your question should define its own limits. In other words it should be specific enough that you can answer it in 4,000 words. And any IB graduate will tell you that 4,000 words is not a lot. It’s okay if some aspects of your question need further explanation, and in fact the Guide itself recommends that you analyse your title during the essay. However the key is to choose which variables you leave open. There is no point wasting time explaining a phrase or word in your essay when a simple change of word would solve everything. And if every word could mean two different things, this means there are two different essays you could be writing and the essay will feel unfocused as a result.
Different types of words that create ambiguities include:
Subjective words such as: success, failure, influence, significant
Words that could refer to multiple things such as: novels, lichens, lower-middle class
Words that you’ll need to define such as: themes, soul, tradition
A good Extended Essay question should contain just a few of these ambiguities.
Exercise 3: Identify all the possible variables in your question, and write down all of the possible things that it could mean. Then, write down ways that you could eliminate some of the variables. For example, an analysis of reduced prices in a supermarket can be narrowed down to the reduced prices of bakery items only.
4. Can you answer your question?
“Structure a reasoned argument in response to the research question on the basis of the material gathered” – Extended Essay Guide
When writing the essay you’ll need to make sure that every idea you include links back to the question. You’ll need to show over and over again how each paragraph digs that little bit deeper into the question you laid out at the beginning. With that in mind, it’s a good idea, now you’ve done your research, to really make sure that the material, ideas and information you will be using is still answering the question that you set out to answer.
For example, imagine that you’d originally wanted to compare the pH levels of rainwater in London and in Spain. Perhaps during your background research phase you realised that there is very little second-hand information that could help you answer this question, but there is a ten year-old study about the pH levels of rainwater in London compared with Scotland. A possible option could be that you change your investigation to look at whether the pH levels of rainwater throughout the UK has changed in the past ten years. Alternatively, maybe you have already begun your first-hand research, but couldn’t collect any rainwater during your trip to Spain. In this scenario a ‘plan B’ might be to compare the pH levels of rainwater in different parts of London.
Exercise 4: Write down a super rough plan for what you will cover in your answer to the question. This isn’t the outline (I’ll go into way more depth on this in a later post) but just a way to make sure you know how the question will work. Write one sentence, or better yet one word, for every paragraph in your essay. Don’t worry about the order of the paragraphs yet, but do make sure that you have enough to talk about that relates directly to the question.
5. Will the IB examiner approve?
Your question can score up to 2 marks out of the total 36 points. This might sound like a lot, but consider that this is over 5% of your total score which you can earn before you write a single word of your essay. With this in mind it’s important to go back to the Extended Essay Guide to check that your question is doing everything that they want it to.
Exercise 5: Double-check that your question is fulfilling every criteria that it can. And to make this as easy as it can possibly be for you, we’ve made a handy checklist right here:
- Is it specific?
- Can you answer it?
- Can you address any variables?
- Can you justify any assumptions that it makes?
- Do you have enough research to back up your investigation?
- Is it interesting?
Once you’ve made certain your question is as brilliant as it can be, the next step is to start planning the essay itself! Watch this space for our next post in the series all about creating the perfect plan and structure.
Read Part 4: Structure and Planning
With summer either already here or very near, it’s time for our next step in the Extended Essay Step-by-Step Guide. This one will help give you that push to put all of that essay preparation to use. Yes, it’s time to bite the bullet and write the thing.
To recap, this is the stage that comes after:
Finalising a Question
If you don’t feel you’ve quite nailed something in that list above, have a read of our previous blogs in the series for a comprehensive breakdown of what you can do to get there. If on the other hand you do feel you’ve done all of this, you should know WHAT you’re going to say. The real question is HOW. This isn’t a post about how to write. I know you’ve written things before. This blog is about how to make yourself get that writing for this Extended Essay on the page in front of you.
1. Know When You’ll Write Your Essay
It should be obvious that the key to making sure you write your extended essay is to find the time to write it. But you’d be surprised how easily the time can slip away without a single word getting typed or written. Especially in summer, that pesky thing called procrastination can disguise itself as everything from the new season of Orange is the New Black to a trip to a lake to swim with pelicans.
To make sure you get the writing done when you want it done, take half an hour to get organised. Work out when, objectively, you will have the time to devote some love and care and sweat and blood to this essay. And do it in chunks. Half a day at a time is ideal. Start by scheduling a few at a time near the start of your holiday so that you can see how much time this will actually take you and adjust your schedule accordingly.
To be extra efficient, don’t just decide when you will work on your essay, but decide what you will work on. Set deadlines for finishing different stages of the essay throughout the summer. For a Language, Literature, or Group 3 essay you might set deadlines for completing the introduction, body, conclusion, and proofreading. For a Group 4 Science essay your deadlines could be more detailed, separated for completing sections on background information, methods and materials, and data analysis, for example.
Exercise 1: Take out your calendar, work out what plans you already have for the summer which you’ll need to work around, and mark out your devoted Extended Essay time. Don’t have a calendar? No problem! Download our own printable Extended Essay time planner by clicking here!
2. Getting the Words on the Page
Now you’ve organised yourself and found time to do the writing, it’s time to sit down and put the words on the page. The biggest tip I can possibly give you is to remind that getting any words on the page at all is more important, at this stage, than getting ‘the right words’. This is only a first draft, and at this point it’s only a draft of a first draft. So do whatever you can to help yourself put pen to paper/hands to keyboard.
If you feel like you can launch straight into writing that essay, great! Sit down and do that. On the other hand if you’re still unsure where you start there are a bunch of techniques you can try to help get you started.
- There’s nothing to say you have to write the essay in chronological order! Instead you could take each paragraph of your essay one at a time, and start with the section you feel most confident, or excited about.
- A lot of people find it easier to write things by hand before typing it. If you’re experiencing what I like to call ‘keyboard fear’, ditch the laptop, take a pen and a piece of paper, and write your essay as if you are answering the question in an exam.
- If you’re struggling to turn your outline into full sentences, forget about eloquence for a while and just write it in whatever way you like. No need for good words. Just write. No one will see it but you.
Exercise 2: Pick one of the three options above and try it: write your favourite ‘piece’ of the essay first, write as much as you can by hand in one writing sprint, or lose the grammar and just get the ideas down in the right order.
3. Perfect Your Extended Essay Language
Perfect language doesn’t matter at the beginning of your writing process. But making sure that your writing is clear, well-paced and polished is essential for the final product. You’ll get a chance to fix up the writing later in the process, but paying attention to your language, tone and style as you go along will save you a lot of time in the long-run. More importantly, it will help you to see what is and isn’t making sense now.
A great way to get into the right frame of mind for writing a formal essay is to read other examples. Have a look at our free resources page to see how other successful IB students have written their essays in the past. Alternatively you could remind yourself of general guidelines to academic writing like this guide here.
In general it’s better to be simple. Avoid the temptation to write as many long, complicated words as you possibly can so that you reach the 4000 word limit faster! I promise you that the most common Extended Essay problem of all IB students is fitting their words into the word limit at the end. So take some time to relax, breathe, and only write what you need to write.
Case in point: Which sentence makes more sense to you?
- It is arguable that during the nineteenth century, and in the latter half of the century in particular, many people perceived a growth in what can be termed the mass market for novels and literature.
- The later nineteenth century saw an increase in the literary mass market.
Exercise 3: Paste one of your completed paragraphs onto a new document and cut out the unnecessary words and phrases. Aim to cut words down by 10%. Do this for each one of your paragraphs either as you go along or at the end.
The only thing left to say now is to just do it. It will be tough, but you won’t have a better time to work on it than this summer*. If you’d like more help from us have a look at our assignments package for online private tuition, or our Mid-IB Extended Essay workshop.
(*And if you hate the idea of doing it now, think about doing it next term when you have 10 other deadlines to meet as well!)
Read Part 6: Motivation