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Writing: Geography

Writing for Geography

A guide to writing short responses

This guideline will help you develop good techniques in writing short responses.

Writing Short responses

A guide to writing reports

This guideline will help you develop good techniques in writing reports.

Scaffold Report Writing

A guide to writing an extended response

 Many students find writing extended responses very difficult, but it is easier than you think. Most of us have ideas; our trouble is being able to express them. Even to get them down in a logical order can be a problem.

This guideline will help you develop good techniques in writing extended responses.

In order to do this, you will need:

  • Wide, accurate knowledge and
  • The ability to think clearly

Remember you will never be asked to write down all you know about a particular topic. Rather, you will be asked to answer a specific question.

Instruction Words (directive verbs)

A common type of question may ask you to:

  • Describe
  • Analyse
  • Explain
  • Discuss or
  • Compare

It is important to know exactly what you are being asked to do with each of these instructions. A full list of directive terms can be found at the end of this guide. We will begin with the simple ones first.

Describe Of “all” the instructions, ‘describe’ is probably the easiest. It requires you to give the reader a visual impression of something. It mainly tests your memory of facts and does not require you to interpret these facts. It is important here to list, in order, the main points (characteristics and features).
Analyse Identify components and the relationship between them draw out and relate implications
Explain Means to give reasons for, the cause of and perhaps the effect of something. This does not mean that you should say ‘what is’ but ‘why it is so’ or ‘how it came to be so’. You may need to give a brief description of the facts first, but the main emphasis must be on interpretation.
Discuss This is a very common instruction. It requires you to present a point of view and to support that point of view by using knowledge of the topic as evidence. You are therefore required to think carefully, not just rely on your memory. A ‘discuss’ question is asking ‘What do you think?’ ‘What can be said for and against’, and ‘What is your opinion?’ The facts must be used to support a point of view.
Compare The ‘compare’ extended response involves pointing out similarities and differences between two things. A good approach to this type of question is to take point by point and show where each is similar and where each differs. It is essential that a real comparison is made and that both parts are given equal treatment.

Analysing the question

Since you are not going to be asked to write down all you know about a topic, you should ask yourself:

‘What out of all I know is relevant material to be used in answering this question?’

You can’t decide what is relevant and what can be left out without carefully analyzing the question first. Therefore, when confronted with a question resist the temptation to pick up your pen and start writing. Instead ask yourself:

‘What am I being asked to write about?’

  • Begin by looking for the instruction words and working out what they mean. Underline them.
  • Analyse the wording of the question carefully. Circle the key words. They are the important words around which you will build your essay. You will need to show in your response that you understand their meaning.

In the following example the instruction words have been underlined and the key words have been bolded.

Select a developing country that you have studied. Describe how the people are affected by theenvironment.

Deciding what is relevant

The most common fault of all extended responses is not answering the question or not answering all parts of the question.

Having clearly understood what the question is asking you to write about, your next step is to decide what is relevant to the question. You could consider it this way.

Selecting the right material takes practice. Gradually you will gain confidence and know what is relevant, and of equal importance and how far to expand each of the ideas you have. You need no knowledge of the topic to be able to analyse the question, but you do need a wide body of knowledge before you can begin selecting appropriate material. That’s why you are encouraged to read widely.

Remember some questions ask you to interpret material, to offer an explanation of not just what happened but why. Ask yourself ‘What evidence will I need to support my point?’ It is important that you realise the difference between the essential points of your argument and the factual evidence you use to support it. The essential points are your interpretations; the evidence is the facts, which can be checked.

Planning the extended response

Taking just a few minutes to plan your extended response, even under examination conditions, is never wasted. A plan, which may only be a list of key words, helps you to recall information and avoid repetition. It also assists you by giving your written response structure, and by ensuring that your arguments are logically sequenced and well written.

As you write your extended response, constantly refer back to the plan and cross off each of the points as you proceed. This process can often stimulate the recall of ideas that you may have forgotten. These can now be included as inappropriate.

As you complete each paragraph, quickly read over it before proceeding onto the next point in your plan. This will ensure that you only include relevant information and that you answer the set question. While writing you should be constantly asking yourself ‘Am I answering the question?’ Reading over the paragraph will also enable you to quickly correct any obvious errors that might otherwise detract from the quality of your response.

Writing the extended response

An extended response has three parts: an introduction, a body and a conclusion.


The introduction should ‘set the scene’ for the reader by introducing the main ideas and significant points on which your arguments are to be developed. It is often useful to include in the introduction the key words used in the question. It is also important to clearly and concisely define the key geographical terms and concepts being addressed by the question.

In examinations it is very important to write a good introduction. The examiner will very quickly determine whether or not you are on the right track. Your introduction should not be too long; it should merely repeat the question.


The body provides the detail of your argument or information. Each paragraph should include one main point or idea that contributes to the development of your argument. This main point or idea is usually summarized in the opening sentence. The rest of the paragraph should expand on the main point by way of explanation or example. Each paragraph should be placed in an order that best develops your answer.

In Geography it is quite acceptable to use subheadings and numbered points wherever appropriate. Each set of points must, however, be introduced by a formal sentence and each individual point should stand as a formal sentence where required.

Maps, diagrams and models can also be a very effective means of developing your arguments and demonstrating your knowledge and understanding of the topic. If a map is included it should have some indication of scale and include a north arrow. It should be included within the extended response, not at the end, and reference to it made in the text of the response.

References to fieldwork and case studies should be included wherever appropriate. These enable you to apply your experiences and knowledge to the explanation of geographical phenomena.

You should provide an answer or extended response that balances different viewpoints and perspectives. Substantiate your arguments with appropriate evidence, such as case study examples and avoid sweeping false generalization.


The conclusion draws together your arguments and ideas. It should focus on the point of view express in the introduction the response. Be careful to avoid contradicting what was written earlier.

Dos and Don'ts

  1. Always plan your extended response
  2. Always stick to the question. Don’t just write down everything you know about the topic. Be selective. Irrelevant information only detracts from your response.
  3. Answer all parts of the question. The failure to answer even one part of a structured question could affect the quality of response and lose you marks.
  4. Use diagrams, models and sketch maps wherever appropriate.
  5. Don’t include references to yourself in your responses, for example ‘I will now answer the question’, ‘As I have shown…’ or ‘I think…’
  6. Don’t ask rhetorical questions in your response, for example ‘So! What is eutrophication?’
  7. Avoid value judgments, for example ‘All conservationists are hippies’, or make sure that you support such judgments by evidence or argument.
  8. Use only commonly accepted abbreviations for names of organisations for example. The first time the name or term is used, write it out in full and place the abbreviation in brackets after it.
  9. Always read over your completed response to check for errors in punctuation, spelling, syntax and the labeling of diagrams, for example.

Reference: Grant Kleeman: A Geography of Global Interactions