Understanding the topic (for essays)

Cute and irrelevant.

Out-of-the-topic essays are very common. But it’s one of the worst mistakes a students can commit. If the topic is a little bit tricky, which it is in France by design, I don’t know about Cambodia, a majority fall into the trap.

The mistake can have various reasons.


The first reason is carelessness. The students don’t even bother to read the topic properly. They spot the first word that looks interesting and begin to write whatever comes through their mind without any method. In general, they just don’t know what we expect from them. They simply comply with the order to fill a certain amount of pages with ink.

Usually, I explain the issue with a simple comparison:

“If you ask your haidresser to make a blow-dry and, instead of that, he just shaves your head, you don’t pay him, do you? It’s the same principle with an essay. If you do something else than what is required, you deserve a bad mark. We teachers are quite tolerant and we don’t give you a zero, although it is what you actually deserve.”


Another reason is polysemy. Every word has several meanings. Therefore, the question you ask can be interpreted in various ways, some more relevant than the others.

I usually use the following example to explain it:

“Can one laugh at everything.”

Generally, I give a few minutes to the students to think a little bit on their own, before I explain the full method.

The question looks quite simple. Spontanously, most of the students try to find exceptions, which is not so bad an idea. But they miss the point. They say absurd things such as: “You can’t laugh about sex or about death.” But very soon, they have to admit that most of the jokes they tell are sexual or blasphemous, or deal with death. Normally, they are quite embarassed.

They miss the point, because the verb to can has various meanings. And it’s so common that they don’t bother to define it. Maybe they will try to define to laugh, but they never think of to can.

To can is used to express:

  • A possibilty: I can afford to buy the car.
  • An ability: I can swim.
  • A permission: You can play outside.
  • A probability: It can be the typhus or the cholera. I don’t know.

Those are just the most common meanings. Many sentences can be understood in various ways.

  • I can’t swim… because I haven’t learned how to do it. Ability.
  • I can’t swim… because there is no river or swimming pool in the area. Possibility.
  • I can’t swim… because I must do my homework. I don’t have the permission from my mother.

In the case of laughing, the most important question is about permission or morality. And the answer is no, because you can hurt someone. However it’s more a problem of relationship than a problem of topic. I can easily make a joke about cancer, if I am not talking to someone who actually has cancer.

If you are talking about the possibility of laughing at everything, the answer is yes. Try as much as you want, you won’t find a single consistent exception. As a matter of fact, we laugh about everything, with a predilection for the most sacred things. It’s even recommended to present different answers in a single essay, depending on different definitions.

So, the first step in writing an essay is to define the words of the topic, even the most common ones, and maybe all the words. “Can one laugh at everything?” is not exactly the same as “Can you laugh at everything?”

Defining should become an habit in any field of knowledge.

Tell us about African forest. But what is a tree?

Which is the most influential city of the country? What is a city in the first place? Where are its limits? If two cities happen to be very close, should they still be counted as two or just as one?

Even counting dead people is not that easy. If a man has a car crash but dies after spending three months at the hospital, should he still be considered as roadkilled?


The most important point is to understand that there is a problem to solve. The students tend to avoid difficulties, and simply choose the easiest answers. They write a collection of dull prejudices, because they are afraid of uncertainty, or because they don’t see that there is something debatable. Doubt is important, but we are naturally afraid of doubt.

“Time is money.” This saying seems so obvious, that the students believe they just have to provide a few examples of people wasting their time and losing business opportuinities.

But it is not obvious at all. What is valuable? No matter what you do, your money will probably not increase your lifespan significantly. Of course, you can spend more on medical treatments. But is it of any use if you’ve spent most of your time doing a hard and painfull job, in order to earn the money that will make you live a little longer? One could easily invert the motto, by saying: “Money is time. I don’t want to waste my money, because it’s so hard to earn and I’d prefer to play with my children, rather than working all the time.”

In general, the students must find the problem and understand why the topic is difficult. I tell them: “The more difficult, the better it is. If you doubt, if you aren’t any longer sure of the right answer, it’s a good sign. It means that you’ve begun to think. So, brace yourself. Maybe your essay won’t be perfect, maybe the plan will be a little bit unbalanced. But, at least, you’re doing the job.”

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