Staying on Task and Addressing Your Essay Topic

Have you ever composed a beautifully written (brilliantly thought out) essay only to receive a disappointingly low score because you didn’t address the topic? No matter how great your essay is, you’ll never receive a high grade if you don’t address the topic and stick to it. On most standardized tests, for example, writing an essay that is off topic will earn you a zero.

Straying off topic happens to the best of us, but there are plenty of strategies you can use to avoid this common pitfall.

Read the essay prompt and questions carefully

If you’re writing an essay in response to a question, take the time to fully understand what you’re being asked. Misreading or misinterpreting the question is a sure way to get off topic.

One strategy you can use is to circle the verbs (action words) in the question and underline other key words and phrases.

Essay questions may ask you to complete different actions, such as:

  • Analyze
  • Describe
  • Explain
  • Discuss
  • Evaluate
  • Persuade

Pay attention to exactly what the essay question is asking you to do. Persuading, for instance, is very different from explaining. Persuading requires you to formulate a strong argument while explaining means simply outlining the facts.

After circling verbs, you’ll underline other key words and phrases. If you’re not sure what counts as a “key” word or phrase, take a look at this sample essay question about the Shakespeare play Othello:

A tragedy focuses on the fall of a great man as a result of a flaw in his character. What is Othello’s character flaw? Explain how he is truly a tragic hero.

After reading this question, you would first circle the verb “explain.” Next, you would underline key phrases, such as “Othello’s character flaw” and “tragic hero.”

The first sentence of the prompt does provide some useful information, but these two phrases are key because they specify exactly what information you need to include in your essay. The question is asking you to identify Othello’s character flaw and explain how this makes him a tragic hero. (Notice that there is no option to argue that Othello is not a tragic hero; you’re simply explaining why he is.)

As you read essay questions, also notice if the question has multiple parts. If it does, you must answer all parts of the question to fully address the topic. For instance, an essay that only identified Othello’s character flaw without explaining why he’s a tragic hero would not be adequate for the sample question above.

By taking the time to carefully read and understand the question, you’ll know exactly what you need to include in your essay in order to address the topic.

Plan your essay carefully

Once you understand the question you’re being asked, it’s time to plan your essay. (If you’re allowed to choose your own topic it’s still crucial that you stick to it.)

You’ll start by writing your thesis statement. The thesis statement is essentially your answer to the question. If you’ve selected your own topic, the thesis is the main idea of your essay; it’s the overall point you’re trying to make.

Once you’ve written your thesis statement, remember this rule of thumb:

Everything in your essay must contribute to supporting, proving, or elaborating on your thesis statement. If it isn’t closely related to your thesis statement, it’s off topic.

Bonus: Cite any outside sources used to support your thesis. Popular citation styles to consider include APA, MLA style, and Harvard referencing.

Plan out the major points you’ll make to elaborate on your thesis, as well as the supporting details you’ll use to prove or explain these points. As you plan, continue referencing your thesis to ensure you’re staying on topic. Ask yourself, “Does this idea or detail help support and develop my thesis?” If not, leave it out.

Sometimes, you might get really excited about a brilliant idea and want to include it in your essay, even if it isn’t exactly on topic.

Text your exciting idea to your best friend, but don’t put it in your essay. Be disciplined about sticking to the topic at hand, even it feels repetitive or boring, and even if it means leaving out a brilliant idea.

Reread and revise

This step is simple.

Read over your essay at least 2-3 times, looking for any off-topic information that managed to slip through. If you find any idea or detail that doesn’t help you answer the question and develop your thesis, cut it.


To avoid writing an off-topic essay, follow these steps:

  • Carefully read the question/prompt, circling verbs and underlining key words and phrases.
  • Formulate a thesis statement that answers all parts of the question.
  • Plan main points and supporting details, ensuring that all information is directly related to your thesis.
  • Leave out any ideas that aren’t connected to the thesis of your essay.
  • Reread your essay, catching and cutting any off-topic ideas that managed to make it into your rough draft.

If you use these tips, your next essay will be beautifully written, brilliantly thought out, and on topic.


Find additional, helpful citing guides on creating a Chicago style citation, how to do in-text citations, and what is an annotated bibliography at Cite This For Me.