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Writing, The 5 W's, and Mapping Help

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Updated on Sep 7, 2011

Asking Questions

Asking "who, what, where, when, and why" is a formula that journalists, detectives, and researchers use to get a complete story. This technique is particularly useful when you're choosing an essay topic and when focusing a topic once you've made a selection. There are two sets of questions for taking stock, one suited for an impersonal or researchtype essay, and the other geared toward a personal essay. Unlike some of the other brainstorming techniques, you should ask questions deliberately, with great thought given to each question. Do not rush or include every idea that comes to mind. Even if you are being timed, take a moment to give the best answer you can for each question. The better focused your answers, the more information you will have to use in your essay.

If you are writing a research paper or other type of nonpersonal writing, and your topic is already selected or assigned, concentrate on the standard W's: who, what, where, when, and why. These questions will help you quickly develop a great deal of information about your subject. Not every question will apply to every essay, and the prompts that follow each Ware meant to be taken as suggestions. Be flexible, and use the format as it best fits your topic.

  1. Who: Who is involved? At what level? Who is affected?
  2. What: What is your topic? What is its significance? What is at stake? What are the issues?
  3. Where: Where does your subject occur? Where is its source?
  4. When: When does your topic occur? When did it begin/end? When must action be taken to deal with it?
  5. Why: Why is your subject of interest? Why did it develop as it did? Why should others be interested in your topic?

Admissions essays and some exit essays are intended to be personal, so you must focus on yourself. Take time answering personal questions such as the following. This process involves a different set of W's, meant to elicit key information about you and about the topic if it has been chosen.

  1. Where have you been (chronological history)?
  2. What have you accomplished or achieved?
  3. What do you do with your time when not in school?
  4. What are you good at? Passionate about?
  5. Who are/were your major influences?

Here's how the 5 W's might work for the following assignment:

Television is a very powerful medium. What do you think is the ideal place of television in our lives, and why? Explain. How close is the reality to that ideal?

      Who watches TV?
      What kinds of shows are people watching?
      What happens to kids who watch too much TV? (affects schoolwork, relationships with others?)
      What about people who have no TVs? Are they more informed? Less informed?
      What do people expect from TV? Relaxation? Information? Entertainment?
      Where do people place TVs in their homes? Kids' rooms? (effect on family relationships, socialization?)
        Bedroom? (effect on sleeping/relaxation?) Kitchen? (effect on conversation during meals?)
      What effect does TV have on our lives? Hurts us? Helps us?
      What if we got rid of TV?
      When was TV invented?
      Why do people watch TV?

Notice the number of questions and the amount of possible essay material this student was able to generate. Some of the questions are more relevant to the assignment than others ("when was TV invented" probably won't be relevant, for example). But clearly, this student has many ideas to work with. In the next lesson, you'll learn how to use a brainstorming session like this to develop a thesis and organize your essay ideas.

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