Defining Questions

Learning Objectives

  • Describe and use questioning as a prewriting strategy

Imagine the following conversation with your friend:

Friend: “The funniest thing ever happened today!”
You: “What happened?”
Friend: “Oh my goodness…you wouldn’t even believe it. I don’t even know where to start.”
You: “Okay, now I need to know. Where were you? Did it happen to you or to someone else?”
Friend: “Someone else. It saw it on the way to class.”
You: “Well, what happened? Who was it?”
Friend: “This guy had turned around to talk to his friend and kept walking—directly into the fountain.”
You: “Did he fall in?”
Friend: “Yes, he started falling, and when he reached out for something to catch his fall, he grabbed a girl next to him and pulled her in, too!”

Icon of two people. One icon has question marks above their head, the other has lightbulbs above their head.

Figure 1. Asking open ended questions when choosing a topic allows you to explore the numerous sides of an argument. This can be instrumental later on in the writing process, especially when exploring counter arguments.

And you can imagine even more questions to follow—How did she react? Were they soaked afterwards? Did anyone help? Did they say anything?

In conversation with someone, it’s natural to ask questions to learn more. The more questions you ask, the more details you have, and the better-equipped you’ll be to fully visualize what happened. Much in the same way that actively engaging in a conversation helps you paint a picture about a situation, you can also ask questions to learn more information about a writing topic.

Asking defining questions is an especially good way to help with the very first step of the writing process—narrowing a broad topic to help you develop a central idea and supporting details.

Beginning with Questioning

Defining questions help to take a broad topic and narrow it down to create a focal point. For example, imagine your assignment is to write about taxes. You narrow that to school taxes, then ask the following defining questions:

  1. Why do only property owners (and not renters) in New York State pay school taxes?
  2. What percent of overall school funding comes from school taxes?
  3. Do other states fund schools in the same way?
  4. Does the state lottery system, initially designed to fund schools, actually support schools?
  5. Is there a limit to paying school taxes when one gets older and no longer has children in school?

Try It

Writing Workshop: Narrowing Questions

For this exercise, pretend you are having a conversation with your friend about high school start times. Your friend suggests that starting school at a later time in the morning would be healthier and allow teenagers to get more sleep. In fact, your friend says, later start times have been shown to lead to fewer car accidents.  This conversation sparks your interest and you want to know more about school start times. How will you learn more? Simply, by asking defining questions.


What would you would like to learn about school start times? Ask 5-6 questions.