Genre Guide


1. What is a short answer?

A short answer is an extended text, usually one to two paragraphs in length, written in response to a question or instruction. It belongs to the genre family of ‘Exercise’, the social purpose of which is to provide practice in key skills (e.g., the ability to explain technical terms or procedures), and consolidate knowledge of key concepts (Nesi & Gardner, 2012). This type of writing is commonly adopted among undergraduate subjects in the science discipline, such as Biology and Chemistry at universities, most of which involve the writing of concise response to questions in assessment.


2. Why should you write short answers?

The writing of short answers can help reinforce subject knowledge, encourage further research on lecture topics, and sharpen students’ English writing and presentation skills with the aim of preparing them for the more high-order assignments (e.g., essays and oral presentations) in their later study years.

Also, being an ‘elemental genre’ to make up the different parts of larger texts or macro-genres, short answers are sometimes adopted in junior years of an undergraduate science degree as a form of preparation for the more demanding macro-genres. How should you write short answers?


(a) Do thorough revision beforehand

According to a subject teacher of Applied Biology and Chemical Technology (ABCT), one of the significant weaknesses among students in short answer writing - especially in timed-examination setting, is the misinterpretation of what is being asked in a question, which will usually result in totally irrelevant answers. This is believed to be the consequence of students’ inability to understand the scientific content (e.g. subject-specific technical vocabulary) in the questions. As suggested by the teacher, to better prepare for writing short answers in assessments, students should do thorough revision to familiarize themselves with the technical terms that might appear in the questions, and treat each tutorial task seriously as they are good practice for writing short answers.  


(b) Analyze the question

During the assessment, read a question carefully before you write anything, to understand what you are being asked and how you are expected to respond.

The table below summarizes the significant topics of short questions in ABCT assignments, and the rhetorical functions (Werlich ,1976; Lackstrom, Selinker & Trimble, 1973) required to answer them.


Example question and response

Rhetorical functions required

(i) Explaining technical terms


‘What are enhancers?’

- Definition

(ii) Explaining process and procedures


‘Explain how IS elements produce target-site duplications when they move’

- Description

- Cause and effect

(iii) Contrasting differences between two elements


 ‘What is the difference between a knockout and a knockdown of a gene?’

- Comparison and Contrast  (contrast)

(iv) Expressing personal opinion or predicting about future events


 ‘Do you think there will ever be a cure for cancer?’

- Argument and discussion

(v) Relating experience to current study


 ‘Based on what you have heard at the cancer symposium and what you are currently being taught at ABCT, do you see any connections? Usefulness?’

- Reflection

(vi) Multiple sub-questions within a question


 ‘What is a retrotransposon, and how does it differ from typical transposons?’


(i)- Definition

(ii)- Comparison and Contrast  (contrast)


(c) Brainstorm ideas for your answer

After studying the question, you can start to plan for your answer. Quickly drafting a list of ideas on scrap paper would probably help you brainstorm and organize your answers better, especially when dealing with more complicated questions with multiple sub-questions (see topic (vi) above).


(d) Consider how to present your answer

Once you have the ideas ready, you have to decide the length and format of your response:

Length - Short answers written by ABCT students are most often one to two paragraphs long (30 to 150 words). Depending on the question types, the length of the response will vary.

Format – Point forms or even diagrams and tables are generally acceptable in short answer writing, as long as the meaning of the answer is clear. Sometimes, students are expected to write longer texts as well, especially for answers that are worth more marks in an assessment task.

For more tips on how to present ideas, try these interactive activities: Finding the "Links", and Writing Practice.

(e) Write your answer

Once all the ideas are brainstormed and planned, the actual writing of the answer should not be difficult. While writing, go back and read the question again to double-check whether the answer you are giving is precisely what the question asks for.


4. Language, vocabulary and register

(a) Express yourself concisely

A short answer is often a direct, informative and concise response to a question. Therefore you should avoid repetition and wordiness but make sure that each sentence is unambiguous.


(b) Include justifications (if applicable)

While references are not needed given the timed nature of short answers assignments (e.g. tests / examinations), justifications should be incorporated in short answers which involve arguments or opinions on an issue.


(c) Use formal language.

Similar to other forms of academic writing, a formal academic style is expected in short answers. The following links on the CILL website provide useful guidance in relation to academic language and vocabulary:

5. Citing sources

Since it is assumed that you will be relying on the specified textbooks and course notes when preparing your answers, the use of references is usually not required.


6. Useful Resources


Drury, H. (2001). Short answers in first-year undergraduate science writing: What kind of genres are they? In M. Hewings (Ed.), Academic Writing in Context (pp.104–121). Birmingham: University of Birmingham Press.

Lackstrom, J., Selinker, L. & Trimble, L. (1973). Technical rhetorical principles and grammatical choice. TESOL Quarterly, 7(2), 127-136.

Nasi, H. & Gardner, S. (2012). Genres across the Disciplines: Student writing in higher education. Cambridge : Cambridge University Press

Werlich, E. (1976). A text grammar of English. Heidelberg: Quelle and Meyer.


Further reading:

Davis, H. B., Tyson, J. F., & Pechenik, J. A. (2010). A Short Guide to Writing about Chemistry. Hong Kong: Pearson Longman.

Knisely, K. (2009). A Student Handbook for Writing in Biology. Sunderland, MA: Sinauer Associates and W.H. Freeman.

Pechenik, J. A. (2013). A Short Guide to Writing about Biology. Hong Kong: Pearson.


About this website

This website has been developed as part of the UGC funded project, "Supporting and developing students’ English literacy practices in the disciplines” which is funded by the University Grants Committee’s Competitive Funding Scheme on Teaching and Learning for the 2012-2015 triennium. This inter-institutional literacy project aims to examine the provision of English literacy across three broad disciplines in Hong Kong tertiary institutes, namely Social Science, Science and Engineering in the participating institutions that include the Hong Kong Polytechnic University, City University of Hong Kong and the Hong Kong Baptist University. The website consists of a comprehensive support system to help provide a stimulating learning environment for students, content and language teachers. It also aims to help teachers become conversant with disciplinary genres and the linguistic and pedagogical resources suitable in a second language learning environment. The resources on this website will be open to and shared by all tertiary institutions in Hong Kong and beyond.