Strategy For Answer Writing in UPSC Mains

The UPSC Prelims 2020 is scheduled for October 4 and the IAS aspirants must pull up their socks and start working on their answer writing skills to upgrade their Mains preparation simultaneously as well. Aspirants must be aware that if Prelims is a battle then Mains is a war. So without any procrastination, it’s time to sharpen your mind and skills for what lies ahead.

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Directives for Strategic Writing in the UPSC Mains Exam

The UPSC Mains examination is designed to gauge the overall intellectual quirks, depth of understanding with regard to the subject matter and the ability of an aspirant to critically analyse an issue/topic. The descriptive nature of this level tests one’s ability to present the answers in a clear, rational and concise manner.

Even before we venture out on how to practice answer writing, let’s get an in-depth understanding of the Directives which assists one to interpret a question and answer accordingly. A wide range of Directives is used in UPSC Mains General Studies and Optional question papers each year. Directives are general instructions that tell one what to do with the content words/task words to make the answer as relevant as possible. Let’s try to understand frequently used Directives with their clear meanings:

1) Evaluate/Critically Evaluate –

To evaluate is to come to a decision based on the overall analysis of the pros and cons backed by evidence. The word “Critically” is used when a fair judgement is demanded by the examiner. Critically evaluating a statement requires a person to be able to exercise their sense of reasoning and provide evidence both to support and repudiate a statement and to finally reach a conclusion.

A most common mistake that can be found here is most aspirants give only pieces of evidence to support the statement, thus leaving it an incomplete and paving way for the examiner to partially grade the answer.

For example,

A) E-governance is the new mantra of governance in India and the world. Evaluate.


  • Explain the significance of e-governance
  • Conclude the introduction by giving a hint that – all is not well with e-governance mode of governance.


  • Briefly touch upon the success/positives of e-governance with some examples.
  • However, the bulk of your answer should evaluate the above statement. Primarily due to the fact that e-governance is value-neutral and sometimes not an inclusive model of governance, particularly in the developing world.


  • Focus on how e-governance systems can be made more inclusive.
  • Conclude by saying that the administration requires both men and machine. But, machines could replace men in areas where value questions or decision making is not very important.

B) The states of  Himachal Pradesh and Uttarakhand are reaching the limits of their ecological carrying capacity due to tourism. Critically Evaluate.

Introduction: The carrying capacity of a biological species in an environment is the maximum population size of the species that the environment can sustain indefinitely, given the food, habitat, water, and other necessities available in the environment. The heavy rush of tourists into the ecologically sensitive Himalayan states of HP and UK during peak season has raised serious questions of ecological sustainability.



  • Explain the ecological constraints of these states
  • Explain how tourism is affecting their ecology


  • Case study
  • Statistics
  • Graphs (if required)


  • Steps to be taken to make tourism in these states eco-friendly.
  • How tourism has become indispensable to the economy of these states.
  • The conclusion should be balanced.

2) Comment / Critically Comment –

This is one of the most used directives in mains paper. A comment is a statement which expresses an opinion or reaction. It is important to pick out the main points/core and give one’s opinion based on the information or the arguments originated from the reading. One should take a neutral ground and write facts and viewpoints.

As mentioned previously, the word “Critically” demands fair judgement and hence both the pros and cons are weighed. The opinion expressed may swing for or against but it should be backed by right evidence.

For example,

A) There should be zero tolerance to corruption if ease of doing business has to make any noticeable progress. Comment from India’s perspective.


(Please note that comment basically is a detailed discussion, opening up a given topic)

  • Define ease of doing business and India’s position
  • There can be a statement like “empirical shreds of evidence have shown that ease of doing business is greatly impacted by issues of corruption, although factors external to corruption like – the absence of citizen charters, the shortfall in administrative personnel etc can determine ease of doing business.


  • Explain how corruption impacts doing business.
  • Explain how factors external to corruption dent ease of doing business.
  • Use statistics, diagrams and case studies.


  • Throw some light in steps taken to improve the ease of business scenario in India.
  • Make new/possible suggestions to improve EODB.
  • Make your concluding remarks – ideally, for this question – ‘ redressing corruption is a big factor in improving ease of doing business, but, ease of doing business has to do with a lot of other factors connected to ecology, economy, administration and the political and social culture.

3) Discuss/ Discuss Critically

One of the most frequently used directives with a bland tone and possibly the trickiest term whose meaning varies according to the question. Discuss necessitates a debate where reasoning is backed up with evidence to make a case for and against an argument and finally arriving at a conclusion. In simple terms an examiner expects one to discuss various perspectives and present a logical argument.

Questions which ask a candidate to “Discuss Critically” are broad-based in nature and a UPSC examiner would expect the candidate to give out his own perspective with regard to the question. Also, this directive expects one to discuss the points of criticism with regard to the concept.

For example,

A) Discuss the shortcomings of SAARC in achieving its objective of regional and economic integration.


  • Start with the regional and economic objectives of SAARC.
  • State how it has largely remained unfulfilled despite holding great promise.


  • Bring out the hindrances and obstacles that are holding back progress with regard to seamless integration.
  • Discuss trade barriers, bilateral incompatibility (especially Indo-Pak clashes due to terrorism), mutual distrust, poor connectivity and infrastructure etc.
  • Highlight the achievements – SAFTA, SAARC University, SAARC food bank etc.
  • Insulating the multi-lateral process from bi-lateral complications can help aid progress.


  • Suggest a way out- use the ASEAN model as a comparative guideline to resolve issues.

B) The frequency of earthquakes appears to have increased in the Indian subcontinent. However, India’s preparedness for mitigating their impact has significant gaps. Critically discuss various aspects.


  • Discuss the causes and instances of increase in the frequency of earthquakes in the Indian subcontinent in brief and
  • Proceed to critique India’s disaster management policy with regard to earthquakes.


  • Bring out its loopholes, flawed implementation etc and at the same time balance it out by highlighting the positive changes and recent achievements in the field of earthquake preparedness, mitigation and rehabilitation.
  • Back your critique with evidence and examples.

        Conclusion: Suggest policy measures to improve disaster preparedness.

4) Analyse/ Critically Analyse –

When a candidate is asked to Analyse, he/she is expected to break an issue into constituent parts and explain how these relate to one other and present as one summary.

On the other hand when asked to “Critically Analyse”, a candidate is supposed to provide a fair judgment and the other steps remain the same as Analyse.

For example,

A) There is a clear acknowledgement that Special Economic Zones (SEZs) are a tool of industrial development, manufacturing and exports. Recognizing this potential, the whole instrumentality of SEZs requires augmentation. Critically analyse the issues plaguing the success of SEZs with respect to taxation, governing laws and administration.



  • Issues hampering the success of SEZ’s with respect to taxation in India (in detail)
  • The income tax benefits were neutralized by the introduction of the minimum alternate tax (MAT) etc
  • Issues with respect to governing laws and administration
  • Red tapism
  • Complicated  custom laws
  • FTA free trade agreements
  • The absence of complementary infrastructure outside the SEZs, like port connectivity, roads, train connectivity proved to be a dampener for manufacturing investments
  • Export incentives were not extended too many sectors in SEZ’s whereas an export outside the SEZ’s enjoyed duty drawbacks and other incentives.

Conclusion: measures-how it could be improved, balanced view of SEZ’s with the example of China.

5) Examine

The word “Examine” means to probe deeper into the topic and understand the topic in detail. Here a candidate is expected to investigate and establish the key facts and issues related to the question. In “Examine” you probe deeper than “Comment” and in “Analyse”, you probe deeper than in “Examine”.


“Critically Examine” throws light on the negatives and positives where an aspirant needs to examine both sides of an issue and come to a balanced conclusion.

For example,

A) Mumbai, Delhi and Kolkata are the three megacities of the country but the air pollution is a much more serious problem in Delhi as compared to the other two. Examine.

The question wants us to examine the given statement. The statement already makes a conclusion that Delhi has more serious air pollution problem than Mumbai and Delhi. To examine we first need to present the issue in focus in detail and then proceed to reason finally concluding with a positive solution.

Paragraph 1: a brief statement about air pollution in India, its severity and if possible India’s ranking in global air pollution index, ambient air quality index etc.

Paragraph 2: analysis of pollution in Mumbai, Delhi, and Kolkata

Paragraph 3: reasons why Delhi pollution is more than the other cities. It can contain the sources of pollution, geographical and climatic factors etc

Paragraph 4: problems due to pollution in Delhi

Paragraph 5: ways to tackle pollution in India with more focus on Delhi.

B) India is well endowed with fresh water resources. Critically examine why it still suffers from water scarcity.

The question wants us to critically examine water scarcity in India in spite of abundant freshwater.

Paragraph 1: the importance of freshwater resources

Paragraph 2: present the details of abundant water resources stated in the question and its sources like rivers, lakes, groundwater, rainwater, glaciers etc

Paragraph 3, 4, 5: present the problems associated with conserving water leading to scarcity. Each source of water can be picked up and then problems associated with conserving that particular source of water can be stated. For example, problems associated with river water are pollution through industrial effluents, runoff into oceans, wetland destruction, developments on flood banks etc.

Paragraph 6: provide a constructive solution to conserve freshwater resources.

6) Elucidate

Elucidate means to explain in detail/to make clear. When an examiner uses this directive, they present us with a cause-effect correlation. In such cases, a candidate has to bring out the connection more clearly by citing evidence and examples.

7) Explain

Explain gives a clear account as to How/Why something happens. A candidate here is expected to clarify with relevant facts and implications.

Elucidate and Explain are self-explanatory and previous examples gives a fair idea on how to structure the answer.

These are the most commonly used directives in mains repeated time and again. Some straight forward and obvious ones like “WHY?” “HOW?” show up a few times which demands a direct answer and no complications there.

You can find more topics by visiting the UPSC Syllabus page. For more preparation related articles, visit the following links.

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