Answer Writing Tips for IAS Mains: Things to Do and Avoid

Now that the IAS Mains exam is just few months away, it makes sense to go through best practices for writing Mains answers and the things you should keep in mind and things to avoid to score good marks in civil services mains exam.

Answer Writing Varies for GS and Optional Papers

This is a fact you should always keep in mind. Writing answers is different for the 4 GS papers and for optional paper. In General Studies paper, the focus is on facts and the presentation of these facts within the stipulated word limit. There are different types of questions; some require answers in 50 words, some in 100 0r 200 words. However you need to stick to the point while answering all these questions. Going off topic or mere theory without supporting facts and figures will not help here.

For GS paper, you can have a short introduction followed by the actual answer. This answer CAN be point-wise with each point or bullet listing a fact that supports your main argument or viewpoint. Some questions require a conclusion as well that summarizes the points listed above. While some questions require descriptive essay-type answers where you are required to present your argument with supporting facts.

In optional paper, you have two types of questions: 200 words and 600 words. The focus is more on essay-style answers in 600 word questions whereas it is more on facts in 200 word questions.

Examples of Writing Answers for General Studies Paper

Consider the following questions from 2013 Mains GS Papers:

[thrive_custom_box title=” style=’dark’ type=’color’ color=’#81BEF7′ border=”]Several foreigners made India their homeland and participated in various movements. Analyze their role in the Indian struggle for freedom. (200 words)[/thrive_custom_box]

As you can see the question above is an analytical one and requires answer in exactly 200 words. It consists of 2 parts: Foreigners who participated in India’s freedom struggle and their exact role. Also since the questions asks you to “analyze”, an essay type answer with two main paras would be more appropriate here than a bullet point-wise answer. A sample answer could be:

[thrive_custom_box title=” style=’dark’ type=’color’ color=’#d6d6d6′ border=”]

Foreigners such as Annie Beasant, A.O Hume contributed to India’s freedom struggle. Their role and contribution is analyzed below.

A.O Hume got in touch with prominent Indian leaders and organised with their cooperation the first session of the Indian National Congress (INC) at Bombay in December 1885. It has been said that Hume’s main purpose in encouraging the foundation of the Congress was to provide a ‘safety valve’ or a safe outlet to the growing discontent among the educated Indians. This theory is, however, misleading to explain the truth. Hume possessed a sincere love for India and its poor cultivators. In any case, if Hume wanted to use the Congress as a ‘safety valve’, the early Congress leaders hoped to use him as a ‘lightning conductor’.

Mrs Annie Beasant’s role and contribution to India’s freedom struggle was much more significant. She spread the Theosophical Movement in India which gave confidence to Indians in their past and their rich culture. She became the first woman President of INC presiding over the 1917 Calcutta session. She started the Home Rule League in 1915-16 with the cooperation of Lokmanya Tilak demanding home rule or self-government to India after World War I. She also started the magazines Common Weal and New India that dealt with issues of national reform and promoted the ideas of Home Rule among the masses.


Note that I’ve devoted one paragraph each to the two personalities I mentioned in the introduction. Since the question asks to analyze their role to the Freedom struggle, I’ve not deviated off topic and only listed their contribution in this specific area.

Let’s look at another question that is more fact based.

[thrive_custom_box title=” style=’dark’ type=’color’ color=’#81BEF7′ border=”]”In many ways, Lord Dalhousie was the founder of modern India.” Elaborate. (200 words)[/thrive_custom_box]

This question is a quote by someone and you are required to elaborate the main idea which is Lord Dalhousie’s contribution to founding of present India. The answer required is factual and can be written point-wise as follows

[thrive_custom_box title=” style=’dark’ type=’color’ color=’#d6d6d6′ border=”]

Lord Dalhousie carried out many developmental works and administrative reforms during his tenure as Governor General of India such as:

1. He laid the foundations of modern railways with his famous ‘Railway Minute’ of 1853. The first railway line was laid between Thane and Bombay in 1853.

2. He laid the foundations of an extensive telegraph system in India and the first telegraph line was started in 1853 between Calcutta and Peshawar thus integrating the Eastern and Western parts of India through a modern communication system.

3. Under him, a modern postal system was started in 1854 with the Post Office Act under which post offices and postal stamps were introduced in all the Presidencies.

4. A Public Works Department separate from the supervision of the Military Board was established to oversee development projects such as construction of the Ganges canal and the Bari Doab canal in Punjab. Work on Grand Trunk road was also undertaken.

5. He also introduced modern commercial reforms by making ports free to commerce with all over the world. Harbours at Bombay, Calcutta, Karachi etc. were developed in large numbers.

For these reasons, Lord Dalhousie was considered founder of modern India.


TIP: Use certain terms/words from the question repeatedly to focus on the crux of the question. In this case I have used the word ‘modern’ repeatedly to stick to the question’s focus of modern India.

A question could also be asked as two sub-questions such as:

[thrive_custom_box title=” style=’dark’ type=’color’ color=’#81BEF7′ border=”]a) What is an FRP composite material? How are they manufactured? Discuss their application in aviation and automobile industries. (100 words)[/thrive_custom_box]

[thrive_custom_box title=” style=’dark’ type=’color’ color=’#81BEF7′ border=”]b) What do you understand by Run-of-river hydroelectricity project? How is it different from any other hydroelectricity project? (100 words)[/thrive_custom_box]

Since each question requires answer in only 100 words, you should be to-the-point here. You can write your answer in just one or two short paragraphs.

[thrive_custom_box title=” style=’dark’ type=’color’ color=’#d6d6d6′ border=”]

Fibre-reinforced plastic (FRP) is a composite material made of a polymer matrix reinforced with fibres. The fibres are usually glass, carbon, basalt or aramid. The four major ways to manufacture the fibre preform is through the textile processing techniques of Weaving, knitting, braiding and stitching. FRP when used in aviation industry results in 25% reduction in aircraft weight, 95% reduction in components and overall reduction in production and operational costs of flying the aeroplane. When used in automobile industry, FRP leads to up to 60% reduction in weight of vehicle, improved surface quality and aerodynamics and reduction in components by combining parts and forms into simpler moulded shapes.


Part b can be similarly answered.

Different Types of Questions in Mains

Different types of questions asked include:

Elaborate: Here you’re required to extend or explain the main question in detail. Your views are not asked here.

Discuss: Here you’re required to bring out the pros and cons  or both sides of the question.

Elucidate: Here you’re required to make the question clear or explain in detail. Similar to elaborate. Your views on the matter are not required.

Critically Examine: Similar to discuss. You should examine or analyse the main premise of the question with its associated merits and de-merits and reach a definite conclusion.

Express your views: Your unique viewpoint is asked in the answer. Right or wrong does not matter; what matters is your clear views backed with supporting facts.

Should You Stick to the Word Limit Exactly?

The word limit indicated in the question is indicative only. Your answer should be around that limit, a few words over or below that limit does not matter. But if your answer is far below or far higher than the word limit, then you could be penalized. Also remember that the word limit helps you to complete the question paper within the stipulated time limit. If you write too long answers, you will not have enough time left to attempt remaining questions. So you you should make an attempt to by and large stick to the word limit.

These tips will help you to frame your Mains answers properly and also provide an insight into the various types of questions asked in GS paper of civil services examination. Feedback and queries are welcomed in the comments box below.

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  1. Hi Vimlaksh, I have some doubts regarding answer writing,

    1. Some people say, entire side(s) stipulated for a question must used for writing the answer. Is it so? (I typically write 100 words on single side)

    2. Is leaving a question without writing anything(which i did not know) give a bad impression to the examiner? or Do I need to use fillers to complete that question?

    3. Does handwriting matters to the examiner while awarding marks?

    4. How many marks(max) we can expect for a typical 10 marks(200 words) question? (I don’t think so nobody gets 10/10)

    5. While writing geography optional, Is it necessary to use pencil to draw diagrams or marking places in map. Do I need to draw a neat diagram for answers or a rough diagram will do? (Since it takes me some more time to draw neatly)

    1. Hello Vinod,

      You have raised some nice issues here.
      1. It is not necessary to utilize entire side of the answer paper but you should start every answer on a new page
      2. I would suggest you attempt filler questions in the end when you have nothing to lose and everything to gain
      3. Yes it does. My friend got selected in civils simply bcos of his writing
      4. For an average attempt, you can expect 3-5 marks. Better answers should fetch 6-7 marks. Nothing more than this.
      5. Neatness is always preferred over drab diagrams. Pencil is preferred over pen for drawing diagrams.

  2. sir,
    i have serious doubt in other words a fear about prelims…
    The book which i have is Tata mcgraw hill 2012 . I should have to read that much big book from preface to end…
    this makes me tense.
    Can you suggest me to pick a correct path to prepare prelims .

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