The prospect of producing an analytical essay can at first appear daunting, particularly if it is the first time you have worked on such an assignment. However, you need not worry! Breathe deeply, grab a coffee, and follow the advice provided below. If you do this, you should end up with a correctly-written and highly-polished essay!
The Prewriting Stage
Understand your assignment’s objectives
Usually, an analytical assignment implies the writer’s should put forward some claim or argument about the topic under analysis. Often, this will require you to analyze a different text or a movie, but you may be required to analyze an idea, concept, or issue. To meet the task’s requirements effectively, you will need to break down the subject matter into manageable parts. Then you will need to support any claims you make with appropriate evidence, which may come from the research you have done or from the text or movie you have reviewed.
If you look at The Shining (a Stanley Kubrick masterpiece) as an example, you will see that, as a thesis, art and Native American culture are used as a recurring theme to discuss America’s colonization of lands belonging to Native Americans. Therefore, it is an analysis of a given text and it uses a thesis statement to set out an argument.
Determine what your essay will analyze
If the analytical essay you are writing is for a class, you may already have been assigned a topic by your tutor. If so, study the prompt you were given carefully. What are you being asked to do? Please note, however, that there are times when you will be required to choose a topic for yourself.
If your essay is to be based on a fictional text, it may be possible to build your argument(s) around what it is that drives a particular character or group of people from that text. Alternatively, you may want to argue why a particular part of the text is crucial to the overall work.
If the topic of your essay concerns a historical or bygone event, you may want to explore the causes behind that event.
If your essay concerns some scientific findings or research project, use an accepted scientific methodology for analysis purposes.
Do some brainstorming
It may be that, even after you have selected a topic, it is not immediately clear to you what your thesis statement should say. This is not a problem! A little brainstorming should soon give you a clearer picture. Look at your main thought from a number of angles.
Can you see any recurring themes, ideas, images, phrases, or metaphors? Very often, repetitive things are important. Try to figure out why these re-occurrences are so important. Are they repeated in a different or similar way every time they occur?
What about the text? For instance, if your analysis is rhetorical, you could look at how logic is used by the author and whether it is used effectively. If the work you are examining is a creative one, look at such elements as visuals, imagery, and so on. If the work is a piece of research, you could consider the research methods and findings, and analyze how well (or badly) the experiment is designed.
Some writers find mind maps a great help. Write your topic down in the center of a page. Now add sub-points around it, either coming from branches or encased in bubbles. Link the sub-points to establish relationships and to see if a pattern emerges.
There need not be any order to brainstorming. Ideas can be everywhere. This technique is a great starting point. Do not rule any ideas out at the beginning. Just make a note of anything that occurs to you.
- A thesis statement will need to be created
A thesis statement is usually one or two sentences that sum-up the writer’s central claim. It also lets readers know what the essay will cover.
Do not: Create a thesis statement that is obvious or vague, e.g., “the central theme in this book is punishment.”
Do: Be specific in your argument, e.g., “this book examines the different types of punishment, contrasting a fair trial with the barbarity of execution.”
The latter thesis is analytical because it sets out a specific claim.
That claim is also arguable, which means it is not purely a factual statement that cannot be contested. Analytical essays take a stance and argue the writer’s position.
Your thesis should be sufficiently narrow to fit into your assignment’s scope. You could say “Punishment in the 20th Century” could be used as a thesis for a PhD-level thesis, but it is too broad ranging. However, a more manageable thesis might argue that one type of punishment is more civilized than another type.
It is not advisable to use the “three-pronged” thesis formula unless specifically instructed to do so. Theses of this type often limit an analysis and can make an argument feel “formulaic.” It is acceptable to make a general statement about the nature of your argument.
- Find evidence to support your argument(s)
While much depends on individual assignments, you might be required to rely solely on primary source materials (e.g., the particular text being analyzed) or you may be able to use both primary and secondary source material (e.g., other articles and books). The instruction sheet should specify the type of sources needed. The use of solid evidence is a good way of supporting a claim and makes an argument stronger. List your evidence, say where it was found, and in what way it supports any claims.
Do not: contort evidence or ignore it to suit your thesis
Do: Amend your thesis as more information comes to light.
- Create an essay outline
An effective outline helps to structure an essay and makes the writing process easier. Make sure you know the required length of your assignment. Although some tutors are happy with the “five paragraph” format, there are many who want longer and more detailed essays. Your outline should reflect these requirements.
Do not worry if you are not sure how all the evidence you collected blends or fits in. An outline should help you work out the progress of your argument.
It is also permissible to use a less formal outline where you create larger groups of ideas. You can then decide where and how to use these.
Your analytical essay should be whatever length is necessary to fully cover the topic. Students often make the mistake of choosing too broad a topic and then only give themselves three paragraphs to cover it. Consequently, the essay can seem hurried and shallow.
The Essay Writing Stage
- Begin by writing the introductory paragraph
Your essay’s introductory paragraph should provide some topic-related background information. While the introduction should be engaging, try not to sound overly enthusiastic. Do not summarize the prompt you were given. Just say what your argument is. Additionally, do not make your introduction too dramatic e.g. do not begin with an exclamation or question. It is best not to write from the first or second person perspective (e.g., “I” and “you” respectively). A thesis statement usually appears as the final sentence or two of the introductory paragraph.
Here is an example of an effective introduction: “There were a number of punishment options available in the 20th Century. The different types of punishment explored in this text show how essential it is to punish crime. The author suggests that trial is more civilized than execution.”
An introduction likes this provides the information the reader needs to understand the argument, and then offers an opinion about which type of punishment is more civilized. This style of argument means the reader needs to consider the text rather than take what you say as fact.
Do Not: Add unnecessary words, e.g., “fluff.
Do: Briefly state the title of the work being analyzed, author’s name, and the date of publication.
- Write your essay’s main body paragraphs
Every paragraph in your essay’s body should have a) a clearly written topic statement/sentence, b) a detailed analysis of the text or part of it, and c) supporting evidence to show your thesis statement and argument(s) are valid. The topic sentence in a body paragraph lets readers know what that paragraph will cover. The analysis part is used to build your argument. Examples and evidence are used to support that argument. Do not forget that every point should support and connect back to the central thesis statement. Evidence is usually quotes or extracts from the text you are analyzing.
The “CEE” (Claim, Evidence, Explanation) formula should help reinforce this method. When you make a claim, be sure you back it up with evidence and an explanation as to how that evidence is relevant to the claim.
- Know when you should paraphrase or quote
Paraphrasing is, essentially, the practice of summarizing a text. This technique is useful for providing background information or for condensing detailed information into a shorter space. Paraphrasing is useful when there is a lot of information to convey or where a quotation is too long to quote directly. By contrast, quoting is the practice of taking an exact piece of text and inserting it into an appropriate place in your essay within quotation marks. This method is useful when you want to use exact words from a text to support a claim. Be careful to use the right format for the citation style you are using, e.g., APA, Chicago, MLA, etc.
Do Not: as a rule, you should not use more than two quotations in any one paragraph.
Do: Use paraphrasing or quotes to support any controversial or subtle claim.
- Write your essay’s conclusion
An essay-concluding paragraph is that part where the writer reminds their readers about how the arguments were supported. It sometimes happens that a tutor will want you to make a more broad-ranging or wider connection as you get to the end of your essay. What this means is that they expect you to make a connection to the “wider world.” This might involve saying how the arguments you put forward affect other claims or analysis about this particular text or how your claims might alter the view(s) of your readers.
Do not: Introduce your readers to any new ideas or arguments in the concluding paragraph.
Do: Explore and expand the topic well beyond the thesis statement. This usually means exploring its implications or broader context.
Finishing Off Your Analytical Essay
Once your essay is written and you are happy with the content, you will need to proofread it. During this process, you should look for and eliminate any spelling, punctuation, and grammar errors. Are there any sentences that run-on or any poorly constructed ones? It is usually the case than any paper that has a lot of mistakes, no matter how trivial, will have marks deducted. Use a spell-checker and also read your work manually.
Check also that your essay is correctly formatted. You should, for instance, check that the margins are correct and that you have used an appropriate style and size font.
- Read your essay aloud
The habit of reading aloud helps identify any parts that are awkward-sounding. This is also an excellent method for finding any run-ons you may have previously missed.
- Check that character names, place names, titles, and so on are correctly spelt
It is not unusual for tutors to deduct marks where names of key characters are misspelt throughout a paper. So, go to the article or text you were analyzing and make sure all names are spelt correctly.
If the subject of your essay is a movie, check character names online. Look at two or even three sources to be doubly sure your spelling is accurate.
- Read back over your essay as though you were the tutor
Have you been clear in the way you made your points? Will readers be able to understand the structure? Have you clearly explained why this topic is important?
- Get another person to read through your essay
Does that person think any aspects should be removed or added? Have they been able to understand the points you wanted to convey?