Analytical Writing

A lot of English classes will ask you to analyze someone else’s writing. This is kind of the bread and butter of English exams like AP English.  Whether you’re analyzing poetry, prose, or nonfiction, the same basic ideas apply:

In an analysis essay you basically have to answer 3 questions: 

  • What did they say?
  • How did they say it? (literary and rhetorical devices)
  • Why did they choose to say it that way? (analyze those devices)

If you’ve encountered acronyms like TPCAST or SPACECATS, that’s what they’re trying to get you to do.  If you get overwhelmed, just go back to those three questions: What? How? Why?

Start by closely reading and annotating the passage:

What did they say?

  •  On your first read, just read for content, such as:
    • Content – What’s in the text on a literal level? 
    • Speaker – Whose perspective is this coming from?
    • Audience – Who is the author or speaker writing to?
  • Next, identify: (Note: with a poem or difficult text, you might have to read it a second time to get these.)
    • Purpose/Theme – What does the author wish to achieve through the text? What’s the theme, message, or central idea?
    • Tone/Mood – How is the text supposed to make you and/or the target audience feel? Describe the atmosphere of the text. (Hey, remember that one time when Hemmingway ended “Hills Like White Elephants” with the girl saying “It’s fine” but it really wasn’t?  Don’t be tone deaf!)
    • Form/Context  — Is it an essay? A poem? Prose? What sort of essay? argumentative? expository? What sort of poem? sonnet, villanelle, ballad, free verse, etc. If it’s prose, is it a dialogue, narrative, internal monologue …? What’s the situation or occasion?

How did they say it?

  • Then read it a second or third time and annotate, looking for things like:
    • Stylistic elements – What kind of style do they write with? Look to things like diction and syntax, maybe sound devices like alliteration.
    • Structure – How does the author organize the text? Look to literal ordering (flashbacks or chronological order) and elements like setting, juxtaposition . . . in poetry, elements like rhyme, caesura, enjambment, 
    • Literary Devices – things like figurative language and imagery.
    • Don’t forget to underline important quotes that you will use in your writing

That’s a lot of things you should be on the lookout for, but don’t worry about finding all of them. Some works will lend themselves towards an analysis of figurative language while others might lend to diction and syntax. You are certainly not expected to find and write about everything in a timed essay, which is where many students will have to write an analysis essay.

Why did they say it this way?

When you write your analysis you want to take us through that close reading you just did, threading in quotes from the reading, and answering question 3: 

  • For example, if there’s a simile comparing the speaker to a raccoon, you want to explain why the author chose that vehicle — i.e. what associations and attributes of a trash panda is he trying to ascribe over to the tenor (the speaker) and why.
  • If you found a bunch of s sounds, what image might that be contributing to? Is the speaker insinuating that someone is sneaky and snaky?  Or maybe it’s just sleepy.
  • If you noticed a lot of long, cumulative and convoluted sentences, what might this suggest about the subject or the narrator?
  • If you found a bunch of sweet-smelling flower imagery, why did the author do that?  Is something prosperous, fragile and temporal, sensual (flowers are sex organs, after all).  But whatever you do, never ever say imagery helps you see it better (cuz, you know, it’s image ry, so no duh) 
  • If you noticed a bunch of nascent diction, why is that? Is something being born or starting?  Or why all this sepulchral diction?  Is something ending or dying? What mood are they creating?

Some Strategies for Organizing Your Response

One strategy for teaching young people how to swim is to throw them in the water and let them rely on instinct.  Not everyone can do that, however, and after a certain age learning how to swim is a much more mechanical process. If you’re one of the lucky ones who can just dive into a piece of literature and come up with a fluid analysis that moves from point a to point b, go for it!  For the rest of us who need to learn to float then kick then stroke, here are some strategies.

Conventional Approach:

  • Introduction: Get the important details down, such as author, title, genre (form), context (setting or situation; speaker, audience), and purpose or message.
  • 1st body paragraph: paraphrase and context — take us through an intelligent reading of the text.  It’s probably a good idea to make mention of things you may have left out of your introduction like tone, mood or point of view.
  • 2-4 body paragraphs: analysis – take us beyond the literal level and analyze elements such as imagery, figurative language, diction and syntax, POV, sound devices and structure (poetry), etc. Try to answer the question why as much as you can and tie it all back to your thesis – 
    • Why did the author choose grave diction? How does it contribute to message or purpose?
    • Or, why did the author choose floral imagery? How does it contribute to message or purpose?  
    • Or, why did the author choose to tell the story from this perspective?
    • Why so many domestic similes? What purpose does that serve?
    • Why so many C sounds in this line? What imagery does this contribute to? 
    • . . . I think you get the idea by now. 
  • Conclusion: don’t belabor it; just assert a point and drop the mic.

Closed Thesis: If you’re struggling with organization or theses or just want a safe bet, consider a closed thesis:

Thesis = Form + title + author + context + devices + message

Ex.: In the villanelle “Do Not Go Gentle” Dylan Thomas uses images of light and dark, oxymoron, and metaphors to convey the speaker’s message to his father: approach death in the same way you lived life.

It’s not the most eloquent and provocative thesis, but it checks a lot of boxes (form/genre, title, author, literary elements, speaker, audience, and message all in one sentence!) and it helps you organize.  Now you just have to write a body paragraph each about imagery, oxymoron, and metaphor.

Chronological Approach (my personal fav)

Introduction: Get the important details down, such as author, title, genre/form, context (setting or situation; speaker, audience), and purpose or message.

Then each paragraph intertwines close reading/paraphrase and analysis as you move through the piece from beginning to end.

Layered Approach:

You might peel back meaning layer by layer.  Start with your introduction and first body paragraph (paraphrase), then with each body paragraph get deeper and deeper.  If you’re going somewhere that seems particularly original, nuanced, or on the edge, this can be a good strategy.  It allows you to win over your audience so you don’t catch them off guard with an unconventional interpretation right away.  At least if your 5th paragraph is a risk and they don’t buy it, you have 4 previous paragraphs that showed off your skills and knowledge.  

Something like this:

  • 1st paragraph: intro
  • 2nd paragraph: paraphrase/context
  • 3rd paragraph: simple/centrist interpretation
  • 4th paragraph: but did you notice this word in stanza 4? . . . get mildly speculative
  • 5th paragraph: and what about this image in stanza 3 and 7? . . . get more speculative
  • 6th paragraph: go bleeping crazy! Yay ya yah ya yah! Cake by the ocean!  Or just conclude, that’s cool too.
Layers, get it?

Don’t worry about getting everything!  Some of these works have had tens of thousands of words written on them.  If you spend the whole time on imagery and never get to another literary element, but you create a well-written analysis that shows a good understanding of the work, that’s OK!  Whether it’s diction, syntax, figurative language, point of view or something else, just try to find some point of entry to the text. 

Just make sure you’ve answered the three questions: 

  • What did they say?
  • How did they say it? (literary and rhetorical devices)
  • Why did they choose to say it that way? (analysis)

What if I’m wrong? That’s kind of OK. Unlike X = 2, there is a range of possible answers. If you have a plausible argument with textual support, that’s what we’re looking for. Remember, you can have a different interpretation than your neighbor as long as it’s within a range of interpretation that you can support.

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