Walter L. Dutton - Writer - Teacher
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Writing the Analytical Essay


This is when you need to seriously consider not using writing techniques you were taught in high school or other composition classes unless they taught you the analytic process. The five paragraph essay, summary (book report), Sheppard’s, and other methods. Think for yourself and never simply write about what the text author said (e.g., summary ).

The basic structure of analytic paragraphs should include:

  • A claim informing the reader of what argument follows (inapplicable to fiction essays)
  • A primary or major quote or paraphrased text upon which the discussion will be premised, properly cited
  • The purpose or lesson presented by the major quote/paraphrase. This may take many forms: "The lesson is ...," "The reader learns that ...," "The author is teaching readers that .... ." Steps 2 and 3 vary for fiction because the prompt calls for analysis of a larger part of the text.
  • Discussion - these sentences combine the issues or ideas to be discussed with the contextual parts of the text that relate to the lesson and major quote, demonstrating how and why they are related, using the contextual evidence as an example
  • A concise conclusion in declarative form.

Argument does NOT mean "debate." Argument means discussion of a specific textual idea/meaning which the text author offers.

Do not begin your essay (any part of it) with a topical sentence. This applies to body paragraphs in which the analysis is done. Some teachers believe a topical sentence is appropriate to begin a paragraph of analysis. The reason I teach my students to begin the body paragraphs with a claim is that beginning your analytic discussion with your argument creates a much stronger impression on your reader than a vague sentence which merely refers to the topic under discussion. Do not write commentary or general topic ideas that do not expressly use a specific part of the text.

Before writing your first paragraph, introducing the text, its author, and briefly summarizing what the text is about, start writing your body of analysis paragraphs first. This will feel odd at first, but if you do so, it will be much easier to develop a thesis that solidly represents your ideas. Beginning with what will be the second paragraph of your essay, write your first claim. This claim should already have been written when you developed the outlining process discussed. A claim is a statement of an argument. Argument is created when using words that create opposition or conflict. For example, “Choosing a career is important but each person needs to be sure that she wants to devote herself sufficiently to the career to advance and succeed.” The word but creates argument – it is not enough to merely choose a career, one must be willing to make a strong commitment to the career.

Next, write some version of [Author – using the last name of the author] wrote, “[write the major quote you choose when developing your outline]” (###). Don’t forget to look up and use proper MLA citation methods. Write the lesson or purpose developed in your outline. You need to own this sentence, so I recommend that you never start it with the author’s name. Instead, you might write some version of [The lesson is …; The author is teaching the reader that … , et al]. Now comes the more difficult part. Look at your major quote and first part of context and the ideas you associated with them in your outline. Start the sentence with the idea (thus owning the sentence) and end it with a reference to that part of text and/or context used to make your point. For example, using Reservation Blues and a Native American cultural value: Respect for elders and respect for the feelings of others is present in the dialogue among Chess, Checkers,, Junior, Victor and Thomas when they talk about what to do with Thomas’ father. Junior and Victor show disrespect for elders and the feelings of Thomas when they agree that they usually rolled the drunk Indians and robbed them. Chess and Checkers were respectful of Thomas’ feelings and respectful of his father by sympathizing with Thomas and offering to help him bring his father inside the home (###).

Continue combining ideas and contextual evidence in the paragraph until you have exhausted all of your ideas and contextual evidence. IMPORTANT: Each time you finish an idea discussion, write a sentence that informs your reader about how this idea and the facts relate to your major quote and the lesson or purpose. This “paragraph” may be so long that you need to break it into multiple paragraphs. Do so at a logical juncture, using a transition sentence, and continue the analysis. A paragraph should be roughly between fourteen and eighteen lines in length. The purpose of this is to create a balanced appearance. End this area of analysis with your conclusion sentence, grabbing it from your outline. Review what you have written and perfect it, checking for spelling, grammar, syntax, MLA methods, focus, meaning, and any other issues that seem to jar you as a reader of your work.

The First Paragraph of the Essay

The first paragraph can, if you must, begin with a topical sentence but make it specific and not general or overbroad, saying something about “people,” “society,” or “the world.” If you think about it, you really cannot speak for all of society or the world or people anyway, but may speak for yourself. Do not write several lines on the topic or commentary trying to portray that you know something about the topic and how it applies to society or the world. Stop with one topical sentence but, preferably, no topical sentences. Introduce the text author and the title of the text, e.g., Annie Dillard wrote “The Death of a Moth” to inform her readers about … [very briefly summarize the entire text in a few sentences]. Your THESIS comes next. I recommend developing your thesis on a separate piece of paper, printing on it, separated by several lines:



Claims (inapplicable to fiction)

Think about the factual focus of your body paragraphs (already written). Write several words focusing on the context of your essay focus, e.g., “The spiders successful life and the moths’ shortened lives …” [this should be incomplete because it is one part of your thesis]. Study the factual content of your body paragraphs and list the subject matters discussed (not the claims or ideas) and continuing the sentence from the context written, e.g., as shown by the evidence of the spider web, insect corpses below it, the duration of the moth’s flame as a candle wick, and how one can think deeply when in isolation. You can finish this part of your thesis here with a period or use a comma and add your claims. The former creates two sentences and the latter one very long sentence, which may be difficult for your reader to follow. Copy your claims from your body paragraph areas of analysis and paste them or write them under “Claims.” Emend (modify) the sentence so that it reads as your claims should be as part of a thesis. This usually involves minor revision of the sentence(s). Last: Write these thesis sentences, or type them, into your essay.

Conclusion Paragraph

This is one of the easiest of all to write. If you followed the outlining process suggested and written your body paragraphs accordingly, you have written one or more conclusion sentences. Copy them and write or paste them all together at the end of your essay. Emend or modify them into a cohesive, well thought out, brief paragraph that offers your reader your conclusions. Never start this paragraph with, “In conclusion … .” It’s the last paragraph. Your reader expects it to be the conclusion. Finally, review and revise the essay to perfect it before you turn it in for a grade. Look for all the problems mentioned in the GEW rubric. Be sure your writing is meaningful and concise. Read each word and sentence and question each. Most adjectives and adverbs are unnecessary. Words like also, just, even, “in fact,” “due to the fact that,” therefore, and similar words can usually be deleted to improve conciseness and focus.

Creating Depth in the Essay

In analytic writing, we are striving for the closest study of the issues (e.g., values, assumptions, other) and facts presented in a text. In the process I have shown you, facts belong on the left side of your outline and the issues (e.g., ideas, assumptions, values, et al) belong on the right. When you are going to include research in an essay, incorporate the research quotes and ideas on the right side of the outline. Be sure to make note of the author’s name next to the quote so that you can find it in your research papers when you are writing. A close study does not mean excessive conciseness. Brevity is fine where called for but eloquent prose is beautiful to read. A few of my students who possessed, due to previous education and innate intelligence, a student may create metaphors, similes, analogies and use other devices that add significantly to the meaning they create in their essay.

Claims: Claims should pose an argument – an assumption made against it being arguable or false, a value (racism) made against another value (Christian acceptance or that all men are created equal). No story or essay facts are necessary for a claim to be made but may be used as examples. Never give up ownership of the claim sentence to the text author. Claims show an opposition of ideas, concepts or values. Opposition is created with words such as despite, but, only if, although, and others. For example: Racism fosters hatred, conflict and hurtfulness in one’s life but may be overcome by Christian brotherly acceptance or understanding and respecting the idea that all men and women are created equal to one another. A well written claim is a way to focus your reader on your argument. A topical sentence would be weaker because it would by necessity pose no argument, and shows no commitment to an argument or idea.

Contextual analytic sentences:

In the analysis of a nonfiction text with research, your external quotes or paraphrases will relate to specific facts and ideas you have already noted (e.g., in reference to a major quote or lesson/purpose). The external source should follow those notes in your outline. When analyzing a fiction text, use specificity about both facts and ideas (e.g., cultural values, personal values, ethical values, emotional values, or logical values). When writing the analytic sentences, which I also call the discussion section of the analysis, try beginning each sentence with your ideas (related to the specific text or contextual matter to be written) and end the sentence with the quoted or paraphrased or summarized matter from the text. This creates a sentence that you own while also supporting your idea with factual evidence from the text or an external source. When adding research to an outline on a fiction text, include your external sources on the right side (just as with a nonfiction text). However, some external sources may discuss an idea as that external source relates to a different culture (e.g., a different tribe, a different part of the U.S.) so look for quotes in those sources that discuss ideas related specifically or topically, so long as the source discusses the same value or idea. For example, Native Americans of the Spokane Indian Reservation may have different cultural values than Native Americans of the Hopi or Zunni cultures. Yet, they are both Native American and have similar values and ideas about how the white dominant culture (or hegemony) has affected their culture and peoples.

“Notes of a Native Son,” by James Baldwin, is an essay about American Harlem and racism in the 1950s, before the Civil Rights Acts were enacted. The values in the essay were racism, Christian acceptance regardless of skin color, and acceptance of the idea and Constitutional law that all men are created equal, e.g., regardless of the color of their skin, their religion, political choices, nationality, race, gender or other major differing factor. So a claim for that essay should pose one or more value against one or more other values: A person may be a racist and feel that people of a different skin color than white are lesser human beings but (a word of argument, e.g., instead, despite, although, et al) that racist will likely face opposition from others who are in favor of Christian acceptance or the idea that all men are created equal.

This combines values with facts, text and/or context, creating analysis. After the sentence of analysis, you need to relate that idea (expressed in the sentence) to your major quote/lesson. For example: If a parent is a racist, he may infect his children and family with hatred, racism, and create a future for them that is, at best, bleak and full of conflict.


The racism of Baldwin’s father caused Baldwin to come to have hatred for his father, while at the same time Baldwin was not racist. The feelings Baldwin expressed about his father were not racially based. He and his father were Negro, however, the racism persistently shown by his father detrimentally affected Baldwin’s life and changed the way he, his mother and his siblings related to others.

This combines logos (e.g., values and reasoning) with pathos (emotions) and makes sense of the hatred of each person. The author’s meaning is captured and the essayist’s ideas are used to discuss the author’s text. The next sentence would be a sentence of analysis, as above. Repeat this process of analysis of text (major quotes) as related to context (quotes related to the major quote). When these are exhausted, consider the length of the paragraph and whether or not it is too long. When you have this completed, insert the conclusion you wrote when you created your outline, modified as necessary based upon any additional ideas you discovered while writing. A conclusion sentence should be nice and short; I suggest eight or ten words. A conclusion should be a simple declarative sentence stating your conclusion based upon your analysis.

Reservation Blues, a novel by Sherman Alexie, a Spokane Indian Reservation Native American, professor and prolific poet and writer is a work I have used. In research on Reservation Blues, students may come across scholarly articles or books (written by a scholar) that discuss different Native American tribes which have different cultural values. That would not help when writing about the Native Americans portrayed in Reservation Blues because the S.I.R. is a single tribal culture and, in the novel, is only discussed in comparison with another culture as to the white dominant culture that surrounds them in the area and state. Specificity is necessary when discussing these issues because the value(s) you discuss will be raised in a specific scene and setting created by Alexie and which is entirely fictional. However, scholarly articles that study cultural issues which affect most or all Indian cultures would be helpful in an analysis of the Spokane Indian reservation story. Some of these study the white oppression, poverty, alcoholism, songs, spirituality and many other mutually applicable issues.

Study how to use an external source, never forgetting to explain how the external source’s quote applies to the analysis discussed. Failing to explain their relationships will deprive your essay of depth and clarity. Never forget to OWN YOUR SENTENCES and, in discussion, to combine in a sentence, mention of the specific value you are addressing with the facts related to that value or values. Then following that sentence, explain how your analysis relates to the major quote and lesson, not by using those terms, but by relating them in the content of the sentence.

In Reservation Blues, a similar lesson to that taught in Baldwin may be applicable. For example:

Chess, Checkers and Thomas had strong feelings about the alcoholism of their parents. While their parents had been raised in a tribal culture that abided the white man’s influence of the use of alcoholic beverages, Chess, Checkers and Thomas grew to hate the alcoholism of their parents but still loved their parents. Thomas said that he hated his father and Chess cared about his feelings (a tribal cultural value) so intimated in dialogue that Thomas did not hate his father but hated the alcoholism. This demonstrates the tribal values of respect for elders, respect for the feelings of others, respect for others, and respect for the tribal history which was lived by their parents, The characters …

This provides you with examples of how to analyze with specificity in both nonfiction and fiction.

A detailed and well thought out outline both organizes the essay and provides the ideas and facts by which you can write a solid essay. Leave lots of space between contextual “facts” on the right so that you have room to write all possible ideas, values and arguments on the right side. Write the lesson only after all facts and ideas are complete. Write the claim only when the lesson is done. Write the conclusion after all this. Creating your organization in outline format allows you to include detailed ideas and research that would likely otherwise be separated and confusing when written.

A student can be creative in analytic essays. A few students have approached me and said they did not like writing dry, unemotional prose and wanted to “liven their essay up”. They asked if they could do so and I welcomed the writing. Between classes, I devised a handout and brief PowerPoint presentation on how to introduce creative writing prose into an analytic essay. Creativity is always welcome in my class and the areas I thought of in which dramatic prose could be used effectively included; the introduction paragraph, the essay context and claims parts of the thesis, the claim sentence, the lesson, the analytic discussion and the conclusion.

Emotions are the chief source of conscious reactions and actions, choices and motives. The precise use of words in American Standard English is crucial to clear comprehension. When you use words ineffectively or incorrectly, you generate confusion and misunderstanding. “Truth has no special time of its own. Its hour is now – always” (Albert Schweitzer (1875-1965) in Out of My Life & Thought). I enjoy reading books written by and about Albert Einstein (1879-1955). In his Physics & Reality (1936), a work to help the everyday reader understand physics, said, “The whole of science is nothing more than a refinement of everyday thinking.” I wrote a pamphlet on the detection of lying in depositions and interviews for attorneys and investigators for the insurance defense industry which was intended to teach them how to detect when a witness was lying. It was popular at the time but, since then, many similar works have been published. I pointed out that the truth simply exists and can be told without pretention, without construction (when one is constructing their “memory,” they are devising a way to tell an untruth or a modified version of the truth.

In my early law practice, I worked as a deputy public defender than privately, and during those eight years, assisted with the defense of or represented the defendants in forty-two (42) murder cases (twelve death penalty). It was the Constitutional law issues in these cases that fascinated me. Since I had seen and dealt with death in Vietnam and as a police officer, the gruesome nature of most death or homicide cases did not bother me unless a child was involved. George Braque (1882-1963), in his Pensées sur L’Art, said, “Truth exists. Only falsehood needs to be invented.” I learned at age nineteen that the reality of death and truth will shock, will blow you away emotionally, will make you disbelieving, will convince you that no man could commit these horrors, until you accept reality. Writing is easy. All you have to do is stare at a blank page or the black document on your computer monitor until drops of blood appear on your forehead.

When you read a published book, short story, article or personal essay that you feel is really an example of bad writing remember that you have not written anything that was published and that “[a] bad book is as much a labor to write as a good one; it comes as sincerely from the author’s soul” (Aldous Huxley (1894-1963) Point, Counter-Point, 1923, Chapter 13).

I discovered while preparing for depositions, trial outlines, legal briefs, motions, pretrial motions, appellate briefs, correspondence, discovery documents, and other writings necessary to the practice of law, that simplifying the language in the documents is beneficial to obtaining good results. A few lawyers have written books about plain language legal writing. Such writing does not mean you do not use the key terms pertinent to the writing. In analytic writing, which includes all legal writing, the writer can write simply but use the terms of art (key terms of analysis) and an improved vocabulary, along with creative dramatic prose, to persuade your reader of your position.

I use a formalist writing technique for a logical analysis of any text. Others may teach different methods of analytical writing based upon differentg texts, depending upon what issues they want their students to focus upon:

  1. Fiction - cultural work - The nature of culture and the topics which are raised in a cultural piece (e.g., Reservation Blues) and the cultural ideals and values of Native Americans, unique to those peoples and their traditions - this would change depending upon the text assigned because without it, the students would have only their own uniquely individual ideals and values to rely upon to discover meaning within the text and those vary significantly from those of Native Americans.
  2. Article - news, information, scientific, economic or political articles tend to be without pathos but provide substantial exposure to claims, arguments, vocabulary, assumptions, evidence, opinion, author lesson(s), ethos and logos.
  3. Personal essays - The authors of personal essays or memoirs are telling about an event or events for the purpose of teaching specific lesson(s) based upon the story. These essays deal with lessons, argument, claims, evidence, opinion, values, and vocabulary. The essay may relate to cultural issues, e.g. "Reading and Writing: Superman and Me," by Sherman Alexie, telling about his childhood on a reservation, battling tribal expectations of ignorance and illiteracy to learn to read and write.
  4. Argumentation - Philosophical discussions usually with pathos, ethos and logos, the Aristotelian and Plato concepts of argument (common fallacies). A well selected text can teach a student a great deal about how to use the many fallacy arguments available.
  5. Persuasion - A selected text can attempt to persuade the reader of one or more claims and usually assert evidence in support. An analysis separates claims and evidence and may assert counter-claims and argue evidentiary weakness.