Some tips for effective analytical writing

For essays in my classes, aim for a target audience made up of individuals in a professional work setting who are well educated, but who also who do not have a close familiarity with the themes and research that you will be covering in your essay. Most of my paper assignments require students to write an analytic essay in response to a specific question or closely related set of questions. Most of the non-text readings I assign in courses also are analysis essays.

How writing an analytical essay that differ from other types of writing

First, this type of writing asks the writer to provide a reasoned response to a question rather than being a purely descriptive piece of writing or a statement of opinion. Second, these essays typically are organized around a single, well-ordered, and logical argument that is systematically developed throughout the entire paper. Third, this type of paper defends its arguments with a combination of logic, evidence, and analysis; thus, papers in my classes should focus closely on reading assignments, seminar materials, and/or outside research if required (of course, the mixture of these types of materials will depend the class, so please read each assignment's directions carefully). Finally, the language, tone, and style in these essays needs to be appropriate for the intellectual task at hand. The most common lapse in this area is to use writing that is overly informal with respect to elegance in phrasing, use of the first person, or swearing. Analysis essays should aim to replicate the style and tone found in professional writing like that used in most college textbooks and journal article.

As the rest of this handout explains, there are two keys to writing a solid analysis essay: getting the essay started of right with a strong thesis statement and organizing the rest of the paper around effective topic sentences.

The thesis statement and your essay's introduction

Regardless of length, every paper you write in my class need to have a short thesis statement (usually a single sentence, but in no case more than two or three closely-related and consecutive sentences). The thesis statement identifies what your paper's major argument is, and typically it is located at the end of your paper's introductory paragraph.

What specifically constitutes "an argument"? Your thesis statement need not be highly controversial, but you want to organize your paper around an argument that provides a set of conclusions that goes beyond the patently obvious.

As an example, let's say that you are responding to the following paper topic:

Which president--Abraham Lincoln, FDR, or Ronald Reagan--was America's best leader?

Either of the following examples would make an acceptable thesis statement (notice that you do not necessarily have to pick one of the three presidents as "best" to answer the question with an argument):

While other presidents have been extremely effective leaders, Abraham Lincoln's presidency best demonstrates the most important quality of executive leadership: the ability to mobilize a divided population behind a single cause when America's national security is threatened.

Because their domestic programs transformed the economic and political landscape of their times, the presidencies of FDR, Lincoln, and Reagan all capture the essence of outstanding presidential leadership despite the fact that these three presidents guided America in quite distinctive ways.

Once you have completed a rough draft of your paper, make sure to review your thesis statement and the rest of your introduction in light of the analysis and evidence you have developed in the body of the essay.

Assume in advance that you will need to rewrite parts of your introduction and revise your thesis statement. It is completely normal to discover in the first draft of a paper that you have developed and defended an argument that is somewhat different than what you initially intended to write. If you indicated in the thesis statement that you were going to develop three main ideas, but ended up making two points, you must rework the statement to reflect this structural change in the essay. If you thought that you were going to reach a certain conclusion, but decided to modify your stance mid-paper as you realized that the evidence did not support your original argument, your thesis needs to reflect your altered conclusion.

As you proofread your paper's final draft, you should also pay attention to the clarity and elegance of the introduction. Since nothing is worse than staring at a blank computer screen, most student writers will "get their juices flowing" by starting their paper off with a couple of vague sentences about the topic that end up having little to do with what they end up writing in the body of the essay. Make sure to go back and rewrite your introductory sentences and thesis statement if they do not launch the final version of your essay effectively and elegantly.

Effective topic sentences and the macro-organization of essays

In order to make your essay as clear as possible, it should be organized around paragraphs that have an obvious beginning, middle, and end. Most importantly, each and every paragraph should begin with a carefully-crafted topic sentence that adheres to the following two guidelines:

The opening sentence should clearly identify how the material in that paragraphs relates to your essay's main argument . Topic sentences are critical to helping your reader follow the logic of your paper's larger argument. If a paragraph's topic sentence does not refer the reader back to the thesis statement, either rewrite this sentence or remove the entire paragraph (do the latter if it is not clear why the material is necessary to the larger argument of the essay).

The opening sentence should make a summary statement that captures the essence of the materials that will be covered in that paragraph . If you find that you are shifting topics midway through a paragraph, either start a new one or rework the paragraph's topic sentence so that it explains how seemingly two seemingly unrelated topics fit together.

You want to pay especially close attention to topic sentences that serve as a transition from one major section to the next. Using the example of "best president" laid out above, let's assume that you are writing a ten page paper that will devote several pages each to Washington, FDR, and Lincoln. You will need topic sentences at the beginning of each section of the essay devoted to these leaders that make it clear that you are transitioning to a new leader. In a longer paper--one that has major sections that develop over numerous paragraphs and pages--it may be easier and more helpful to the reader if you include subtitles. If you choose to do this, try to use a subtitle that captures the main point of the section. Thus instead of a section titled "FDR," you might instead label it, "FDR: Presidential Excellence in Economic Management."

How do you identify and fix problems with topic sentences and macro-organization?

Typically, when an essay is beginning to lose focus, you will find yourself starting your paragraphs with topic sentences that refer mostly to the content of the immediately-preceding paragraphs rather than back to the paper's thesis statement. The best way to keep your essay organized and focused is to ask yourself several questions as you begin each and every paragraph:

  • How will the materials covered in this paragraph relate to my paper's main argument?

  • Why I am writing on this topic now? Would this argument go better somewhere else in the paper?

  • What materials do I need to cover in this paragraph? Am I being tempted to include materials that are interesting, but not really all that closely related to my paper's main argument?

  • Do I have just one major idea that I need to cover in this paragraph, or would it make more sense to break up a set of complex ideas into a series of smaller paragraphs?

You should always leave time to examine carefully your topic sentences as part of the proofreading process. I recommend that you use a highlighter to mark your thesis statement and the beginning sentence of each paragraph. Now, read through the essay's topic sentences one by one to check the logical flow of your paper's major argument. Ask yourself each of the following questions:

  • Does the argument laid out in the thesis statement appear to be completely and adequately defended based on the arguments presented in your topic sentences? Does the main argument developed in the paper fully answer the essay question to which you are responding?

  • Is each topic sentence written so that it clearly and explicitly explains how the paragraph's materials are linked to the thesis statement?

  • Does each and every topic sentence adequately state what the paragraph is about?

  • Are there any paragraphs where the opening sentence indicates that the paragraph is about one topic and yet material in the paragraph covers other issues?

  • Can you follow the logic of your essay based on a reading of just these paragraph-starting sentences?

  • Would the development of your argument make more sense if some paragraphs were moved around?

  • Are there unnecessary or irrelevant paragraphs in the paper that need to be either removed or more carefully linked to the paper's logical argument?

As you proofread, keep an eye out for long, unwieldy paragraphs that could be easily shortened. Keep in mind that a paragraph that is much longer than half a page is usually hard for your reader to follow unless you have provided some type of organizational substructure (e.g.: There were three major consequences of the Civil War....A second outcome of the war was...A third consequence was...). Unless an idea/argument is so detailed and complicated that it requires a single-paragraph treatment to make sense, break up long paragraphs (three-quarters of a page or more in a double-spaced paper) into a series of smaller arguments that begin with separate topic sentences.

Finally, don't procrastinate to the point that you make it impossible to submit your best work. Every task I have described above is easier to do when you aren't panicking, trying to get a paper composed at the absolute last minute. Students often tell me that they are not sure exactly what they are going to write until they midway through the first draft of their papers. This is not necessarily a problem. If you are like many of my academic colleagues, you may well find that you are able to form much more nuanced, sophisticated, and stronger arguments if you set aside the smaller organizational and content-choice decisions for a paper until you are actually writing it.

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