5 Questions to Improve English Analysis Essays
Many students struggle to write analysis papers in English, especially under timed conditions, such as on the AP and IB exams. Even students who have strong analytical skills on a feature-by-feature basis encounter difficulties arranging those individual ideas into a larger paper, and the highest grades often demand students present a well-organized and unified set of ideas, so what can we do? Here to help are five key questions to ask when working on your English papers.
What (is the writer trying to do)?
A good framework for understanding and analysis is to examine what the writer is trying to do and how well he or she does it. All texts are created with a purpose or goal in mind, and if we can identify what that end is, we have a good foundation to build from. Apart from profit, there are three (or four) purposes a text can have (depending on whom you ask)—inform, entertain, persuade (and narrate). A text may have one or more of these purposes, such as an advertisement that keeps your attention by being funny or a narrative story with a moral lesson, but there is usually one overarching purposes. By figuring out what that purpose is, we can start to build our analysis.
Whom (is the writer talking to)?
Identifying a text’s audience is a key component of most English classes, but students often don’t have the time to properly understand how the audience of a text affects its composition. A useful shorthand is to try and understand the relationship between the audience and the writer rather than just the audience as a vague idea. An advertiser reaching out to a general public has a different relationship than a national leader speaking to the same general public. A poet who wishes to describe the feeling of beautiful summer weather may draw from common human experience while a novelist explaining the horrors of war might not. Who has authority (not the advertiser! Maybe the president?)? Is there a shared cultural knowledge? How formal is the relationship between the writer, the text, and the audience? These elements help inform not only how the rhetorical or literary features of the text work but what features get used in the first place!
How (does the writer do it)?
Most students can answer this question, but few answer it fully. Many many many textual features require some knowledge beyond what is present on the page. Allusion, for example, rests completely on external understanding of other works and fields. Explain how the features function! Show your work! Not only does this make for richer analysis with clearer logic, it also makes your paragraphs longer. Proper explanations of devices prevent paragraphs crammed with random junk to make them seem long enough. It also forces you to take those devices apart and really examine how they tick, which in turn opens up new opportunities for insight, connection, and development. Considering these mechanisms makes both your reading and your writing stronger.
Why (does the writer do that specifically)?
If you want to convey that a character is not a good person, there are many ways you can do it. You could give her a black hat. You could give him a symbolic name. You could have other characters discuss their bad reputation. Each of these would have a different effect in different contexts. To better understand how a feature works, consider how else the writer could have achieved the same effect and why he or she chose a particular technique. Sometimes this analysis will reveal nothing new. Imagery, for example, rarely offers profound depths of insight on its own (although the mood and scenarios it helps create might!), and sometimes the writer makes a decision just because its cool, but in general, the writers we read in English class are well-trained, highly-talented professionals who decided to do this specific thing in order to create this specific result, and we should really ask ourselves Why‽
This is perhaps the English student’s favorite question but not necessarily in a good way. After we’ve understood why a writer has used a particular technique to achieve a certain purpose with a specific audience, we may find ourselves wondering just why anyone would bother. For certain text types, we don’t have to. Advertisements promote products in order to make money. Politicians make persuasive speeches in order to influence policy. Teenagers write love letters to get dates. Why, though, does Robert Frost spend such time and effort talking about woodland paths? Writing requires resources—time, effort, thought, ink, paper, money, space, and more, and the writer you’re looking at felt strongly enough in what he or she was doing to commit those resources, so so what? What is the larger point? Does the novel use metaphor to establish abuse in order to point out social injustice and hopefully advocate for change? Does the poem allude to an Egyptian god to capture the magic and power of the ocean as a fragment of the mysterious human condition? Does the advertisement use sound effects to structure a fart joke that will sell beer to a toxic customer base? Does the pamphlet present its images in a chiaroscuro stencil style to quickly and efficiently establish a position in an ongoing debate about capitalism, power, and society? If you yourself are spending so much of your own time and energies to analyze a text, don’t you really want to know so what?
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