Definition and Examples of Analysis in Composition

How to Analyze a Work of Literature

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In compositionanalysis is a form of expository writing in which the writer separates a subject into its elements or parts. When applied to a literary work (such as a poem, short story, or essay), analysis involves a careful examination and evaluation of details in the text, such as in a critical essay. Maybe you'll discuss theme, symbolism, effectiveness of the work as a whole, or character development. You'll use a formal writing style and a third-person point of view to present your argument.

As the writer, you will come up with a topic to analyze the work of literature around and then find supporting evidence in the story and research in journal articles, for example, to make the case behind your argument. For example, maybe you want to discuss the theme of freedom vs. "civilization" in "Huckleberry Finn," analyze the effectiveness of satirist Jonathan Swift's criticisms of government at the time, or criticize Ernest Hemmingway's lack of depth in his female characters. You'll formulate your thesis statement (what you want to prove), start gathering your evidence and research, and then begin weaving together your argument.

Introduction

The introduction may well be the last piece you write in your analytical essay, as it's your "hook" for the readers; it's what will grab their attention. It might be a quote, an anecdote, or a question. Until you've gotten your research well in hand and the essay well formulated, you probably won't be able to find your hook. But don't worry about writing this at the start. Save that for a bit, until your drafting really gets rolling.

Thesis Statement

The thesis statement, which is what you're setting out to prove, will be the first thing that you write, as it will be what you'll need to find support for in the text and in research materials. You'll likely start with a broad idea of what you'd like to investigate and then narrow that down, focusing it, as you start your preliminary research, writing down your ideas and making your outline of how you want to present your points and evidence. It'll appear in the introduction after the hook.

Supporting Examples

Without examples from the text, your argument has no support, so your evidence from the work of literature you're studying is critical to your whole analytical paper. Keep lists of page numbers that you might want to cite, or use highlighters, color-coded sticky notes—whatever method will enable you to find your evidence quickly when it comes time in the essay to quote and cite it. You may not use everything that you find in support, and that's OK. Using a few perfectly illustrative examples is more efficient than dumping in a load of tenuous ones.

Keep two phrases in mind when preparing an analysis: "Show me" and "So what?" That is, "show me" (or "point out") what you think are the significant details in the text (or speech or movie—or whatever it is you're analyzing), and then, regarding each of those points, answer the question, "So what?"

  • What is the significance of each?
  • What effect does that detail create (or attempt to create)?
  • How does it shape (or attempt to shape) the reader's response?
  • How does it work in concert with other details to create effects and shape the reader's response?

The "So what?" question will help you to pick the best examples.

Sources

You'll likely need to have a works cited, bibliography, or references page at the end of your essay, with citations following an existing style guide, such as MLA, American Psychological Association (APA), or the Chicago Manual of Style. Generally, they'll be alphabetical by the source author's last name and include the title of the work, publication information, and page numbers. How to punctuate and format the citations will be spelled out in the particular guide you're to follow as a part of the assignment.

Keeping good track of your sources while you're researching will save you time and frustration when putting this page (as well as your citations in the paper) together.

When Writing

In writing an analytical essay, your paragraphs will each have a main topic that supports your thesis. If a blank page intimidates you, then start with an outline, make notes on what examples and supporting research will go in each paragraph and then build the paragraphs following your outline. You can start by writing one line for each paragraph and then going back and filling in more information, the examples and research, or you can start with the first main paragraph and complete one after the other start to finish, including the research and quotes as you draft. Either way, you're probably going to reread the whole thing several times, flesh things out where the argument is incomplete or weak, and fiddle with sentences here and there as you revise. 

When you think you're complete with the draft, read it out loud. That will find dropped words, awkward phrasing, and sentences that are too long or repetitive. Then, finally, proofread. Computer spellcheckers work well, but they won't necessarily pick up where you accidentally typed "bet" for "be," for instance.

You'll want all of your paragraphs to support your thesis statement. Watch where you get off topic, and cut those sentences. Save them for a different paper or essay if you don't want to delete them entirely. Keep your draft on the topic you stated at the outset, though.

Conclusion

If directed in your assignment, your analytical essay may have a concluding paragraph that summarizes your thesis and main points. Your introductory hook could make another appearance in the conclusion, maybe even with a twist, to bring the article back full circle.