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In broad terms, scholarly convention recognises the distinction between analytical and descriptive writing. Descriptive writing is concerned with giving details about the characteristics of a given topic, person or object. We see examples of descriptive writing all around us every day, in synopses, playbills, flyers, blurbs and so on. Analytical writing, less common, goes beyond the surface attributes and attempts to explain the inner workings of same.
For instance, to say that “Lolita is a novel written in 1955 by the Russian-American novelist Vladimir Nabokov” would be a descriptive sentence. It gives us biographical, historical and literary information but does not seek to explain or break this information down. This is exactly where analytical writing comes in. To analyse something is to break it down into its component parts and explain how these parts connect to and influence each other. It goes beyond description, seeking explanation and exposition. So, it would be an analytical statement to observe that: “Nabokov's preoccupation with wordplay in Lolita emphasises the plasticity of the English language, which, in turn, serves as a reflection of the plasticity of American culture”. It is analytical because it goes beyond the mere observation that there is wordplay (which would be descriptive), breaking this observation down to its second-order function: to underline the manipulable properties of the English lexicon. The analysis is furthered by making additional connections, between words and culture. Note that we are in effect burrowing down into deeper layers of meaning and connection between the phenomena in question. This is the crux of analysis.
We note that in the above example both the descriptive and analytical content were relevant and useful in facilitating the beginnings of a critical approach to the text, Lolita. The descriptive element framed and contextualised the topic; the analytical component deconstructed the topic in a way that allows the reader to understand it on a new, deeper level. The point is a good analytical essay will necessarily involves some degree of descriptive content. One simply needs to ensure they weight the descriptive/analytical content appropriately. There is no hard and fast rule in this respect, although, analysis should comprise at the very least sixty percent of the essay.
Now we will consider some methods of approach that will get you thinking in analytical fashion. With analysis, you want to start broad and then narrow down. A good way of thinking about analysis is as an inverted pyramid. At the top, the widest section, we have the most general information. This would be your introductory content and probably the most descriptive portion of the work. As you progress down the pyramid, focus incrementally narrows. This is where you begin to take apart the component pieces of the item under analysis, breaking them down further and further until you reach a logical conclusion at the peak of the pyramid.
We can practice this method with reference to very short poem by Emily Dickinson:
A word is dead when it is said, some say.
I say it just begins to live that day.
In beginning to analyse this poem, then, we would start with the broad observations. We might note, for instance, that the poem is very short. It talks about words and speaking. It mentions life and death. Next, we would break these items down. So, we could observe that Dickinson uses metaphor, treating words as living things (that can “live” or “die”). This is one level of breaking down the text, highlighting its literary properties. We would then try and explain why this metaphor, of words as organic beings, is applied here. We would ask ourselves: what does this mean? In what sense could a word die or live? Indeed, we could pose these questions overtly in the body of the essay, to show the reader our thinking, to bring them along on our train of thought. In order to answer our questions, it is useful to think about how words, life and death connect to the other parts of the poem. We could point to the temporal aspect, the fact that the poet uses the term “when”, which situates events in a particular timeframe. Using these focal points, we could seek to draw a connection between death, time and language. Perhaps a word begins to live because it is trapped in a certain moment of time, thus destined to perish as all living things must.
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