Naturally this guide can't really tell you how to do analysis. Taking an analytical and critical approach to what you read, formulating your own ideas, maintaining a clear focus on the questions and issues which you are addressing in your essay: these are all things that you are involved in learning over the course of your entire university career. They're gained by experience, and improve with each essay you write; they're not something that can be imparted to you in a paragraph or two. Some of you who consult this guide may already feel comfortable with this aspect of essay-writing; others may feel that they're still inexperienced. But acquiring the ability of analytical thought is a lengthy process, and so you should think of each essay you write as another step on the way to gaining it.
All I can offer you here are a couple of tips, and perhaps an example or two of the kind of approach I like to see in an essay.
Above all, offer an interpretation, not a narrative. If you're writing a history paper, don't just summarize the events and leave it at that. One of the questions I've sometimes asked over the years is was Alexander the Great really great? The answer I've often received (in summary form) is Alexander was born in 356 BC, etc., etc., etc., he conquered the world, etc., etc., etc., and he died in 323 BC. The End. All a paper like that does is narrate the story of Alexander's life. A much better paper on the same topic begins by analyzing the original question (what do we mean by the word great?), and then goes on from there, treating the events of Alex's life only as they offer some insight into that particular question. That means that some aspects of his life won't be covered by such a paper, even perhaps some otherwise very important aspects. And it also means, to continue the example of history papers, that chronological order is not in fact always the most appropriate way to structure an essay on a historical topic.
Think of academic writing as a sort of ascending scale of “what”, “how”, and “why”. When you’re just starting out in a subject, you may be focusing on the (relatively) simple task of determining what the events actually were (in a history paper, for example). This kind of research – attempting to answer the question “What?” – is of course vital, and everybody has to go through this stage. But by the time you’re writing university-level papers, you should generally be moving beyond this stage, and it’s in the next stages that you start to see what we really call “analysis”. So the next step would be to contemplate the question, “How?”. How did Alexander the Great manage to do the things he did? Was it through charismatic leadership, was it through having an excellent set of commanders under him, was it through the improvements made in the Macedonian army by his father Philip? And the “how” leads to the next level of analysis, the question, “Why?” Sometimes in fact the two questions aren’t really distinguishable from each other. But if you take the example of Alexander the Great once again, you can see that there is a difference between asking “How did Alexander manage to conquer the Persian Empire?” (the mechanics) and asking “Why did he do so?” (the motivations). Very often, of course, we can only speculate on the “why” of things – but such speculation, when based on thorough research and grounded in a rational methodology, forms the basis of a great deal of scholarship in the humanities and other fields.
Similar rules also hold for papers on a literary topic. If you're writing an essay on Homer's Iliad, don't spend eight pages retelling the story of the Iliad (obviously this holds true for myth papers as well). Instead, address the question, which might be something like How does the heroism of Achilles in the Iliad differ from that displayed by Odysseus? A question like this might ask you first of all to define what heroism means in this context, and then to compare and contrast it as displayed by both Achilles and Odysseus. But you don't need to describe in detail a scene involving either character; a simple reference to it would be enough – you can always take it for granted that your professor already knows the story.
It's important to question your sources (whether they are ancient or modern). This certainly doesn't mean never believe anything you read; but it certainly does mean don't believe everything you read. This is what I mean when I say take a critical approach to what you read. You may say to yourself, how on earth would I know whether so-and-so is offering a reasonably accurate or truthful story? This is where experience helps, and if you find this challenging now, just remember that the experience of this particular essay will help you in future essays. One way of judging the credibility of a source is simply through applying a certain amount of common sense and logic to what it says: is it really believable that aliens are constantly kidnapping the inhabitants of Arkansas? Another way is through having some knowledge (again, acquired through experience) of the source itself: are you really going to believe what Nazi scientists of the 1930's had to say about racial characteristics?
Another point I would make about taking an analytical approach to your essay: when you read two conflicting interpretations (for example, by two modern scholars who are in disagreement on an ancient text or event), don't try to get them to agree for the sake of your essay. They won't. So it's no good to set them side by side in your own essay, as complementary, because they aren't. An analytical approach in this case would recognize the differences between the two interpretations, would explicitly acknowledge the sources, and would debate the issue (if the point is central enough to the essay). You might agree with one or the other, or neither. But it's important to tackle them head on, and not just bury them in your paper as equally valid sources (or toss them out because you can't get them to agree).
An example of a couple of insufficient remarks (1, 2) versus an appropriately analytical statement (3):
- The Minoans gave women a very prominent place in their society.
- Women frequently appear in Minoan art.
- The artwork of the Minoans seems to place great emphasis on figures of women, involved in a variety of private and public activities; one conclusion, though not the only one, that we could draw is that the Minoans gave women a very prominent place in their society. (Bingo!)
Statement 1, while it is not necessarily wrong, would be the worst of the three in an essay. It's simply a declaration, without any reference to the reasons why this might be thought to be the case. It's as though the writer of such a statement had a direct psychic hotline to the ancient Minoans, and just knew that this was so. In reality, of course, the writer of such a statement probably culled it from the general literature, since the prominence of Minoan women is a commonplace in modern surveys of Minoan culture. But the writer of this particular essay has not indicated that he/she has any knowledge of why this is a commonplace (what is the original evidence that supports this interpretation), or that he/she is even aware that this is only an interpretation (not an undisputed fact), and an interpretation that is debatable at that.
Statement 2 is better, though still not analytical. It is at least an indisputable fact. But it offers no interpretation. Since I've already remarked (in the previous paragraph) that the common interpretation (i.e., the high status of Minoan women) is questionable, you might think it's better not to go out on a limb, and that you should restrict yourself to facts, and not offer analysis or interpretation. But even though you may never be able to prove interpretations beyond a shadow of a doubt, they can still be safely made, as in statement 3.
Statement 3 offers a good compromise. It shows that the writer is aware of the original source (the artwork) for the interpretation (female status); but it also shows that the writer is aware of the limitations of using this kind of source for this kind of interpretation. While the writer may be choosing to accept this particular interpretation, at least provisionally, he/she is signaling that he/she is aware of the possibility of other ways of interpreting Minoan artistic motifs.
A final point with respect to analysis; it's important that your essay reach some kind of conclusion. You don't necessarily have to come up with a brilliant personal solution to problems that have plagued generations of scholars; but you should at least try to answer the question that the essay originally posed, and formulate your own views. You may not be able to devise an original argument; but if you can, so much the better.