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There are many different kinds of analytical essays, but this is a guide to the most common one, most likely your essay for a literature class.

1. Actively Reading

Most analytical essays are for some sort of text, some form of literature. Whatever it may be, read it once all the way through and then again actively, meaning you engage with the poem, story, or novel you’ve been assigned. The best way to do this is to write notes in the margins, identify literary devices, recurring images, and to highlight/underline excerpts that may be useful to quote later on.

2. Formal Analysis

This is when you consider the formal elements of your text, putting aside themes and other concepts that would be considered “content.” Formal analysis has two stages:

  1. First is a close examination of the working parts of a text: the literary devices, images, use of language, etc. In the formal analysis stage, you parse out only the formal components: rhyme, meter, recurring images of flowers, etc.
  2. Second, you must decide what effect these quirks in form have for the reader. The use of literary devices always has a purpose and/or intentional effect, and you have to decide what that is. The devices may be used for an overall effect, and smaller effects may culminate in some general effect.

3. Making Your Point

This is when you form an argument/thesis based on your findings. For example: In the poem “The Lake Isle of Innisfree,” William Butler Yeats uses a variety of devices to express languor and the notion of an idyll. At this juncture, I have decided that all the literary devices culminate in this effect. After forming a thesis, it is now my job to make a case for myself and prove my thesis using evidence from the text. I will single out literary devices, describe their effect, find evidence in the text, and explain how that supports my argument:

  • Literary device #1: meter
  • Formal analysis: The anapest meter has an effect of slowing down the reader, as if they were trying to walk through honey.
  • Evidence from the text: “And a small cabin build there, of clay and wattles made” (This is where that highlighting earlier comes in handy!)
  • Then I should elaborate here (see my model for paragraphs) and explain how this supports your overall argument (see thesis above)

4. Structuring the Essay

The five paragraph model works well for a simple analytical paper. Of course you are not obligated to use it. If you are unfamiliar with it, it looks like this:

Introduction:

  • Hook
  • Thesis
  • Overview of points you will make

Paragraphs 2-4:

  • Transitional phrase
  • Claim
  • Supporting evidence

Conclusion:

  • Quick recap
  • Restate your argument in absolute terms

5. Quick Tips

  • Don’t forget to use proper citations!
  • You haven’t really finished until you’ve revised and edited
  • Reading it out loud or having a friend read it out loud will help you catch mistakes
  • Avoid generalizations; stick to your topic
  • Write a hook that isn’t a bland platitude but something genuinely interesting
  • For more tips, check out my masterpost “Tips for College Writing (and All Good Writing) That You May Not Get in the Classroom

Check out other posts in the Writing Tutor Series: how to write brilliant paragraphs | tips for college writing | writing a strong introduction