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How To Write A Great Analytical Essay, And Feel In Control

Updated on March 9, 2012

What Is An Analytical Essay, Anyway?

Purdue Online defines an analytical essay as a "paper [that] breaks down an issue or an idea into its component parts, evaluates the issue or idea, and presents this breakdown and evaluation to the audience."

Square One

This is a detailed guide, so that means we have to start before the writing can even be thought about. I'll be using some examples from one of my recent papers to help explain myself, notes and all.

So square one begins with what the teacher/employer wants you to write about. In my case, we were asked to write about a topic that somehow related to Charles Darwin. Of course, that wasn't very specific, and a lot of people struggle with narrowing down a topic that's not too ambitious nor too sparse. My suggestion, and plenty of other website's probably, will be to start off by thinking of general interests you have on the topic. Next, you want to do some basic research in this topic. This might include reading from almanac or other sources that have summarized details on each of the subjects they contain. Textbooks are also a good source. The next step is to refine your topic based off the research you have acquired. This means that while researching, you probably found some content that caught your eye or something that impressed you. The refining is now. Once you've picked a topic that you feel like you're really interested, start doing some general research on that subtopic. See how many sources you can dig up and how much information is out there about it. Keep in mind that your subtopic may change as you continue to do research. Keep a flexible and open mind.

Assignment topic: Something relating to Charles Darwin

General topic of choice: animals

A little narrowed down: animal monogamy

Final topic (tweaked several times): the similarities and differences between animal and human monogamy

Sweat, Blood and Books

This is where the heavy work comes in. Once you have a refined topic (that's subject to change!), the research begins. Hopefully, you've kept a record of your previous sources so that you have somewhere to start from. While these sources might not be specific enough to use in direct relation to your topic, their own citations might be a good tangential to follow. The more you're informed on your specific topic's general characteristics, you can begin thinking about the construction of your paper in the broadest of terms. Now while you're researching your topic, you can start honing in on very specific articles, etc, to put aside and use as examples once you've started your actual writing. All of these notes should be recorded.

I've recorded notes several different ways:

Handwritten in a notebook with post-its was a decent method, but it got a little scattered. My handwriting is small, so I was able to use the post-its to their full potential. While my notebook pages featured quotations and notes from sources (organized by source with page numbers, which will be important later), my post-its were lining the edge of those pages with the number I assigned each important note (which was also highlighted beforehand). These post-its were my quick reference for when I needed to find something fast.

The better method is via the computer. I use a program called Scrivener for my notes and essay drafts. It comes with a flinching pricetag (for me at least), but it's well worth the investment. For these notes, I have notes pages for each of my sources. These are then highlighted and compiled into a new page. With Scrivener, I can quickly find these sources again and copy-paste them into my outline as I need to. I can then put them in the lower half of my split-window as I write my essay to paraphrase while staring straight at the quotation.

Below is a snippet on finding good sources.

Find Great Sources

Sources are a tricky thing. They're hardest at the beginning when the ideas are so broad, and at the end where the needs are so specific. Like I said before, general textbooks, encyclopedias and almanacs are a good place to start and serve as a sort of idea book if you're clueless on what you want to do. Keep the names or links of these sources handy in case you need to or want to refer back to them. Every second counts!

Finding quality sources is the most daunting for most, I think. And it is tricky. Tips and tricks from school librarians and teachers are your best resource, but I'll jot a few down here in a list for you guys.

  • .edu, .org, .gov! These are sources that are almost always legitimate and citable. The only thing you have to watch out for in the .edu department is student papers that have been posted on the school's archives. While they might be good, it's better to look into the sources that they used as personal opinion/paper requirements might influence the information you get. With .orgs, be careful of information that is heavily biased towards the cause of the organization or that is cited from other such sources. Also make sure that the organization itself is legitimate, as this might influence the quality of writing and resources they use.
  • Google Scholars is an okay source, but it really depends on your level of reading comprehension skills. Because these are scholarly articles, the pros include peer review and a guaranteed legitimate source with objective content. However, the cons include finding an article on your topic that's not too too specific, and having trouble getting through the language the writers use. This can be difficult especially with subjects that include scientific elements, as these papers can quickly disintegrate into a confusing mess of equations and big words. With enough perseverance though, this can be a great source.
  • School resources are always great, both for electronic and print sources. Many schools (mine, for example) pay for premium online databases and other really great places where you can get a bang for your buck and not feel like all those student loans will be for nothing! Make sure to save any and all links you find helpful, as you may wish you had more sources later. A strategy for browsing and saving time: when you find an article, open it in a new tab and continue looking until you have a sufficient amount of tabs open. Then, scan each article quickly to filter.
  • Libraries! Wow, can't forget those non-electronic sources! And libraries are free, isn't that great? Plus, they also host a series of online databases (usually) that you can peruse through. While you can't write notes in these books, you can sticky-note important sections and number them off.
  • Articles are also a really great research tool. By articles I mean scholarly, popular and otherwise. These can be found online and in print everywhere. Newspapers might also be a good place to look, although I haven't tried that yet. Scholarly articles post the same benefits and problems as Google Scholars in that they're legitimate but difficult to get through. Popular articles are like those in the Times, which are more general and don't give as much information but are an easy read because they were made for the public's general knowledge.
  • Media is a tentative source for most professors because of the vast amount of questionable information that is put out on video. Fancy bells and whistles might also make sources look more legitimate as well, which is something to watch out for. National Geographic videos, PBS documentaries, those sorts of things, are solid sources you can use. Interviews and podcasts are also good ways to go, and can offer first-hand accounts that can go beyond the statistics.

Baby Steps, Baby Words

Whew, this is getting to be a long article! I hope it's helping at least a little bit so far.

So now comes the more exciting part - start using those fingers to type/write! But not too's all got to be taken footstep by footstep.

Usually, if you see a handout for writing papers, it'll start the essay portion with asking for a thesis and topic sentences. The thesis is a crucial part of the essay, as it sets the whole thing up. It can be described as a one sentence outline for the entire essay, with a strong statement on the overall conclusion of your research. This means that your thesis will briefly mention the points that you want to cover in each paragraph. For the reader, this gives them a head's up and a way to mentally organize the essay and keep important points in mind throughout. The conclusive part of a thesis doesn't reveal too much, but doesn't try to tease the reader. It's strong, solid, and forward. The thesis for my paper on animal monogamy was:

"While it is true that a small percentage of animals (excluding birds) are in fact monogamous, the similarities between their relationships, behaviors, and choices in mating and childcare are almost disturbingly parallel to those of human couples and families. "

The next step is to pull out the points you want to make in each of your paragraphs and make mini thesis statements for each paragraph: topic sentences that outline the paragraph. In my thesis, I isolate relationship, behaviors, and choices in mating and childcare.

If you haven't already organized your notes in a general layout, now is a good time. This will make it easier to write the essay and focus on your language and analysis as opposed to switching back and forth between sources and the paper. Outlines are a great way to organize, although I don't often use them in their strict layout. I just use basic hierarchy.

The Meat and Gravy

At this point, hopefully my guide has helped you compose solid elements for your essay. Now it's time to take a deep breath and put it all together. This is perhaps the most terrifying, but also the easiest part of writing an essay. Think of it this way: you already have the information down, and you've already probably jotted down some notes on what you want to say about each point, or have it in your head. Now you just need to put it on paper. You don't even have to organize, because your thesis does that for you. All that's left is essentially making bullet points into sentences. Like this (sorry for the elementary example):

  • Cats use whiskers to help them navigate in the dark.
  • Their tails keep them balanced and agile.
  • These becomes: While a cat's whiskers help them to navigate gracefully in the dark, their tails allow them to keep their balance at all times.

Don't forget, a paragraph at minimum is about 4-6 sentences, but more is definitely okay. Don't worry about any 5-paragraph essay formats you've been following. Colleges don't necessarily require this, because it's meant to help with basic writing skills. This means that you should be opportunistic in how you decide to divide your content to make sure the reader gets a visual break in the blocks of text.

Here are some elements that could be considered the "extra content" that you should keep in mind once you start filling your paper out (from beginning to end):

  • Titles are important, and can be super fun to think up. My title was "This Unnatural Feeling: A Comparison Between Animal and Human Monogamy". The title is what they first see, so make sure it informs them and catches their eye.
  • The first paragraph doesn't just consist of the thesis. Usually, the thesis actually goes last. The first important sentence is what's called a grabber, where the writer pulls the reader in more and entices them to keep going. After that, a quick summary of the topic/book might be beneficial so that the audience has a little bit of context. This can be historical, or a summary of a book/movement/etc.
  • After the thesis, and in between each paragraph, there needs to be a transitional sentence or few sentences that allows the reader to flow seamlessly into the next paragraph. This can mean the difference between an essay that's choppy and one that looks effortless. The organization of your paragraphs might help ease the challenge of linking paragraphs to one another.
  • The conclusion is always defined as a restatement of the thesis. This is partially true, but keep in mind that it needs to be paraphrased and perhaps a little extended. Make sure you don't introduce any more points. Also, be aware that your conclusion might very well be a better thesis than your thesis, and trading them out is fine and sometimes advised. Be flexible.


Now comes the part where you're so happy you've finally finished that last sentence and typed your first "." of the paper. Then you realize: you have to cite.

Some teachers will ask you to hand in a list of already cited sources that you plan to use, and this can be a great time-saver. Make sure that it's all formatted right (which I'll talk about at the end of this capsule) and that all of your sources are there and accounted for. Next is the in-source citation, which is also going to be described at the end of this capsule. These are important as they protect you from plagiarism. Saying something that you didn't figure out and not citing it can lead to dire consequences at any institution. The general rule is when in doubt, cite. It might seem like overkill, but it's worth it. A tip: if you have a few sentences in a row that are from the same source and same page or within 1-2 pages of each other, it's fine to cite at the end of the last sentence using that source. Be careful though that you aren't too spare or you'll get yelled out for it.

Works Cited/Reference Page:

A great source is Purdue Online, which has templates for citing almost all sources ranging from the classic book to interviews and online videos. Make sure that if you're writing anything OTHER than a science paper, cite in MLA, which is standard for literature, language, and other similar essays. This is the template for a standard book:

Lastname, Firstname. Title of Book. City of Publication: Publisher, Year of Publication. Medium of Publication.

Important to remember: the formatting of these citations is annoyingly essential. Make sure your "." are where they're supposed to be, and make sure you indent on the second line if the source information carries down. Medium of Publication is simply "print", "web", etc.

In-text Citations:

"This is a sentence about cats" (Karpinski 4).

Again, the details are important. The quotation mark and the "." are after the parentheses. The citation usually includes the author's name and the page that the information was found on. If there are multiple books you're using by the same author, replace the "Karpinski" with an abbreviated version of the book title. This Is A Long Book Title For You turns into (Long Book Title, 4). If you're only citing one book throughout your whole paper, you only need the page number.

Don't ask about the cats.

The Cherry On Top!

Most of you have probably given up by now or scrolled down to particular parts, but if you've finished this beginning to end then you're almost done! Now come the formal detail that are dictated by MLA format styles. Here are the rules:

  • The whole document is generally required to be in 12pt Times New Roman, with 1" margins on all sides and double spacing between lines, excluding spaces in the header and between the header and title.
  • The student's last name and the page number (excluding page 1) go into the uppermost bar of the page. You can also find the formatting tab which should have a function for inserting page numbers. These should be arranged on the right of the page.
  • The header, which is important. This should include, in individual lines: student name, teacher name, course name (full), and date (day month, year).
  • The title, which should be centered and have no text modifications such as bolded, italicized, or underlined.
  • Finally, works cited should be on a separate page with its own title (either Works Cited or References List) and the sources in MLA format in alphabetical order from A-Z.

And now you're done with your paper!

I know this was a super long thing, and it was probably too long, but I had fun writing it. I hope you can scan and pick and choose as needed, but if you do read the whole thing I hope that's just as helpful. I know they're hard papers to write, but with experience and frequency, it's less tedious than it sounds. Best of luck!


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    • A Karpinski profile image

      Anna Karpinski 6 years ago from Minneapolis

      Thank you! I'm really enjoying it.

    • LuisEGonzalez profile image

      Luis E Gonzalez 6 years ago from Miami, Florida

      Welcome to HubPages. No , your hub was not to long. It was rather good and very informative. You should do good on our site if you continue writing like this.