It is the time in the school year when Year 13 students are writing up an important essay, whether it is the NEA for A level, the PI for Cambridge Pre-U, or finishing the EPQ. Most Year 10 and Year 12 students have now done their first assignments for GCSE, IGCSE, AS Level and IB. Therefore, this the time when most students have to get to grips with analytical writing. It sounds easy when teachers tell you your work must be analytical, but it often seems a lot harder when you actually come to write. So how do you do it?
The Key to Analysis – the Essay Title
The single most important thing you must do is to think carefully about the essay title. You absolutely must answer the question you are being asked. It doesn’t matter that your essay may be beautifully written, or full of interesting detail, if you do not answer the question you will get a low mark.
You need to focus on the keywords in your essay title. These are the words that are actually telling you what to do and you need to think about them very carefully before you even start to plan. Take your time and ask yourself what you are being asked to do. It is surprisingly easy to go wrong at this point.
Topic Words & Focus
There will be topic words in the essay title. They could be a place, a person, an event, a policy, an ideology, or anything that you have been studying. They are usually easy to spot, but beware of traps. There will also be an aspect of the topic that you need to focus on.
You will never be asked to write everything you know about the topic words, so simply writing generally about the topic will not be analytical. Don’t do a broad brushstroke of the topic – identify and focus upon exactly what you need. Focus is vitally important in a good analytical essay.
Make sure you cover all the topic words, because there can easily be more than one in an essay title and it is a common mistake to spot one you know and understand, then ignore any others. You need to pay attention and address all of them.
Here is an example of a history essay title:
‘The desire to increase his international prestige was the most important motive behind Henry VII’s foreign policy.’
Explain why you agree or disagree with this view.
Alongside the topic and focus will be an instruction word or phrase, which will tell you exactly how to go about the essay. Typical instructions include ‘Assess’, ‘Discuss’, ‘Explain’, ‘How far’, ‘To what extent’, ‘Compare,’ ‘How did’ and ‘Analyse’. There are more, of course, but they are telling you what you must do. A good example is ‘Explain’, which is asking you to make something clear, usually with examples. You might need to show causation (what led to it) and provide reasons for it.
Making A Plan
Once you have broken down the essay title and have understood exactly what you should be doing in your essay, you will need a plan. A plan is not a waste of time; it is the opportunity to organise your thoughts and arguments into a clear and logical structure. When you have drawn up your plan and before you begin to write, pause!
‘Does this answer the question?’
‘Does this plan reflect both the topic and the focus?’
‘Will this plan allow me to follow the instruction word?’
If the answers are yes, you can begin to write your analytical essay.