Keys to Writing an Analytic Paper
Finding each paragraph’s role in an hourglass-structured argument
If you’ve been assigned to write a paper—especially a “source analysis,” a “critical analysis,” or a “textual analysis,”—use this guide to help you structure your content and wow your professors. This writing guide will also help with on-the-job writing: position papers, executive summaries, status notes, competitive bids, and other workplace memos. Any time you need to present a coherent, sustained written argument, this basic structure and these writing tips will help you succeed.
No matter the content you are working with, master the structure outlined below and you are on your way to success not only in college but also in any professional scenario where you must analyze a mass of information and distill it into key takeaways and/or recommendations for action.
Before reviewing this structure, we must begin with a key guideline: The fundamental unit of thought in non-fiction writing is the paragraph, not the sentence.
Each paragraph should consist of a single main idea/statement, specific evidence from the text/data available to back up that statement, and logical explanations of how the evidence you have presented in the paragraph actually does support the statement. A good rule of thumb is this: for every piece of evidence you quote or cite in a paragraph, you must include at least two sentences explaining how that evidence supports your statement. The first explanatory sentence could be a rewording of the piece of evidence. You could start that sentence with the phrase “In other words…,” and then proceed to put the piece of evidence into your own words. Paraphrase is an important skill, because you must always be able to explain what something means in your own words. After that sentence, you must go on in a subsequent sentence (or two) to show the logical connection between the meaning of that particular detail and the main idea of your paragraph.
Just as each paragraph should convey one main idea, so also each paragraph should logically connect with the paragraphs that precede and follow it. The best way to make this connection is via a transition like the one I just wrote: construct a sentence that hooks onto a word, phrase, or idea from the concluding sentence of the preceding paragraph while also conveying the key idea for the new paragraph. The first sentence of this paragraph used the words “main idea” to remind you of the paragraph you just read, and the “just as/so also” parallel construction helped link that idea to the argument of this paragraph. Think of your paragraphs as train cars: the connecting link between two paragraphs can be as small as a single repeated word, but the train can’t roll without it.
Now, let’s see what each paragraph in an analytic paper is supposed to do, and where each paragraph should go.
Makes an arguable claim that answers an implicit or explicit question, and provides a preview of the sources (not the main points) you will be using to make that claim. (3–5 sentences)
The first (and weakest) point (a smaller claim) in support of your major claim. In this paragraph you may use multiple sources to make this point, or you may focus on a single source. (6–9 sentences)
An even stronger point in support of your major claim. In this paragraph you may use multiple sources to make this point, or you may focus on a single source. (6–9 sentences)
[… as many paragraphs as you need here, one supporting point per paragraph, each paragraph about 6–9 sentences in length]
The strongest point you are able to make in support of your claim. You may use multiple sources or focus on a single source. (6–9 sentences)
The STRONGEST counterargument someone could raise against your overall claim. Explain the BEST support that exists for this counterargument. (6–9 sentences)
Address the counterargument by either refuting it entirely, by explaining how/why your analysis outweighs it, or by suggesting how you have already incorporated its key idea into your analysis, or by REVISING YOUR MAIN CLAIM. (6–9 sentences)
A reframing of your overall claim with any qualifications needed based on how you addressed your counterargument. (6–9 sentences)
Paragraph Omega: A conclusion that suggests either a course of action or points to further questions / problems that your paper/report raises that must be addressed by subsequent inquiries (3–5 sentences)
Think of this as an hourglass-shaped structure, with all your paragraphs leading inward to your strongest point and addressing its most serious weakness and then moving outward again toward the overall implications of your analysis.
Your job, or your writing assignment, may expect you to arrange your paragraphs differently. For example, if you are writing an executive summary of a legislative initiative, you may be asked to include only the key claims in support of your plan of action, leaving out the detailed supporting evidence but addressing in great detail the possible objections to this initiative and how your organization should address it. If you are writing a status report for engineering, on the other hand, you may want to start with the biggest problem and argue outwards / backwards towards your main idea. But following this structure as you draft your paper will help you determine what your main idea, your strongest evidence, and your biggest challenges really are.
If you write your papers following this structure, you will learn to envision your paragraphs as functional blocks of text that you can move around as needed to address the particular style of any kind of analysis/presentation. Even if your job never asks you to present on paper the counterarguments against your idea, you should write that paragraph anyhow for yourself, so that you’ll be ready with a reliable answer if anyone comes up with a strong objection to your plan. In fact, following this suggested structure for analytic paper will help you make sure that your analysis of any issue, problem, or text has been thorough enough to meet the needs of your workplace/ assignment and to protect you from going out on a limb that won’t hold the weight of your claims.
If you practice the writing moves outlined in this brief summary, you will be well on your way to writing smooth, coherent, persuasive and well-supported arguments.