Four Levels of Essay Writing
It is often difficult to understand what a teacher means when they ask you to write analytically or they put comments on your essay that say ‘Analyse this in more detail!’ or, even less helpfully, just ‘Analysis?’. Here is a good example of how analytical writing differs from other kinds of writing which will hopefully make it clear what I want when I ask you to analyse a text. All of the examples are based on the text Jane Eyre by Charlotte Bronte, which we have not studied, but the key differences between the different levels of writing should still be apparent.
There are four basic levels in writing about literature:
Level 1: Description
The following quotation illustrates descriptive writing.
‘ … Jane is mistreated by the Reed family, and although she is solely dependent on them to secure her livelihood, she speaks out against her harsh treatment…’
This is clearly just describing what happens in the text. Descriptive writing tends to simply re-tell the story and stick to the sequential order of events in the plot. In essay work, description of this kind is basically of a limited value and can never secure many marks. It does demonstrate that the novel has been read but gives no indication of whether anything has been understood about the significance of the events depicted.
Level 2: Commentary
Please do not confuse this kind of commentary (small c), which is a description of a kind of writing, with the Commentary that you write in Paper 1 of your IB exams. You are still expected to analyse in your Paper 1 Commentary writing.
The next quotation begins n the same way but progresses further. It is an example of commentary writing.
‘ … Jane is mistreated by the Reed family, and although she is solely dependent on them to secure her livelihood, she speaks out against her harsh treatment. This shows that Jane is becoming something which society disapproves of – a woman with a voice and opinions of her own …’
Here, we have moved from description to commentary. The factual description is supplemented by comments on the significance of events. This is where you start to gain marks – but the above commentary is still limited. If the essay continues in this way, citing incidents and attributing significance, then it would disintegrate into a long list of events, with none examined closely. Therefore, it is at this point that you must progress into the third level.
Level 3: Discussion
Discussion is a developed treatment of one single event in the text.
‘… When she protests against her treatment by the Reeds, Jane, of course, engages in a laudable act of rebellion and self assertion. But the emphasis of the passage is not really upon this but upon the heroine’s realisation of her own powers which are tested in this episode for the first time. ‘What strength had I to dart retaliation at my antagonist?’ she begins by asking herself. When she makes her verbal assault ‘I gathered my energies and launched them in this blunt sentence’, she is herself shocked at the force of her own words as Mrs. Reed is silenced and rebuffed ‘Mrs. Reed looked frightened .. she was lifting up her hands … and even twisting her face as if she would cry’ …’
Here the essay has moved from commentary, which is essentially a series of more or less isolated points on events in the book, to discussion. This is a sequence of points linked together and having a single focus.
The preceding quotation concerns one aspect of the scene, which is Jane’s sense of the force of her own personality. There is an underlying meaning which the essay has picked out and highlighted.
· If Jane had stated in the text she was shocked at the force of her words this would be descriptive. However, she does not and so the essay writer has had to work this out for themselves which takes this beyond the level of description.
· If the essay praised or blamed her for her assertiveness or told us why it was important then this would have been commentary and part of a catalogue of events which are listed and either approved or disapproved of.
Instead what makes this discussion is that it picks up on a less obvious aspect of the text and then explores and writes about its implications in greater detail.
Commentary can be described as passing rapidly over text and quickly moving on to the next event whilst discussion involves doubling back and focussing in for a closer study. It must be remembered that you cannot have discussion without commentary. It is a vital preceding step.
Level 4: Analysis
Analysis moves the discussion into related, more wide ranging areas.
‘… When she protests against her treatment by the Reeds, Jane, of course, engages in a laudable act of rebellion and self assertion. But the emphasis of the passage is not really upon this but upon the heroine’s realisation of her own powers which are tested in this episode for the first time. ‘What strength had I to dart retaliation at my antagonist?’ she begins by asking herself. When she makes her verbal assault ‘I gathered my energies and launched them in this blunt sentence’, she is herself shocked at the force of her own words as Mrs. Reed is silenced and rebuffed ‘Mrs. Reed looked frightened .. she was lifting up her hands … and even twisting her face as if she would cry’. The outburst here prefigures the moment near the end of the novel when she again has the undoubted satisfaction of releasing the full force of her tongue and telling another person exactly what she thinks of them: this is the climactic moment when she rejects St .John Rivers, telling him ‘I scorn your ideas of love … I scorn the counterfeit sentiment you offer; yes St. John and I scorn you when you offer it.’ In this later exchange the mattes at issue are the same as in the scene with Mrs. Reed. On both occasions she refuses to take part in a masquerade of love ‘I am not deceitful’ she tells Mrs. Reed, ‘If I were I should say I loved you …’ On both occasions she resents the assumptions by the other party that she can repress her feelings in an inhuman way ‘you think I have no feelings and that I can do without one bit of love or kindness’ she says to Mrs. Reed. In that sense taking up St. John Rivers’ offer of marriage in adult life would involve re-imprisoning herself in the red room of Mrs. Reed’s childhood neglect.’
The addition to the discussion level is analytical writing. The main difference between the two levels is that in analysis the close study of one aspect of the text (discussion) is combined with the establishment of links between that aspect and other aspects of the text. Therefore, in the above example there is both detailed discussion of the early scene in the book with Mrs. Reed and a series of suggestions which link that scene with other events which occur later on; the rejection of St. John Rivers. Here the passage with Mrs. Reed is a springboard to a series of connections with other events in the novel. It is not written as a chronological essay working through events in the order that they occur in the novel – instead it establishes its own order based on thematic connections and working with ideas and not events.
Other important analytical characteristics of the above passage are:
· It doesn’t just make assertions; points are qualified, amplified and restated. This is achieved through the connection words and phrases ‘ …of course … but … not really … in that sense … etc’
· The passage has slowed down the pace of discussion by homing in on a specific episode. The episode is both looked at closely on its own and then linked to other areas of the text.
· The passage does not quote huge chunks but, instead, picks out the important words or phrases and comments upon them. As such quotations are usually smaller than a single sentence. A good sign that you really understand a text and how the author has constructed it is that you can pick out the subtle, delicate and small language choices that the author has made to create an effect.
Remember that you do not have to use sophisticated vocabulary to write analytically. Indeed complex language can often get in the way of the point that you are trying to make; simple and direct language can express quite complicated ideas in a more straight forward way, which is, essentially, the key thing you are trying to do. What is important then, is not really the words that you use but what you say. If you write analytically in the style outlined above you will score well regardless of the language used to make your points.