If you are reading this guide, you have probably been assigned to write an analytical paper. Analytical papers, by definition, are more than just plot summaries that demonstrate that you are familiar with required course materials; they are composed of original, carefully crafted arguments about a text. This section will help you to understand the differences between descriptions of a text and textual analysis so that your paper can meet its full potential.
You know at this point that writing a plot summary is not the same thing as writing an analytical paper. Plot summaries describe what happens in texts; analytical papers make arguments about texts. That sounds very simple, but, according to Professor Alok Yadav, not all description is limited to plot summary. “There is a certain mode of engagement with a literary text in which what you’re doing is describing its formal engineering,” says Professor Yadav. “That could be identifying the speaker of a poem, the metric structure, the moments of direct address, or the types of figurative language used in the poem.” Professor Yadav says that this type of formal description is often emphasized in English courses because it is “an important part of engaging with the literary work.” However, while it is certainly a more advanced technique than mere plot summary, describing the form of a text is not the same as making an argument about the text.
“A worthwhile interpretive argument,” explains Profssor Yadav, “is both substantive and contestable.” People do not usually contest what occurs in a text or what form a text takes; those are things you can get right or wrong. Therefore, says, Yadav, neither one of those things qualifies as an argument.
Does that mean you cannot use any descriptions of plot or form in your analytical paper? Of course not. A brief description of what a work is about can provide context, and formal description is textual evidence that can help you to make your argument. Indeed, attentive formal analysis is what allows you to supplement your discussion of the content, theme, character, and plot with the other dimension so the literary work, giving you a richer array of textual details to work with in developing your argument. You just need to ensure that you “motivate formal description in the direction of a genuinely interpretive claim.”
For example, a paragraph in your paper might look something like this:
Gwendolyn Brook’s “still do I keep my look, my identity…” is part of a series of poems related to World War II called “Gay Chaps at the Bar.” The poem claims that each soldier’s body has a certain “pose” that it maintains no matter where it is and what it is doing, even dying on a battlefield. (Summary for Context) The poem is an English sonnet with imperfect end rhymes. (Description) By writing her poem as a sonnet, Brooks calls attention to the bleakness of soldiers’ lives. Sonnets are traditional love poems to young men or women, but the only thing the speaker of the poem has to be grateful about is that fact that his body will still retain some of its character if he is maimed or killed in battle. (Interpretive Argument)
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