descriptive vs. analytical writing

(This was originally written for and published by the Azusa Pacific University Writing Center.)

My professor said I need to “do more analysis” in my papers. I don’t know what she means. I thought I was analyzing, i.e., giving a detailed examination, but she says my writing has been mostly summaries, or descriptions, of what others have said. What do I need to do?

In the Writing Center, we hear about scenarios like this all the time.

Here’s the theory: College is a liminal space for transitioning people from being “students” to being “scholars.” As students, writers must demonstrate that they have understood the content of a course, lecture, book, etc. Scholars, however, go beyond demonstrating understanding or knowledge and make contributions to the field of knowledge; in other words, students sum up the knowledge of others, while scholars create new knowledge. Typically, high school students are expected to demonstrate an understanding of ideas. Undergraduate students continue to demonstrate understanding, but also begin to make contributions to the field of knowledge. Graduate students, on the other hand, are more often required to make contributions to the field, which requires writers to demonstrate knowledge by making new contributions to the field. These distinctions are not always true, but they often give an accurate depiction of expectations placed on writers at various education levels.

Descriptive writing is about facts. Descriptive writing tells readers what happened, provides quotes and paraphrases from experts, summarizes the details of an event or case study, and otherwise gives information. Descriptive writing is exactly as the name implies: descriptive. It is what high school and undergraduate students are most often asked to do.

Analytical writing, on the other hand, takes those facts, quotes, paraphrases, details, etc., and then tells readers why any of that information matters. A descriptive writer answers the question, “What?” An analytical writer answers the question, “So what?” What does the evidence mean? Why is this quote or that piece of data significant? This is the work expected of graduate students and some undergraduate students.

Dr. Raul Pacheco-Vega has written previously on the distinctions between descriptive and analytical writing, and he has shared color-coded texts to demonstrate those distinctions. Pay attention to the verbs in his sample below. The green text is descriptive; it summarizes what the writer’s interlocutors said. After providing information, the author analyzes it (the orange text), sharing insights learned from this research, comparing and contrasting previously-cited pieces of information, and explaining the significance of the prior information.

screenshot of pacheco-vega they say i say sample

Dr. Pacheco-Vega builds on Graff and Birkenstein’s They Say / I Say paradigm to distinguish between descriptive and analytical writing. Description is about what they (other authors, scholars, experts, those we are citing) have to say, and analysis is about what I (the writer of this paper) have to say in response to what they say. In the sample above, green is they, orange is I. The author first describes the data learned during research, then analyzes that data, making connections between pieces of data and sharing insights gained from a close reading of the data.

Often, when professors say something like, “this needs more analysis,” they are looking for you to move beyond summaries or descriptions of what others have to say; they are asking you to make a contribution to the field of knowledge by comparing and contrasting different pieces of evidence; considering the strengths and weaknesses of various arguments; assessing the quality, accuracy, and/or credibility of various pieces or collections of data; and/or answering the question, “why does this quote/paraphrase/piece of information matter?”

If you can move from they say to I say, you can do analysis!

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