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5.1 Focusing, Developing, and Synthesizing

Learning Objectives

  1. Discuss how to focus and develop the essay.
  2. Reveal how to convey an effective organization through transitions.
  3. Suggest strategies for producing effective opening and closing paragraphs.

After discussing general strategies for analysis and applying these strategies to specific examples in class, I inevitably encounter a student asking, “This has all been well and good, but when are we going to actually learn how to write?” The student’s confusion most likely emerges from how he was taught in the past. In most school assignments, writing does not require thinking so much as the stuffing of obvious considerations or memorized material into formulated structures, like a five-paragraph essay or a short answer exam. However, in less restrictive writing situations the specific way we articulate our analysis emerges from what we think of it, and thus our best writing comes through our most careful considerations. The good news, then, is that if you have been following the advice I’ve given throughout this book about coming up with your analysis, then you will have already finished most of the work on your essay. The bad news is that there is no easy formula for putting it all together. However, we still can examine general strategies that successful analytical writers tend to use, though the specific way you enact these strategies will depend on the ideas that you have already discovered.

Focusing Your Analysis

If you have taken the time to examine your subject thoroughly and read what others have written about it, then you might have so much to say that you will not be able to cover your perspective adequately without turning your essay into a book. In such a case you would have two options: briefly cover all the aspects of your subject or focus on a few key elements. If you take the first option, then your essay may seem too general or too disjointed. A good maxim to keep in mind is that it is better to say a lot about a little rather than a little about a lot; when writers try to cover too many ideas, they often end up reiterating the obvious as opposed to coming up with new insights. The second option leads to more intriguing perspectives because it focuses your gaze on the most relevant parts of your subject, allowing you to discern shades of meaning that others might have missed.

To achieve a stronger focus, you should first look again at your main perspective or working thesis to see if you can limit its scope. First consider whether you can concentrate on an important aspect of your subject. For instance, if you were writing an essay for an Anthropology class on Ancient Egyptian rituals, look over your drafts to see which particular features keep coming up. You might limit your essay to how they buried their dead, or, better, how they buried their Pharaohs, or, even better, how the legend of the God Osiris influenced the burial of the Pharaohs. Next, see if you can delineate your perspective on the subject more clearly, clarifying your argument or the issue you wish to explore. This will help you move from a “working” thesis, such as “Rituals played an important function in Ancient Egyptian society,” to an “actual” thesis: “Because it provided hope for an afterlife, the legend of Osiris offered both the inspiration and methodology for the burial of the Pharoahs.”

Once you have focused the scope of your thesis, revise your essay to reflect it. This will require you to engage in what is usually the most painful part of the writing process—cutting. If something does not fit in with your perspective, it has to go, no matter how brilliantly considered or eloquently stated. In the course of writing this book, I’ve had to cut several sections simply because they no longer corresponded with the main perspective I wanted to convey. But do not throw away the parts you cut. You never know when you might find a use for them again. Just because a particular section does not fit well with the focus of one essay does not mean that you won’t be able to use it in another essay down the road.


After cutting your essay down to the essential ideas, look it over again to make sure that you have explored each idea adequately. At this point it might help to recall the AXES acronym I introduced in the first chapter to ask yourself the following questions:

  • Are there clear assertions throughout the essay that reveal your perspectives on the subject?
  • Do you provide the specific examples that inspired these assertions?
  • Do you explain how you derived your assertions from a careful reading of these examples?
  • Do you explore the significance of these assertions as they relate to personal and broader concerns?

If any long sections seem lacking in any of these areas of AXES, you might explore them further by taking time out from your more formal writing to play with one of the heuristics recommended in various sections throughout this book (freewriting, metaphor extension, issue dialogue, the Pentad, brainstorming, and clustering). You can then incorporate the best ideas you discover into your essay to make each section seem more thoughtful and more thorough.

Now that we’ve looked at each of these areas of analysis more carefully, let’s go back to the main example from the first chapter, the passage from Shakespeare’s The Tempest. At the end, I provide an example of a paragraph that includes each aspect of analysis, but while these aspects are all present, none of them are developed fully enough for even a brief essay on the passage. Beginning with the examples, the paragraph makes brief reference to the “baseless fabric of the vision of cloud capped towers” and to the “great globe itself,” pointing out how these phrases refer to items associated with Shakespeare’s theater as well as the world outside of it. But we could also discuss other terms and phrases that appear in the quote. For instance, we could discuss the implications of the word “revels” in the first line. These days we probably wouldn’t say “revels” but instead “celebrations,” or, less formally, “partying,” but the word clearly refers back to the play within the play that comes to an abrupt end. In this context, the implication is that above all, the purpose of plays should be for enjoyment, a sentiment reflected in the epilogue when Prospero speaks directly to the audience: “gentle breath of yours my sails/Must fill, or else my project fails,/Which was to please.”

As we further consider the implications, we might be reminded of past teachers who made reading Shakespeare feel less like a celebration and more like a task, as something to be respected but not enjoyed. We could then explain how the word “revels” serves as a reminder to enjoy his plays, and not because they are “good for us” like a nasty tasting vitamin pill, but because if we’re willing to take the effort to understand the language, the plays become deeply entertaining. Looking back over the passage and seeing how plays are equated to our lives outside the theater leads to an even more significant insight. We should try to see life as a celebration, as something to be enjoyed before we too disappear into “thin air.” In discussing the significance of this, we wouldn’t simply wrap it up in a cliché like “I intend to live only for today,” but explore more responsible ways we can balance fulfilling our obligations with enjoying the moments that make up our lives.

Now we can go back and expand the main assertion. Instead of simply writing, In The Tempest, Shakespeare connects plays, lives and dreams by showing that while each contains an illusion of permanence, they’re all only temporary, we might also add, But this does not mean that we should waste the time we have on earth or in the theater lamenting that it will all soon be over. Instead we should celebrate, in a responsible manner, our remaining moments. And because all of these insights came about from examining the implications of only one word, “revels,” the essay will continue to expand as we consider more details of the passage and consult related research. Eventually, however, we will need to stop expanding our analysis and consider how to present it more deliberately.

Introducing the Essay

When revising your essay, you do not have to write it in the exact order that it will be read, as any section you work on in a given moment may appear anywhere in your final draft. In fact, many times it’s best to write the first paragraph last because we may not know how to introduce the essay until we’ve discovered and articulated the main perspectives. However, eventually you will need to consider not only what your analysis consists of, but also the effect you want it to have. An essay that commands attention seems like a discussion between intelligent and aware people, in which ideas are not thrown out randomly but in a deliberate manner with each thought leading logically to the next.

For this reason, the opening paragraphThe part of your essay where you entice the reader to want to continue by leading her into the main perspective (as opposed to spelling out the main details in a rigid manner). should be the place where you invite your readers into this discussion, making them want to read what will follow without delineating the main content in a rigid manner. Again, imagine being at a party, but this time instead of meeting someone who bores you by reciting irrelevant details of the past, he tells you exactly what will follow in the near future: “Over the next ten minutes we will discuss three things: work, politics, and leisure activities. During the course of our discussion, we will raise relevant personal experiences, draw from a bevy of beliefs and morals, and reflect on the current state of international affairs.” Again, most likely you and everyone else this person approaches will find an excuse to move to the other side of the room as quickly as possible. Similarly when writers begin their essays with a step-by-step announcement of what will follow, we don’t feel the sense of anticipation that we do when the perspective unfolds more organically. Successful analytical essay writers do not begin by blatantly spelling out the main points that they will cover, but rather create “leads,” openings that hook the reader into wanting to read further.

One way to capture the reader’s attention is to share a story or anecdote that directly relates to the main perspective. For instance, in the first chapter, I created a story about a hypothetical student named Jeff who was having difficulty writing an analytical paper on The Tempest in order to reveal a situation that not only was widely familiar but also allowed me to introduce the various components of analysis.

You can also capture your reader’s attention with a quote: “Oh what fools these mortals be” has become one of my favorite Shakespeare quotes since I began working in a restaurant. I am always amazed by the litany of ridiculous questions and requests I have to entertain during each of my shifts.

Or you might try a joke: Once there was a small boy who lost the key to his house. Though he dropped it in the front yard, he chose to look for it near the sidewalk because they light was much better there. Like him, many people look for the easiest solutions to their problems even when they know the truth is far more complicated and obscure..

Or perhaps you can startle the reader with an unexpected twist:The best day of my life occurred last summer. First, I was fired from my job, next my girlfriend dumped me, and finally I was kicked out of my parent’s house. All this motivated me to find a better job, a better girlfriend, and a better place to live. History is full of days like this, ones that seem tragic yet turn out to have positive consequences in the long run.

Finally, you might begin with an analogy: Trying to write a perfect essay all at once is like attempting to ride a bike while juggling and singing opera. You are likely to crash unless you take on each task separately: invention, drafting, revising, and editing.

These are just a few suggestions for grabbing the reader’s attention and many other possibilities exist (though try to avoid beginning with a dictionary definition unless you want to provide your own twist on it). Whichever way you decide to open your paper, make certain that you go on to relate your lead-in to the main perspective or thesis you have on your subject. For instance, you wouldn’t want to start an essay by telling a joke that has nothing to do with the subject of your analysis, just to get an easy laugh. However, it would be fine if you were to write:

There’s an old Sufi joke that points out that “the moon is more valuable than the sun because at night we need the light more.” Of course the joke’s humor arises from the fact that without the sun, it would be night all the time, and yet it does seem to be human nature to take advantage of that which is constant in our lives, the people and things that add warmth and light on a daily basis. In applying this to the television show, Mad Men, it’s easy to see how Donald Draper, the main character, undervalues his wife Betty in order to chase after other women. Though these other women are as inconstant as the moon, disappearing and reappearing in new forms, they give him light during the dark times in his life when he needs it the most. His affairs, however, do not provide lasting satisfaction, but only a fleeting illusion of happiness, much like the advertisements he creates for a living.

Notice how this paragraph leads the reader from the hook to the main focus of the essay without spelling out what will follow in a rigid manner. The Sufi joke is not simply thrown out for a chuckle, but to set up the thesis that the main character of the show prefers illusions to reality in both his personal life and his work. As a result, this paragraph is likely to engage our attention and make us want to read further.

Organization of the Body Paragraphs

Once you’ve led your readers into your essay, you can keep their attention by making certain that your ideas continue to connect with each other by writing transitionsAssertions that link the main perspective of one paragraph to the paragraph that follows. between your paragraphs and the main sections within them. At the beginning of a paragraph, a transition functions as a better kind of assertion than a topic sentence because it not only reveals what the paragraph will be about but also shows how it connects to the one that came before it. Take this paragraph you are currently reading as an example. Had I begun by simply writing a topic sentence like “A second strategy for effective writing is to develop effective transitions,” I would not only have ignored my own advice, but also would have missed an important point about how transitions, like opening paragraphs, function to lead readers through various aspects of our perspectives.

Before you can write effective transitions, you need to make certain that your paper is organized deliberately throughout. To insure this, you might try the oldest writing trick in the composition teacher’s handbook, the outline. But wait until after you have already come up with most of your analysis. To begin a paper with an outline requires that you know the content before you have a chance to consider it. Writing, as I’ve argued throughout this book, is a process of discovery—so how can you possibly put an order to ideas that you have not yet articulated? After you have written several paragraphs, you should read them again and write down the main points you conveyed in each of them on a separate piece of paper. Then consider how these points connect with each other and determine the best order for articulating them, creating a reverse outlineA method of organizing a paper in which you list the main points of a draft, organize these points into an outline, and reorganize the draft to reflect the outline. from the content that you’ve already developed. Using this outline as a guide, you can then reorganize the paper and write transitions between the paragraphs to make certain that they connect and flow for the reader.

An excellent method for producing effective transitions is to underline the key words in one paragraph and the key words in the one that follows and then to write a sentence that contains all of these words. Try to show the relationship by adding linking words that reveal a causal connection (however, therefore, alternatively) as opposed to ones that simply announce a new idea (another, in addition to, also). For example, if I were to write about how I feel about having to pay taxes, the main idea of one paragraph could be: Like everyone else, I hate to see so much of my paycheck disappear in taxes. And the main idea of the paragraph that follows could be: Without taxes we wouldn’t have any public services. My transition could be: Despite the fact that I hate to pay taxes, I understand why they are necessary because without them, we wouldn’t be able to have a police force, fire department, public schools and a host of other essential services. If you cannot find a way to link one paragraph to the next, then you should go back to your reverse outline to consider a better place to put it. And if you cannot find any other place where it fits, then you may need to cut the paragraph from your paper (but remember to save it for potential use in a future essay).

This same advice works well for writing transitions not only between paragraphs but also within them. If you do not provide transitional clues as to how the sentences link together, the reader is just as likely to get lost:

I love my two pets. My cat, Clyde is very independent. My dog, Mac, barks if I leave him alone for very long. I can leave Clyde alone for four days. I’m only taking Clyde with me to college. I have to come home twice a day to feed Mac. Mac does a lot of tricks. Clyde loves to purr on my lap.

The reason that reading this can make us tired and confused is that we can only remember a few unrelated items in a given moment. By adding transitional phrases and words, we store the items in our memory as concepts, thus making it easier to relate the previous sentences to the ones that follow. Consider how much easier it is to read an analysis with transitions between sentences:

I have two pets that I love for very different reasons. For instance, I love when my cat, Clyde, sits on my lap and purrs, and I also love when my dog Mac performs many of the tricks I’ve taught him. But when I leave for college, I plan to take only Clyde with me. Unfortunately I can only leave Mac at home for a few hours before he starts to bark; however, Clyde is very independent and can be left in my dorm for days without needing my attention.

This revision not only is much easier to read and recall but also gives a sense of coherence to what previously seemed liked scattered, random thoughts.

Ending the Essay

Once you’ve led your readers all the way through to the closing paragraphThe part of your essay where you stress the significance of your analysis by calling attention to what you hope the reader has learned from it or by challenging him to action or further thought (as opposed to simply summarizing what you’ve already covered)., try not to sink their enthusiasm by beginning it with the words “in conclusion.” Not only is this phrase overused and cliché, but it also sends the wrong message. The phrase implies that you have wrapped up all the loose ends on the subject and neither you nor your readers should have any need to think about it further. Rather than close off the discussion, the last paragraph should encourage it to continue by stressing how your analysis opens up new avenues for thinking about your subject (as long as these thoughts emerge from your essay and are not completely unrelated to what you wrote about before). This is the place where you should stress the significance of your analysis, underscoring the most important insights you discovered and the implications for further thought and action.

However you choose to stress the importance of your analysis in your final paragraph, you can do so without simply repeating what you wrote before. If you have effectively led your readers through your paper, they will remember your main points and will most likely find a final summary to be repetitive and annoying. A much stronger choice is to end with a statement or observation that captures the importance of what you have written without having to repeat each of your main points. For example, in his book, City of Quartz, Mike Davis ends his discussion of how Southern Californians do not care to preserve their past by calling attention to a junkyard full of zoo and amusement park icons:

Scattered amid the broken bumper cars and ferris wheel seats are nostalgic bits and pieces of Southern California’s famous extinct amusement parks (in the pre-Disney days when admission was free or $1); the Pike, Belmont Shores, Pacific Ocean Park, and so on. Suddenly rearing up from the back of a flatbed trailer are the fabled stone elephants and pouncing lions that once stood at the gates of Selig Zoo in Eastlake (Lincoln) Park, where they had enthralled generations of Eastlake kids. I tried to imagine how a native of Manhattan would feel, suddenly discovering the New York Public Library’s stone lions discarded in a New Jersey wrecking yard. I suppose the Selig lions might be Southern California’s summary, unsentimental judgment on the value of its lost childhood. The past generations are like so much debris to be swept away by the developers’ bulldozers.Mike Davis, City of Quartz (New York: Vintage Books, 1990), 435.

Imagine, if instead of this paragraph, he had written: In conclusion I have shown many instances in which Southern Californians try to erase their past. First I showed how they do so by constructing new buildings, concentrating especially on the Fontana region. Second I showed… Can’t you just feel the air leaving your sails?

In light of this advice, you have probably already discerned that certain parts of your essay will emphasize various aspects of analysis. The beginning of the paper will announce your main assertion or thesis and the transitions in subsequent paragraphs will present corollary assertions. The bulk of your paper will most likely center on your examples and explanations, and the end will focus more on the significance. However, try to make certain that all of these elements are present to some degree throughout your essay. A long section without any significance may cause your readers to feel bored, a section without assertions may cause them to feel confused, and a section without examples or explanations may cause them to feel skeptical.


Write a lead paragraph for a potential essay on a subject that you’ve already developed a strong perspective on. Begin with one of the strategies I mention in this section—an anecdote, a quote, an analogy, a story, an unexpected twist—and connect your lead to your thesis or question that you wish to explore. Consider, too, how you might end this essay. Think further about what you find to be the most significant aspect of your subject and what key images or thoughts you want to leave lingering in the minds of your readers.

Key Takeaways

  • The writing process begins when we first start to consider a subject because we form, develop, and articulate our thoughts recursively.
  • It is important to focus your analysis on the essential features of the subject and to make sure that each of these features receives adequate development.
  • Effective essays subtly lead us into the key perspective, provide transitions. between the main sections, and leave us with something important to consider.