Analytic Thesis

Learning Objective

  • Evaluate the keys to successful analytic writing

When formulating an analytic thesis statement in college, there are three words/phrases to remember:

  1. How?
  2. Why?
  3. So what?

Let’s take a look a closer look at these terms in action. Suppose you want to analyze the lyrics to a popular song. Telling readers what the lyrics are might be a useful way to let them see what you are analyzing and/or to isolate specific parts where you are focusing your analysis. However, you need to move far beyond “what.” Instructors at the college level want to see your ability to break down material and demonstrate deep thinking.

Pretend that a rapper called Escalade has the biggest hit of the summer with a song titled “Missing You.” You listen to the song and determine that it is about the pain people feel when a loved one dies. You have actually already done analysis at a surface level, but something along the lines of the following claim is not a great thesis statement: “Escalade’s hit song “Missing You” is about being sad after a loved one dies.” There isn’t much depth to such a claim because there isn’t any “how,” “why,” and “so what.” Good analytic thesis statements require digging deeper and often looking into the context. Let’s say you do some research and learn that the rapper’s mother died not long ago, and when you examine the lyrics more closely, you see that a few of the lines seem to be specifically about a mother rather than a loved one in general (“why”).

Then you also read a recent interview with Escalade in which he mentions that he’s staying away from hardcore rap lyrics on his new album in an effort to be more mainstream and reach more potential fans (“so what”). Finally, you notice that some of the lyrics in the song focus on not taking full advantage of the time we have with our loved ones (“how”). All of these pieces give you material to write a much deeper thesis statement, maybe something like this: “In the hit song “Missing You,” Escalade draws on his experience of losing his mother and raps about taking time with family for granted in order to connect with a broad audience.” Such a thesis statement is focused while still allowing plenty of room for support in the body of your paper.

Certainly, there may be many ways for you to address “how,” “why,” and “so what,” and you may want to play with other ideas, but the above example is just one way to go deeper with material. There is no secret formula to help you balance the “how,” “why,” and “so what.” Just remember to think about all three as you try to determine why something is what it is or why something means what it means.

Key Takeaways for analytic theses

Don’t be afraid to let your claim evolve organically. If you find that your thinking and writing don’t stick exactly to the thesis statement you have constructed, your options are to scrap the writing and start again to make it fit your claim (which might not always be possible) or to modify your thesis statement. The latter option can be much easier if you are okay with the changes. As with many projects in life, writing doesn’t always go in the direction we plan, and strong analysis may mean thinking about and making changes as you look more closely at your topic. Be flexible.

Use analysis to get you to a main claim. You may have heard the simile that analysis is like peeling an onion, because you have to go through layers to complete your work. You can start the process of breaking down an idea or an artifact without knowing where it will lead you or without a main claim or idea to guide you. Often, careful assessment of the pieces will bring you to an interesting interpretation about the whole. In their text Writing Analytically, authors David Rosenwasser and Jill Stephen posit that being analytic doesn’t mean just breaking something down. It also means constructing understandings. Don’t assume you need to have deeper interpretations all figured out as you start your work.

When you decide upon a main claim, make sure it is reasoned. In other words, if it is very unlikely anyone else would reach the same interpretation you are making, it might be off base. Not everyone needs to see an idea the same way you do, but a reasonable person should be able to understand, if not agree, with your analysis.