Analysis is the process of breaking something into small parts and then thoughtfully examining those parts in order to better understand the thing itself. You may be most familiar with analyzing texts, but you can analyze virtually anything, from pieces of art and films, to sets of data, human behaviors, or scientific phenomena.

The stages of analysis
When your professors ask you to analyze something, they refer to the following process:

  • Identify individual elements – this requires close study that goes well beyond a first impression
  • Interpret the elements – What are that element's meanings or functions? Why is it interesting or important?
  • Synthesize the elements – How does it connect to other elements around it? How does that element help us better understand the whole?

In some assignments, your professor may ask you to evaluate as a part of your analysis. Evaluation involves making judgments about issues like quality, credibility, or ethics on the basis of your interpretation and synthesis.

Keys to successful analysis
Brainstorm as many small details as possible, and then decide which are most relevant or interesting to include in the paper. Make sure the details you select offer a fair representation of the thing you analyze. For example, include quotations from different moments in a story or gather data from people of different ages and cultural backgrounds.

Think about those details in a variety of ways. Once you decide on a potential meaning of a detail, ask yourself why someone might disagree with that interpretation, or push yourself to come up with one or two more interpretations of that item.

Make thoughtful connections. Thorough analysis can be difficult work. Think rigorously and creatively about the connections among your information, especially when you see contradiction or disagreement. What complexity might that disagreement show? Discussion of tensions in your analysis is just as important as discussion of those things that easily fit together.

Presenting your analysis
When you conduct your analysis, you start with small details and come up with larger claims based on that investigation. When you present your analysis in writing, you use the opposite order. Present claims, based on interpretation and synthesis, at the beginning of your paragraphs. Then explain how one or more small details illustrate that claim.

As you revise your paper, look out for places where you explain the nature of a detail but do not make a claim about its significance. Likewise, look for where you make claims without illustrating that idea with supporting details. Details and interpretations should appear together.