What is analysis?

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If you have no idea what you're doing when you ‘analyse’, then this first lesson is for you. I will explain exactly what goes into analysis, so that you can also do it without feeling confused any longer.

There are three essential ‘ingredients’ to analysis. We’ll look at each of these in order.

  1. Writer’s purpose
  2. Language
  3. Effect

Writer’s Purpose

Writers always write for a reason. Why do they write for a reason?

Because writing is hard. No sane person on Earth goes through the torturous process of researching, brainstorming, planning, drafting, re-drafting, editing and then maybe, if your writing is good enough, finally publishing a piece of polished writing. Writers do not put themselves through this torture unless they have a meaningful idea or story that they desperately want other people to understand and experience. Thus, writers always write with a purpose in mind. This is the most important fact that you need to remember when you analyse.

Here are some examples of writers’ purposes. Of course, there are an infinite number of reasons why a writer might have wished to smear the English alphabet onto a dead piece of tree; the following are just a couple cheesy examples to concretely illustrate the concept of a ‘writer’s purpose’.

  • To convey the beauty of pigeons
  • To criticize the environmental destruction caused by mining
  • To demonstrate why pizza is the best food (Because, you know, pizza’s the best, right!?)

What we just learned is Basic Fact #1:

Writers only put words on a page because they want to achieve a real, concrete purpose, with this “purpose” being to communicate something meaningful. This could be a message, an idea or simply a story.

The take-home lesson here is that the writer’s purpose is absolutely central to analysis.

A quick note on terminology: I refer to “message” and “purpose” interchangeably, so don’t be confused. “Writer’s purpose” means the same thing as “authorial intent”, a term with which you may be more familiar.

OK. So far, we know that writers have a purpose. We will add to this diagram very soon.

At risk of demeaning writers, you can think of this purpose as their sole goal in life. And they desperately (!) want to achieve it.

Now the question is: How does a writer achieve his or her purpose? To answer this, let me introduce the second essential ingredient of analysis.


Yes, language.

The language on the page of a book.

This stuff.

All of that is language. The words, the punctuation, the syntax, the literary techniques. Everything.

The language on the page of a novel or a poem is, really, the only thing on the page. And so, logically, language is the only thing that is responsible for transmitting the message from the writer’s brain to the reader’s brain. Therefore, writers have to be very clever: They have to deliberately choose the right words, the right literary techniques and even the right punctuation to most effectively convey their message.

So to answer the question of how a writer's purpose is achieved,

A writer achieves his/her purpose by using language, but not just any old language; the writer has to carefully handpick the right techniques that convey just the right meaning to achieve the intended purpose.

In the diagram below, we've added "language" and "meaning". As you can see, specific language is chosen to create an idea (meaning), with the end goal being to achieve the writer's purpose via the construction of that idea. Leaving out the intermediate "meaning" for just a second, we can see a writer always chooses language with the end goal or purpose in mind.

Okay. This is all great, and there’s a fancy diagram, but where do we fit in? What is an IB student supposed to do when he or she “analyses” language?

The answer is contained entirely in the diagram.

To analyse a text, it is as simple as following the arrows from "language" to "purpose".

  1. Find interesting language choices (literary techniques) in the text.
  2. Explain the idea / meaning created by the language.
  3. Explain how this idea achieves the writer’s purpose.

For example, in WB Yeats’ poem The Wild Swans at Coole, the poet’s purpose is to convince the reader of the beauty of the swans described in the lake. In the last stanza, he uses the word


to describe the motion of the swans on the lake.

  • Meaning: This choice of language conveys the gracefulness of the swans. The word “drift” makes us visualise something that floats elegantly and smoothly.
  • Purpose: This grace inherent in the elegant, aesthetic motion of the swans thus conveys their beauty to the reader.

To analyse means to be intensely obsessed with this journey from the writer’s language to the meaning constructed by the language to the purpose achieved by the meaning.

Hence, we can define IB literary analysis as the process of explaining / justifying a writer’s choice of language.

So far, we’ve learned two basic facts about analysis:

  • Every writer has a purpose.
  • Writers deliberately choose language to achieve their purpose.

But there’s one problem. We’ve entirely ignored the reader from the process of analysis, which is a bit ridiculous, since, you know, the readers are the ones who read and react to the writing.

And so, the third, and final, ingredient of analysis is…

The effect on the reader

Language / techniques create an effect on the reader.

  • For example, language can have an 'intellectual effect': A rhetorical question can force the reader to question or reflect on their own perspective on a political or moral issue.
  • But much more often, language creates an emotional effect: a powerful, visceral gut reaction to words and phrases that make us jump with happiness, or suffer in sadness, or drown in guilt, or experience any other human emotion.

“But writers don’t have superpowers! They can’t just…manipulate my emotions… right?”

Wrong. Language is very powerful.

Sad words

  • death
  • grey skies
  • failure
  • isolation
  • abandonment

Happy words

  • celebration
  • birthday
  • achievement
  • pride

OK, language does in fact have an effect on the reader. But how does the effect of language on the reader fit into analysis?

Well, looking at the diagram from before, we already know that language can convey a meaning. So, we know for a fact that "meaning" is one thing created by language. But language also creates an emotional experience for the reader.

Emotions are more direct and impactful than abstract concepts / ideas, and so it makes sense that the emotional effect of language is often utilised by writers to reinforce this abstract idea or message.

Now that we’ve covered all three aspects of analysis, we can see the whole picture. The writer’s language is doing two things at the same time: The language establishes an idea while simultaneously producing an emotional effect that, ideally, reinforces the meaning.

Hence, writers have two methods for infiltrating and influencing the minds of readers and infecting them with their purpose. These are the conceptual route and the emotional route. By using the effect to reinforce the meaning, the writer can ultimately convince the reader of whatever reasonable or crazy message, idea or story that needs to be conveyed.

That’s enough theory. Example time.

Example: Analysis in Action

I have a lot of imaginary friends. One of these imaginary friends is Bob. He writes imaginary editorials for an imaginary magazine.

Bob’s purpose is to criticise the environmental destruction caused by the greed of coal companies. Bob needs to align the effect of his editorial with his purpose: This means that Bob has to impact his readers (effect) in the right way to truly convince them that these coal companies are indeed bad, greedy corporations.

Appropriate emotions that would work well with Bob's purpose include:

  • Anger
  • Skepticism—Bob could make the readers question the ethics and operation of these companies
  • Resentment (a bitter indignation at having been treated unfairly)
  • Sadness—sadness could work as well because the reader could feel depressed from all the trees dying, and so that makes the companies look very bad.

Before we wrap up this lesson, let’s revisit the swan example in Yeats’ poem.

I talked about the interesting choice of the word “drift”, and how it creates a meaning: the visual image of something gliding along with incredible elegance. We only talked about the meaning, but the word also has an effect on the reader. The word “drift” evokes a sense of calmness as well; the swan is just gliding along, flaunting its beauty, and that action makes us feel peaceful as well. If you look at the diagram, the peacefulness of the scene places the reader in a state of mind that helps us better realise and appreciate the serene beauty of nature.


These are the 3 commandments of literary analysis:

  • Every writer wants to achieve a purpose.
  • Writers deliberately choose every word and technique on the page to achieve their purpose.
  • Writers strategically manipulate the reader’s thoughts and emotions to better achieve their purpose.

As for the diagram that looks like a diamond: Stick it on a wall. Marry it. Sing songs to it. Do whatever you have to do to become 'one' with this diagram. Next time, whenever you’re confused about what exactly analysis means, just think about this diagram, because it is analysis.

Keep track of your progress! Don't forget to mark this lesson as Complete after you've finished.