Study Skills


October 4, 2016 From describing to analysing

This article is part of a series called English by Compass.

Read the series >

When I was in high school, it took me a while to work out the difference between describing and analysing. For a while, I puzzled over those comments from my English teacher in red pen: ‘Too much recount!’ ‘You need to analyse, not retell the story.’ ‘Too descriptive!’ What did it all mean?

I eventually realised that my English teachers did not want me to tell them the story of the novel, poem or film that we were studying; instead they wanted me to explain how the text worked. That’s the job of an English student – to explain how. And that usually involves discussing the composer’s use of language techniques.

When I finally understood this, the whole subject of English clicked into place.

What does it look like?

Do you know the difference between describing and analysing? And how can you make sure that you’re actually analysing the text?

The first step is to learn to recognise the difference between describing the plot and analysing the text.

Here are three different student responses to the question, ‘Explain how Shakespeare portrays the characters of Macbeth and Lady Macbeth in Act 2, scene 2 of his play Macbeth.’

Example 1: Describing

In Act 2, scene 2 of Macbeth, Lady Macbeth waits for her husband to return from killing King Duncan. She is anxious and excited. When Macbeth does return, Lady Macbeth discovers that he has mistakenly brought the murder weapons back to their chamber. She criticises him for being too scared to return the daggers, and returns them herself. Macbeth feels very scared and guilty about what he has done. The scene ends with Macbeth and Lady Macbeth washing the blood from their hands as the other people in the castle awaken.

In this example, the student recounts the plot of the scene. We hear about what the characters do and feel. It’s almost as though the characters are real people rather than representations in a play. The student does not provide any specific quotations nor any analysis of how Shakespeare portrays these ideas through language.

Example 2: Describing with quotations

In Act 2, scene 2 of Macbeth, Lady Macbeth is anxious and excited about the murder of King Duncan, whereas Macbeth feels guilty and afraid. When Macbeth returns from Duncan’s chamber, Lady Macbeth calls him ‘Infirm of purpose!’ because he has forgotten to plant the daggers on the body. She goes on to say that she would feel ‘shame’ if she were to ‘wear a heart so white’ as Macbeth. Whilst Lady Macbeth leaves the stage to return the daggers, Macbeth is horrified at his own murderous actions, asking, ‘Will all great Neptune’s ocean wash this blood/Clean from my hand?’ As the scene ends, the couple prepares for their guests’ discovery of King Duncan’s body.

This answer is stronger than the last one, as the student provides specific quotations from the play. However, there is still significant describing of the characters rather than explaining how Shakespeare portrays these ideas through language.

Example 3: Analysing

In Act 2, scene 2 of Macbeth, Shakespeare portrays the varied reactions of Macbeth and Lady Macbeth to the murder of King Duncan. The blood on the characters’ hands is a dramatic representation of their guilt in killing the King of Scotland. Macbeth’s reaction is one of horror, expressed through the rhetorical question ‘Will all great Neptune’s ocean wash this blood / Clean from my hand?’ Here Shakespeare uses hyperbole to convey Macbeth’s fear that his guilt, symbolised by ‘this blood’, will remain forever. In contrast, Lady Macbeth’s instruction, ‘Go get some water, / And wash this filthy witness from your hand’, indicates her belief that the deed can be easily removed. She exclaims, ‘A little water clears us of this deed / How easy it is then!’ suggesting that murder is ‘easy’. In this way, Shakespeare contrasts the initial reactions of the two main characters to the act of murder.

This is a much stronger answer. The student is less concerned with describing the characters’ actions and more focused on explaining how Shakespeare uses language to portray ideas. The student identifies specific language techniques used in the examples and explains how Shakespeare uses these to portray Macbeth and Lady Macbeth.

How can you make sure you are analysing rather than describing?

Now that you are able to recognise the difference between describing and analysing, how can you make sure that you are actually analysing when writing about a text?

Use these three quick tips to strengthen your analysis responses.

Tip #1: Focus on the composer

When analysing, make sure that you are discussing the composer’s choices rather than the characters’ actions. Remember that the characters are not real people; they are representations created by the composer. Make the composer the agent of your sentences.

Describing: Lady Macbeth calls on the spirits to give her courage to commit murder.

Analysing: Shakespeare portrays Lady Macbeth as a determined character, as she calls on the spirits to ‘fill me from the crown to the toe’ with ‘direst cruelty’.

Tip #2: Use analysis verbs

There are special verbs that you can use when explaining how the composer uses language to create meaning. These verbs are part of the ‘language of representation’ and they will help you to write strong analytical responses.

The composer represents
The writer reinforces
The composer portrays
This symbolises
The author suggests
The poet conveys
The composer depicts
The writer communicates
The playwright expresses
The composer focuses on
The composer uses…to show
The writer foregrounds
The director positions the responder to
The artist invites the responder to
The composer provokes a reaction of

Why not start a word bank? You can continue adding to the words in the box whenever you find a useful analysis verb.

Tip #3: Keep plot recount to a minimum

Try as much as possible to keep plot recount to a minimum. Use it very sparingly in your responses, and only when it is important.

One way to keep yourself from providing long passages of recount is to integrate direct quotations into your sentences.

Remember: Always assume that your reader knows the plot!

Recounting the plot: Macbeth thinks that he can see a dagger and tries to touch it but he can’t actually touch it. He thinks he might be imagining the dagger or that it is calling him to commit the murder of King Duncan.

Analysing: Shakespeare conveys Macbeth’s confused state of mind as he questions whether the imagined dagger is ‘sensible to feeling’ or else ‘a false creation’.

By using these tips, you’ll ensure that you are analysing, not describing!

This article is part of a series called English by Compass.

Read the series >

Melinda Cooper
is an experienced English teacher and HSC marker. She is currently working on a PhD in English at the University of Sydney