Analytical Writing vs Descriptive Writing:

Explained Simply (With Examples).

By: Derek Jansen | April 2017

Across the hundreds of students we work with, descriptive writing (as opposed to analytical writing) is an incredibly pervasive problem. It’s also one of the most common issues we see in marker feedback when students approach us after having failed an assignment or getting feedback from their research supervisor. In this post, we’ll explain the difference between analysis and description – in simple, straightforward terms.

So, what’s the difference?

In simple terms, descriptive writing merely communicates the “what” – in other words, it describes a situation as it is. Plain and simple. It doesn’t consider anything beyond that. Contrasted to this, analysis communicates the “so what?” – in other words, the impact or consequence of a given situation. Ideally, this impact discussion should link to the research questions or broader research purpose.

Analysis vs description

How about a practical example.

Let’s play a little game of ‘spot the difference’ to make the distinction between analysis and description a little clearer.

Description: Recently, President Jacob Zuma made the decision to reshuffle the parliamentary cabinet, including the firing of finance minister, Pravin Gordhan. This decision was not well received by many South Africans.

Analysis: President Zuma’s firing of popular finance minister, Gordhan drastically impacted investor confidence. This led to a sharp decrease in the value of the Rand. Such devaluation means that all USD-based imports (including petrol) will rise in cost, thereby raising the cost of living for South Africans, and reducing disposable income. This puts both cost and price pressure on Organisation X as an importer of USD-based goods Y, requiring it to consider doing Z. Furthermore, political instability has the added impact of encouraging immigration, particularly amongst skilled workers whose expertise is valued abroad (brain drain).

Not much analysis going on here

As you can probably see in this example, the descriptive version only tells us what event happened (the president decided to reshuffle the cabinet), whereas the analysis extends to discuss the impact of this event on Organisation X. In other words, it moved way beyond just describing a macro-level factor, to explain exactly what this means for the organisation.

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But wait, there’s more.

This event vs impact distinction is important in understanding the difference between description and analysis, but it is not the only difference – the differences go deeper than this. The table below explains some other key differences between descriptive and analytical writing.

Descriptive WritingAnalytical writing
States what happened (the event).Explain what the impact of the event was (especially in relation to the research question/s).
Explains what a theory says.Explains how this is relevant to the key issue(s) and research question(s).
Notes the methods used.Explains whether these methods were relevant or not.
States what time/date something happened.Explains why the timing is important/relevant.
Explains how something works.Explains whether and why this is positive or negative.
Provides various pieces of information.Draws a conclusion in relation to the various pieces of information.

Should I avoid description altogether?

When writing your assignments, it is essential to keep this distinction between description and analysis front of mind. Some description is simply unavoidable and in fact quite essential, but you want to keep it to a minimum. Don’t throw the baby out with the bathwater, as many analytical points require a base of description to make sense.

A good rule of thumb is to identify every what (i.e. descriptive point you make) and then check whether it is accompanied by a so what (i.e. the impact). This basic practice should keep your description levels down to a minimum, maximise the amount of analysis that you incorporate in your assignments – and – earn you some marks.

Let’s recap.

So, the key takeaways for this post are as follows:

  • Understand the difference between the what (descriptive) and the so what (analytical).
  • Understand the other ways in which analytical writing differs from descriptive writing (see the table above).
  • Some level of description will always be needed, but aim to minimise description and maximise analysis so as to earn marks.

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