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Analytical vs. Descriptive Writing: Definitions and Examples


Scholars at all levels are expected to write. People who are not students or scholars often engage in writing for work, or to communicate with friends, family, and strangers through email, text messages, and social media. Academia recognizes two major types of writing—descriptive writing and analytical writing—which are both used in non-academic situations as well. As you might expect, descriptive writing focuses on clear descriptions of facts or things that have happened, while analytical writing provides additional analysis.


Descriptive writing is the most straightforward type of academic writing. It provides accurate information about "who", "what", "where", and "when". Examples of descriptive writing include:

  • Summarizing an article (without offering additional insight)
  • Stating the results of an experiment (without analyzing the implications)
  • Describing a newsworthy event (without discussing possible long-term consequences)

High school students and undergraduates are most commonly asked to write descriptively, to show that they understand the key points of a specific topic (e.g. the major causes of World War II).

Analytical writing goes beyond summarizing information and instead provides evaluation, comparison, and possible conclusions. It addresses the questions of "why?", "so what?", and "what next?". Examples of analytical writing include:

  • The discussion section of research papers
  • Opinion pieces about the likely consequences of newsworthy events and the steps that should be taken in response.

High school students and undergraduates are sometimes asked to write analytically to "stretch their thinking". Possible topics might include "Could World War II have been avoided?" and "How can CRISPR-Cas9 technology improve human health?". The value of any such analysis is entirely dependent on the writer's ability to understand and clearly explain relevant information, which would be explained through descriptive writing. For graduate students and professional researchers, the quality of their work is at least partially based on the quality of their analysis.

The following table from The Study Skills Handbook by Stella Cottrell (2013, 4th edition, Palgrave Macmillan, page 198) is commonly used to summarize the differences between descriptive writing and analytical writing.

Descriptive WritingCritical Analytical Writing
States what happenedIdentifies the significance
States what something is likeEvaluates strengths and weaknesses
Gives the story so farWeighs one piece of information against another
Outlines the order in which things happenedMakes reasoned judgements
Instructs how to do somethingArgues a case according to the evidence
List the main elements of a theoryShows why something is relevant or suitable
Outlines how something worksIndicates why something will work (best)
Notes the method usedIdentifies whether something is appropriate or suitable
States when something occurredIdentifies why the timing is of importance
States the different componentsWeighs the importance of component parts
States optionsGives reasons for selecting each option
Lists detailsEvaluates the relative significance of details
Lists in any orderStructures information in order of importance
States links between itemsShows the relevance of links between pieces of information
Gives information or reports findingsEvaluates information and draws conclusions

Description and analysis are also used in spoken communication such as presentations and conversations, and in visual communication such as diagrams and memes. In all of these cases, it is important to communicate clearly and effectively, and to use reliable sources of information.


Descriptive writing and analytical writing are often used in combination. In job application cover letters and essays for university admission, adding analytical text can provide context for otherwise unremarkable statements.

  • Descriptive text: "I graduated from Bear University in 2020 with a B.S. in Chemistry and a cumulative GPA of 3.056."
  • Analytical text: "While I struggled with some of my introductory courses, I proactively sought help to fill gaps in my understanding, and earned an "A" grade for all five of my senior year science courses. Therefore, I believe I am a strong candidate for . . ."

Combining description and analysis can also be very effective when discussing the significance of research results.

  • Descriptive text: "Our study found significant (>2 ug/L) concentrations of polyfluoroalkyl substances (PFAS) in blood samples from all 5,478 study participants."
  • Analytical text: "These results are alarming because the sample population included people who range in age from 1 month old to 98 years old, who live on five different continents, who reside in extremely rural areas and in urban areas, and who have little to no direct contact with products containing PFAS. PFAS are called "forever chemicals" because they are estimated to take hundreds or thousands of years to degrade. According to the US Centers for Disease Control (CDC), PFAS can move through soils to contaminate drinking water, and bioaccumulate in animals. Further research is urgently needed to better understand the adverse effects that PFAS have on human health, to identify the source of PFAS in rural communities, and to develop a method to sequester or destroy PFAS that have already entered the environment."

In both of the examples above, the analytical text includes additional facts (e.g. "A" grade for senior science courses; 1 month old to 98 years old) that help strengthen the argument. The student's transcript and the research paper's results section would contain these same facts—along with many others—written descriptively or presented in graphs, tables, or lists. For the analytical text, the author is trying to persuade the reader, and has therefore selected relevant facts to support their argument.

In the example about PFAS, the author's argument is further strengthened by citing additional information from a reputable source (the CDC). In reports where the author is supposed to be unbiased (e.g. a journalist writing descriptively), a similar effect can be obtained by quoting reputable sources. For example, "Professor of environmental science Kim Lee explains that PFAS are. . ." In these situations, it is often appropriate to present opposing views, as long as they come from reputable sources. This strategy of quoting or citing reputable sources can also be effective for students and professionals who do not have strong credentials in the topic under discussion.

Analytical writing supports a point of view

People cannot choose their own facts, but the same facts can be used to support very different points of view. Let's consider some different points of view that can be supported by the PFAS example from above.

  • Scientific point of view: "Further research is urgently needed to better understand the adverse effects that PFAS have on human health, to identify the source of PFAS in rural communities, and to develop a method to sequester or destroy PFAS that have already entered the environment."
  • Policy point of view: "Legislative action is urgently needed to ban the use of all PFAS, instead of banning new PFAS one at a time. Abundant and reliable data strongly indicates that all PFAS have similar effects, even if they have small differences in chemical composition. Given such evidence, the impetus must be on the chemical industry to prove safety, rather than on the general public to prove harm."
  • Legal point of view: "Chemical companies have known about the danger of PFAS for years, but hid the evidence and continued to use these chemicals. Therefore, individuals and communities who have been harmed have the right to sue for damages."

These three points of view focus on three different fields (science, policy, and law), but all have a negative view of PFAS. The next example shows how the same factual information can be used to support opposing views.

  • Descriptive text: "According to Data USA, the average fast food worker in 2019 was 26.1 years old, and earned a salary of $12,294 a year."
  • Point of view #1: "These data show why raising the minimum wage is unnecessary. Most fast food workers are young, with many being teenagers who are making extra money while living with their parents. The majority will eventually transition to jobs that require more skills, and that are rewarded with higher pay. If we mandate that companies pay low-skill workers more than required by the free market, then more highly skilled workers will also demand a pay raise. This will hurt businesses, contribute to inflation, and have no net benefit."
  • Point of view #2: "These data show why raising the minimum wage is so important. On average, for every 16-year-old working in fast food for extra money, there is a 36-year-old trying to make ends meet. As factory jobs have moved overseas, employees without specialized skills have turned to fast food for steady employment. According to the UC Berkeley Labor Center, for families with someone working full-time (40 hours/week) in fast food, more than half are enrolled in public assistance programs. These include Medicaid, food stamps, and the Earned Income Tax Credit. Therefore, taxpayers are subsidizing companies that pay poverty wages, so that their employees can have access to basic necessities like food and healthcare."

A primary purpose of analytical writing is to show how facts (explained through descriptive writing) support a particular conclusion or a particular path forward. This often requires explaining why an alternative interpretation is less satisfactory. This is how scholarly work—and good discussions in less formal situations—contribute to our collective understanding of the world.

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