Tara Lawson, Consultant
When we are new to academic writing, we seem to have a common struggle: deciphering the prompts that professors give us. It is such a pervasive problem because many of the words are so similar that it is quite difficult to tell the difference between them. After all, how is a synthesis different from compare/contrast? The purpose of this post, therefore, is to define many of the common keywords in prompts.
Analyze: For an analysis, professors are looking for an interpretation of the evidence. Although this is not quite as opinion-based as an argument is (see below), analyses do use your opinion. When given this prompt, you are expected to draw conclusions from your interaction with the text; in other words, are you making connections between the evidence you are provided with? For example, a sociology student can analyze relationships between high school seniors across the state in order to come to a conclusion about Kentucky identities within that age group.
Argue: Many students often feel like they cannot put their own opinions into their writing, that they must recite facts and the opinions of other scholars and hope that their own opinion somehow leaks through. However, with an argument, professors want to know your opinion! In fact, they are looking for it. They want proof that you have done unbiased research. Therefore, you will need to provide evidence (statistics, facts, statements from scholars). You will also want to have a debatable claim that you defend. For example, when asked to argue the effect of the French Revolution, you could answer with “The French Revolution was a failure because Napoleon’s reign as dictator only reinstated the type of harmful monarchy that the previous King had represented.” The rest of your paper would then be focused on proving this statement.
Compare/Contrast: Although these words are used simultaneously, they actually have different meanings. To compare two or more items means to find similarities between them. To contrast them means to find differences. So to compare and contrast dolphins and sharks, one could say that the two animals are similar because they both live in the ocean. However, they are different because dolphins hate sharks, and will ruthlessly attack them and leave them for dead. Also, sharks are terrified of dolphins because dolphins have murderous tendencies.
Describe: Remember back to those exercises in middle school, where you had to use your five senses to describe your personal oasis. For academic writing, it is similar, but broader. It does not have to be reliant upon the senses, although it can be. An art student can describe the monochromatic coloring of a painting by talking about the oppressive emotional weight the color blue exudes in the work. A science student might have to describe the interior of a frog precisely, so that other scientists can mimic his/her work.
Define: This is to tell what a concept means. Usually definitions are shorter than the other keywords presented thus far. It can be as short as a single sentence, or it can be the length of a paragraph or two. Usually you will be asked to define a concept that can have several definitions, such as culture or feminism, because the professor is looking for your personal definition.
Discuss: This word is slightly different from explaining something, although they are very similar. However, a discussion tends to be broader and less argumentative. You may not be required to reach a definitive conclusion, but instead to map the connections between certain ideas. A discussion is usually present in literature reviews, like when the writer maps the progression of an academic conversation using the arguments of other scholars.
Explain: Why do you have to know what an explanation is? The answer to that question is itself an explanation. Essentially, an explanation is answering the question “why?” It can also cover the other common questions (how, what, when, and where). Why should you know this information? So that you can explain what you know to your reader and hopefully communicate with them more effectively (and maybe make better grades in the process).
Summarize: A summary is telling the reader what knowledge they need to know in order to understand what you are telling them. For example, if I wanted to highlight a scary moment in the TV show The Walking Dead, but my audience had never watched the show, I would need to summarize it. I could do this with a statement like “the show is about a group of people trying to live in a zombie apocalypse. They have to keep traveling in order to survive and find a safe place to live.” A summary is different from a definition because a summary is more in-depth. Additionally, a summary tells the audience what happened in the work, not what the work actually is.
Synthesize: A synthesis is a concise and more focused version of compare/contrast. It looks at very specific sources, and extracts the most important information from them as it relates to a specific argument. In other words, if I am writing a research paper about the murderous nature of dolphins, I would not need to state the similarities between sharks and dolphins. However, I would want to look at multiple sources focusing on the nature of dolphins. Do the sources answer my question? Do all of the sources disagree with my hypothesis? How does this impact my overall argument? If dolphins only exhibit murderous tendencies towards sharks, perhaps they do not have an innate homicidal nature, but they are instead attempting to re-enact the feud between the Montagues and Capulets.
Although this post does not cover all of the keywords used in prompts, it may help with some of the most common. Additional resources are also available for all students. The University Writing Center is a free service where graduate students are dedicated to addressing your writing concerns. Also, it might be helpful to talk directly to your professors — as the creators of assignments, they will be able to let you know if you are meeting the requirements.
Finally, writing is tough, but know that you always have a support system at the University Writing Center. Good luck!