How to Raise the Level of Analysis in an Essay

11 Aug
Sarah Smarsh's essay, "Poverty, Pride, and Prejudice in Kansas," about legislation that would limit the amount that welfare recipients can withdraw from ATM machines appeared in The New Yorker.

Sarah Smarsh’s essay, “Poverty, Pride, and Prejudice in Kansas,” about legislation that would limit the amount that food stamp recipients can withdraw from ATM machines appeared in The New Yorker.

We enjoy a wealth of choices for news and analysis because of online magazines, which is good for readers (more niche writing and unexpected angles) and good for writers (more opportunities for publication). However, the abundance of cultural, political, and social analysis has changed our expectations for analysis. It’s not enough to report the facts or make an insightful point. The best essays make a kind of Malcolm-Gladwell leap that moves from close-frame analysis (what is happening right here, in this specific instance) to the big picture. Many writers attempt this leap but with mixed results. There is an entire genre of essay, for example, that critiques the peculiar, occasionally insightful, occasionally offensive leaps made by New York Times columnist David Brooks.

An example of a truly insightful, carefully considered leap can be found in Sarah Smarsh’s essay “Poverty, Pride, and Prejudice in Kansas.” It was published in The New Yorker where you can read it now.

How the Essay Works

The essay explains a complicated piece of legislation recently signed by Kansas state legislators. The bill would cap ATM withdrawals by welfare recipients to twenty-five dollars a day. Smarsh does a nice job of providing financial and political context for the bill: why it was passed, other restrictions attached to it, and a primer on the complicated relationship between ATM transaction fees and government contracts.  This is the “report the facts” aspect of the essay, and after it’s accomplished, Smarsh makes a leap:

As James Baldwin wrote (and as much research being published during this moment of historic wealth inequality demonstrates), it is expensive to be poor.

The leap is a logical one, from the specifics of ATM use by the poor to other expenses they encounter. But it’s also a political and sociological leap, as Smarsh makes clear in the rest of the passage:

There are the overdraft fees, the maintenance costs of ramshackle houses and cars, the credit-card debt accrued for necessities that low wages don’t cover, the interest paid on loans for college educations. Poverty’s highest costs are often psychological ones, though, borne by the neurochemistry of stress and by sociopolitical values that equate financial failures with moral ones. Laws creating barriers between impoverished families and public assistance intended for food and shelter represent a particular form of contempt for the poor—we’ll help you, these measures suggest, but we won’t trust you with that help. And they are imposed in the pall of hypocrisy and self-interest.

She moves from practical difficulties to psychological ones, putting the bill into a larger context, arguing that it’s only one manifestation of the overwhelming contempt that many Americans have for the poor.

Smarsh supports this shift in argument in two ways. First, she offers a quote from the Washington Post that makes a very similar point. Then, she tells two personal anecdotes, one from her experience working for a Kansas social-service agency and another from her childhood, when her family qualified for free and reduced school lunch. It’s this support (from other writers and from direct experience) that make the leap in analysis work. The biggest complaint about David Brooks’ essays in the Times is that they seem to exist in a vacuum, disconnected from fact or observation. But Smarsh has made a leap that she can tether to reality, and it makes her argument that much more powerful.

The Writing Exercise

Let’s make a leap of analysis in an essay using “Poverty, Pride, and Prejudice in Kansas” by Sarah Smarsh as a model:

  1. Report the facts. No matter the kind of nonfiction, whether it’s a personal essay or reportage, the foundation for the entire piece is hard information. This happened. The facts may not appear in the essay’s first paragraph, as shown by Smarsh’s essay. But they hold the entire structure together. To keep from getting lost in them (which isn’t easy, in personal stories and in complex explanations of financial transactions), summarize the facts in a line or two. The New Yorker actually does this in its photo caption: “In Kansas, a pending cap on A.T.M withdrawals for welfare recipients is the state legislature’s latest exhibition of scorn for low-income residents.” Notice the structure: fact + context. In this case, the context is a kind of philosophy or attitude. But it could be any sort of context. We do this in personal stories all the time: Oh, that’s just how he is. So, quickly summarize your facts and the context that seems most important to understand them.
  2. Make the leap. Context can guide you. We just established that Smarsh’s context is that the legislation is the latest episode in a long history of scorn for the poor in Kansas. So, it makes sense to leap from there: so what if the Kansas legislature doesn’t care about poor people? Smarsh answers that question by telling us something we might not know: the paradoxical truth that it’s expensive to be poor and that these expenses exact a psychological toll. As a result, the legislation actually adds to the stress that poor families bear. You can think about the leap as a kind of direct address to the reader: You might be tempted to think about these initial facts like this, but if you know this, then you’ll see things differently. So, to make the leap, consider the readers’ perspectives, what they’ll likely think. Then, ask yourself what piece of information might disrupt that belief or perspective. Because you’re offering a new way of thinking about the facts, the leap may involve a kind of philosophical shift.
  3. Back up your leap. Don’t be David Brooks, making grand pronouncements without evidence. Once you’ve disrupted the readers’ view of the essay’s facts, prove that the new perspective you’re offering is supported by reality. Use expert quotes, stats, or facts. Use personal experience and anecdotes. Ground the reader’s new way of thinking. Tether it to something hard and heavy so that it doesn’t float away after the readers walk away from the essay.

Good luck.

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3 Responses to “How to Raise the Level of Analysis in an Essay”

  1. Mary Warner August 12, 2015 at 8:02 p08 #

    Michael – Have you seen The Credible Hulk meme? Your post reminds me of it. Here’s a link: http://s3.amazonaws.com/hwcanwait_user_images/public/211.jpg

    If that doesn’t work properly, just picture an image of The Incredible Hulk with the following caption:

    “You wouldn’t like me when I’m angry … Because I always back up my rage with facts and documented sources. – The Credible Hulk”

    What you’re suggesting in your blog post is something historians constantly strive for, particularly when we only have so many facts about a particular person or event and we have to make a leap in putting those facts into a large context.

  2. michaelnoll1 August 12, 2015 at 8:02 p08 #

    Mary, I love this.

Trackbacks/Pingbacks

  1. An Interview with Sarah Smarsh | Read to Write Stories - August 13, 2015

    […] To read Smarsh’s New Yorker essay “Poverty, Pride, and Prejudice in Kansas” and an exercise on raising the level of analysis in an essay, click here. […]

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