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Writing Analyses

by TAW

A short disclaimer, as always, before we begin: I can't tell you the correct way to write an analysis, because there isn't one. I can only tell you how I do it and how I think it's good to do it. Sometimes I'll even tell you other people's ideas. Sorry about that, and even bigger sorry that I can't remember who they're all by. (If I've suggested something you came up with and you really want the credit, contact me and I'll be glad to credit you.) So here we go.

1. Getting started.
The first thing I do is gather resources. This can take between five minutes and five days. Sometimes when I'm feeling evil I only use a single source (my favourite is Animal Diversity Web, which has accurate and detailed accounts of many animals), but when I'm feeling more like a proper analyser who doesn't hate baby Jesus I get multiple sources. If possible I use published books to help me because it looks better on a term paper's bibliography so I figure the same rule applies. I also use Wikipedia, but usually I just open it to a general page (like the other day I was doing bay cat so I found Wikipedia's article on felines) and use it to jog my memory ("Oh yeah, cats have teeth! I knew that!"). I knew a couple of other sites like Birds In Backyards (Australian birdlife) and Lioncrusher's Domain (family Carnivora) that are also helpful in certain circumstances but I usually don't remember them. I just expect Google to tell me everything I need to know.

So first of all, I read the information. That's really important. I can't count the number of times where I've gotten started and realised that I made assumptions about an animal based on one trait only to realise that another trait contradicts the general statements I've made. So you really need to read through the information, maybe take brief notes on important points if you like, and consider it all before you actually start analysing.

When I'm writing an analysis, I open up TextEdit, which I prefer because it's a raw text program that doesn't mess around with anything I write. It respects me and I respect it. If you don't have or don't like TextEdit, you can use Word, Pages, whatever, even just write it directly into the place where you'll post it (that's what I used to do most often, with TDF's posting window). I set up the page before I start to work, which in my case means I put the common name(s) up the top in bold and the binomial (Latin or scientific name) in italics, and after I've got the header I add some sections (Social, General, Impressions, Attitudes, Work, Play, and so on) to give myself some structure, and if I'm planning to use a special text symbol I put it in. I generally start each section with ten bullet points and add more when I run out.

2. Analysing.
Nobody can tell you how to analyse, because it's not exactly scientific, but I do have a few pointers. The first really important one is that you mustn't be literal. A giraffe person is not necessarily tall. A lion person doesn't necessarily have a lot of hair. A worm person doesn't necessarily have an extremely simple digestive tract. Appearance is, in part, shaped by personality, in things like what people wear, how well they take care of themselves, whether they smile a lot or just look dreamy most of the time, but it's not dictated by it. You may think wolves are the prettiest animals on earth, but that doesn't stop a real uggo being a wolf person.

My pro tip of the day is that a lot of people seem to simply walk past perfectly good analysis points for one reason: they think they're irrelevant. Everybody knows, for example, that gulls have bent, oddly-shaped wings. So what? So, what are they for? If you're ever stuck for a point, take a step back and actually look at the animal, find something about it, and ask yourself, "Why?" It takes a bit of biological know-how, but I'm a student sitting on a bed in her pyjamas and I manage it, so you don't need to be a zoologist. Seagulls have bent wings to help them hover on oceanic shore wind. Hovering helps them hunt, because they can observe the coming and going of fish, squid and other goodies below them. Then all they have to do is fold their specially-shaped wings and they can dive very rapidly. So think about all the traits associated with ambush predators, opportunists and hovering. Boom! Analysis is suddenly long and in-depth!

Another useful tool is considering what traits people normally have and looking for features that may represent this. For example, everybody has a sense of humour, a tendency to speak a certain amount at a certain volume, a way of dealing with confrontation, an attitude towards people invading their personal space - you get the idea. Look at basic things like how an animal communicates, how territorial it is, what it does when threatened and so on. It's ridiculous to assume that every oyster person is mute, so don't just look at how loud an animal is: look at what it actually does when it needs to communicate. Pheromones? Body language? Fighting? Dancing? Thumping its chest or drumming the ground? Think flexibly.

Strike a balance, too, between vague and specific points. You don't want people alienated by a point that is too precise (like "You never liked your mother") or too general (like "There are people in your past that you couldn't get along with for some reason"). Maybe try giving a nonspecific point backed up with an example, like "You may have trouble getting along with people close to you sometimes. Maybe you argued with your parents or siblings a lot." That point was a silly example (where does one get the point "you don't like your mother" from?), but I hope you get the general idea.

As well as its physical traits, you can also get points out of an animal's environment. The seagull, for example, is obviously a shore-living animal; that's what it's adapted to; so you can get points out of that that aren't mentioned in descriptions of gulls, like that they secret salt easily and that they can deal with temperature extremes fairly well, but further, you can realise things about a gull person's "habitat". A talented analyser known as Emma (of Jemiron) told me that shore-living animals dwell in one of the most dynamic environments on Earth, and are therefore hardy, adaptable and themselves dynamic. It's quite possible that living in quiet suburbia enjoying the occasional café visit wouldn't be enough for a gull person. Perhaps a gull person would be happier living a life that has some dangers, some thrills and some unexpectedness, or maybe they simply cope well in an ever-changing environment that would be stressful for others, like a hospital or a busy professional kitchen.

One of the most ridiculous things I see in analyses is people neglecting to mention extremely basic habits of an animal. I'm guilty of it myself, but I know the mistake and I'm trying to correct it as I go. Essentially, if you are analysing a bird, it can fly. Don't forget something as simple as that. You know, as does everyone else. But you still should interpret it. Birds fly, fish swim, moles dig, cats walk and kangaroos jump. You'll always remember to put points in about flightless birds not flying, so remember to put in points about flighted birds flying. It rounds the analysis out better.

What I've taken to doing lately that works really well, particularly if you're about to start an in-depth analysis, is to read through everything you can find and take notes. Not analytical notes, just jot down things you can analyse. For example, this is a real, actual analysis note page that I am quoting word for word from my little analysis notebook that I carry with me for when I think of things.

- dimorphic except Bedford's
- decorative streamer tails
- may live close to humans
- highly arboreal and flight-dependant
- bright mouth insides
- simple, harsh, grating calls
- sallying, hawking, gleaning, hovering, flushing
- territorial, occasionally colonial
- monogamous
- tail length sexual selection ^SA
- conspicuous nests defended aggressively
- female broods more, male guards more

You can see that I have my own shorthand (MSFF is short for mixed species feeding flocks, meaning different species of bird forage together, and dimorphic refers to sexual dimorphism, or males and females of the same species that look different) and use a lot of biological terms (describing all the hunting strategies). Where I wrote "^SA", it was an arrow meaning "see above", a shorthand way of writing that sexual selection was related to monogamy in these animals. This is a really quick summary that would provide a fairly detailed analysis (though, as you can see, a general one, not a specific one).

When I sum it up like this I find it much easier to work through everything and draw all the points I can draw from any given trait. When I step back, I usually remember to include important facts like habitat (heavily wooded? open savannah? deep ocean? anywhere they can find food?) and living patterns (if they're terrestrial, arboreal, fossorial, aquatic and so on) that help bulk up the analysis and make it more complete. It also helps me to get started when I'm writing about an animal I already know a lot about. I'll take notes, write an analysis, then go back to my information sources and get more points to finish it up.

3. Cleaning up.
I do quite a bit of cleaning up after I'm done. This is the point at which I normally get an image, if I can, or add in song lyrics, if I find any (sometimes I look for a long time and don't come up with any), or possibly quotes. I play with pretty colours, symbols, themes and layouts. I essentially make it look great. My main tip here, because of course everyone does it differently, is that you need to double-check the analysis body for any points that don't make sense or have a typo, and that you need to choose your images carefully. When you're taking an image off the web that you don't have the rights to, be sure to check the copyright information. Learn all about the Creative Commons licensing scheme so that you can identify images you can and can't use. Regardless of whether they ask for a link or not, it's best to provide a link and a written credit (I usually link the image itself and put the name of the photographer under the title of the analysis in small but clear letters). When you put song lyrics in, credit the song to the artist (I do it in the same place as the photographer). Make sure that the original owner of the work, whatever it is, can contact you if they want it removed from wherever you've posted it. Addressing all this before you post is important because it can save you a lot of trouble.

Also, for the love of God, don't hotlink. It's really rude and if the image is moved or deleted, it vanishes wherever you've posted it. There are countless free image hosts, so use Photobucket or something. If you're working on TDF or on Google (like me), both of them can host images.