Saturday, November 16, 2013

Summary, Why It's Bad, and How to Avoid It

If you're writing for me, there's a good chance your assignment has some version of the following on it:
Do Not Summarize.

And if you'll look at the grading rubric I use (available on the Moodle course page) you'll see that summary appears in the lower grades and analysis appear in the higher grades. That's because summary might show that you read the text, but it also might show that you just read the online study guide, and all it shows anybody is what happens in the text rather than what the text means. An essay should show your reader something cool about the text that you've noticed, or should seek to answer a question about the text that you had when you started writing. An essay should not just churn through the stuff anyone who has read it already knows. That is boring to write and it sure is boring to read. Analysis lets you engage with the text and do something new and different, which is more interesting to write and absolutely more interesting to read. Summary proves that the text happened. Analysis proves that something going on in the text that might not be immediately obvious is really going on.

So how to avoid summary and make sure that what you're doing is analyzing?

The first step in this happens early in the writing, although it's possible to go back and fix summary later. But first and foremost, assume that your reader has also read the text or texts you're writing about. That means you do NOT tell the reader what happens or who the character is. The whole entire point of an English essay is to point out things the reader of the essay does not already realize. You may think that a teacher already knows every possible idea in a text, but that simply is not the case. My students surprise me every day with cool ideas I've never thought of before. You will have to remind me where you are, because I won't be in your head with you, but do this in the same sort of way you would if you and a friend were talking about a movie you just saw together. Can you imagine walking out of a movie theatre with someone and saying "So the first thing that happens is a girl, whose name is Mary, loses her job at a law firm. Then she meets a man at a coffee shop who falls in love with her at first sight." ?? No way, because your friend would stop you and say "Dude, I was there. I saw the same movie you did." What you'd do instead is say, "You know that part where she's walking out of the coffee shop and he follows her with his eyes? That was an interesting way to show that he falls for her on sight." The first example summarizes the movie's opening, and the second examples starts to analyze how the story shows instead of tells that the man fell in love.

The second step is to make sure you never give more than three consecutive statements about what happens without stopping to talk about meaning. Sometimes, particularly with a longer text, you'll need to give a few markers about the story in order to help the reader figure out where you are in it while you're talking. Never give more than three plot markers for each point you want to make. After all, you'll be providing a page number in your citation, anyway, so it's not like I can't figure it out on my own. If you want to make sure that I am with you on the fact that you're talking about the moment Aeneas realizes he has to leave Dido, you can tell me a couple of things leading up to that moment. But don't get carried away and just start telling me the story. Only give me the bare minimum to know one or two things leading up to that moment.

Don't just string quotes together, tell me what the quotes mean (more on that here:  Just using quotations from the text does not mean you're avoiding summary if what you're giving me are a series of plot events in your own words with quotes inserted occasionally. I call these "quotey summaries" and they are particularly frustrating because I need to know what those quotes mean to you, not just that they are there. And telling me what happens before and after Dido's exact words of grief is not the same thing as taking a few sentences (at least) to point out what is interesting about the word choice in her cry, or why it's interesting that it happens when and where and how it happens.

Don't write your thesis statement first and then not look at it again while you're writing the rest of the essay. Look back at your thesis statement at the end of each paragraph and make certain that paragraph did something substantial towards proving the hypothesis suggested in your thesis statement. Every single paragraph in your essay needs to be a point towards proving your thesis. You cannot do this if you are summarizing. I read too many papers that offer at the beginning that a particular pattern in a text means something or other, and then seem to forget entirely what they are trying to prove as sit back and just re-tell the story like I've never read it before. Your thesis statement should suggest a way of understanding the text better, and then work in each paragraph to prove it.

Do not tell a reader what happens in a text. Tell your reader WHY it happens the way that it does. 

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