Often when I find myself sitting in front of a computer and making my way through a sleeve of Oreos, I begin to ponder the intricacies of academic writing (as I’m sure many do at such a time). During today’s munch-session, it occurred to me, as I sat with half a cookie hanging from my mouth, that when I work with my fellow students they sometimes become confused by the difference between the summary and analysis of a text and how to use the two. So, in my chocolate and cream fueled state I decided to tackle this issue and explain the pair’s differences and their uses.
More often than not, I notice that students mistake summary for analysis, not realizing there is a distinct difference between the two. To begin with, summary and analysis have very different objectives and so try to answer different questions. Summary, for example, seeks to relate the most important information in a text by explaining its main points. This, however, does not call for a simple retelling of the whole text line by line. Rather, it asks the question what parts of the text would someone need to know most in order to understand its overall idea or ideas.
So, in the story of how Eric spent his day, a good summary would not need to tell how he woke up, ate breakfast, brushed his teeth, took a shower, worked on homework, ate lunch, watched Breaking Bad and ate Oreos, worked on homework some more, ate dinner and then watched more Breaking Bad while eating more Oreos until he went to bed. Though including such unimportant details may retell Eric’s day step by step it would also exhaust a reader’s attention and give him or her no clue as to what the most important parts of Eric’s day were. Instead, a better summary might simply say that Eric spent most of his day working on homework, eating, and watching Breaking Bad. This way a reader would be able to quickly understand the focus of Eric’s day without getting distracted by unimportant details.
Now, for analysis we enter a new (though not necessarily unrelated) discussion from summary. While with summary the objective is to describe what is important in a text, an analysis attempts to explain why these certain parts of a text are important. This then requires the questions what does this part of the text signify and how does it work to give this meaning. Answering these questions requires the writer to draw conclusions from the text for themselves.
Therefore, in analyzing Eric’s day a writer might say that we can tell that Eric’s priorities consist of doing well in school, staying well-fed, and keeping up with thrilling TV dramas. In this way, a writer explains the significance of these parts of Eric’s day by assigning meanings to them. To go a step further, a writer might then explain that we can draw these conclusions about Eric’s priorities because these are the activities that Eric spends the majority of his time doing. By doing this, a writer explains how the significance of these parts of the story work to achieve their meaning and so fulfills the needed aspects for an analysis.
Thus, there is an important difference between summary and analysis. However, while they are different, that does not mean that they have nothing to do with each other. In fact, the two should work as very close partners. Usually, an analysis requires some summary in order to inform the reader what it is drawing conclusions from. The trick is to not use too much summary. Rather, use summary as a supplement to analysis in order to identify what needs to be analyzed.
Well, it appears that I am all out of Oreos, which means that I must run to the store to get some more. Remember! Summary identifies what is important in a text while analysis explains why it is important and how it works to become so.
Until next time my fellow writers and Oreo-lovers,