Have you ever been given an essay assignment, and after reading it carefully, still couldn’t figure out what the heck you were supposed to do?
I sense you nodding your head yes.
Writing assignments can sometimes be hard to decipher. New students are still learning academic jargon, and terms that are professors’ everyday vocabulary often sound like a foreign language to students. Have you ever been assigned an “Analysis,” but also been instructed absolutely NOT to include “Summary”? Or have you ever had to write a “Summary” but been instructed NOT to include “Response”? Hopefully your instructor has explained what his or her expectations are, but in case you were absent that day, below are a few of the most common types of writing assignments and their definitions.
Summarizing a text is pretty straightforward; the instructor is asking you to read the material and break it down into a shorter summarization in your own words. This sounds simple, but often students read a short story or a newspaper article and totally misinterpret the text. This is exactly why the instructor has assigned a summary – so you’ll learn how to actively read (and re-read) a text, critically thinking about what the text is communicating.
Summaries are often short, three to five paragraphs. Longer works might require longer summaries. When they are short, you’ll want to get to the point fast. Introduce the text and author, and explain the main point or theme. In a summary, you’ll repeat the ideas you have read, but relay them in your own words. Your summary should act as a substitute for the source; act as if your audience hasn’t read the text, and explain exactly what it is about. There is no room for your creative interpretations here: don’t mislead your audience, and take care not to misinterpret the text. Some will argue that when reading and repeating a source, there will always be differing interpretations, but this is different than failing to understand the main points of the text. Read closely and carefully, and articulate accurately.
Literature or Creative Writing classes often assign Literary Analysis papers. In a literary analysis, the instructor will usually expect you to examine the writing of a text more closely. There are many different choices to make when analyzing literature, and often your instructor will give you guidelines as to what you might focus on. You might be asked to analyze the author’s writing style, or the plot development. You could focus on symbolism, metaphor, or irony. You could also focus solely on plot, setting or characterization.
You may have the option to take a broader approach, analyzing the historical framework, critical theory, or the social, political, or religious context of the text. Whatever you choose, or are instructed, to analyze, you will be expected to make an argument, or main point, about the literature. Once you decide what the main point is you want to make, you’ll need to include evidence from the text. It’s like an argument paper where you have a persuasive thesis, but focused on a piece of literature. You will most likely be asked to include some quotes, and a brief summary, but usually you’ll want to avoid lengthy summary in an analysis. The personal “I” pronoun is usually not used in analysis essays, though this is often the discretion of the instructor. If in doubt, leave “I” out.
RESPONSE OR REFLECTION
If your instructor has asked you write a “Response” or “Reflection” paper, you will most likely write about your own thoughts and feelings about a text. When we “reflect” on a piece of writing, we often think about the emotions the piece has conveyed in us as readers. Responses and reflections ask the writer to offer his opinions, so the reader expects a face and a voice behind the words, a first-person “I,” as opposed to the more formal third person common in the analysis essay. You will most likely include “I think” or “I felt” throughout your essay.
It’s easiest to write a response or reflection immediately after reading a text, when it’s fresh in your mind and your emotions about the piece are fresh. At least try to jot down some notes as you read. Did the writer make you angry? Did you feel sympathy? Did it compel you to act in some way? Reflect on why you have responded the way you did. What in the text compelled you to respond this way, or how has the writer manipulated your feelings? This type of paper may require short summary, but usually you’ll only analyze your reaction, not the text.
These are broad guidelines for writing different types of essays. If in doubt, always ask your instructor what their expectations are for any given assignment.
Students: Do you have any assignments right now with directions or guidelines you are confused about? Share them here and we’ll try to break them down next week!