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Writing a Summary

What is a summary?

A summary is a brief statement, an abridgment, or a condensation, of an author's writing.

An effective summary has these qualities:

  1. It is significantly shorter than the original essay.
  2. It states the essay's thesis and only the main points.
  3. It conveys the author's ideas accurately and does not reflect the views of the writer of the summary.
  4. It is written entirely in the words of the summarizer and does not use the words of the original author.

How do I write a response?

Follow these steps to write a personal response:

  1. Read the essay carefully. Note the key statements that seem to summarize the main points of the essay. Re-read confusing passages, and look up words you do not understand.
  2. Determine the thesis (main idea) of the essay. If the author states the thesis directly, note the sentence or sentences.
  3. Practice summarizing the essay. For example, explain the gist of the article to a friend; explain it as briefly yet completely as possible.
  4. Begin writing your summary in your own words. First summarize the main idea of the essay; then summarize each of the main points. (Even if a main point is repeated in the essay, you only need to summarize it once.)
  5. Rewrite. Make sure that your summary states the essay's thesis and contains all of its main points, but make sure that it does not contain any repetitions or unnecessary information. Make sure your summary reads smoothly and coherently.
  6. Mention the author and title of the work at some point near the beginning of the summary.

Book & Article Reviews

What is a review?

A book or article review is a combination of facts (the actual content of the text) and criticism (analysis of the text). A book/article review should accomplish three things:

1. Clarify what type of book or article is being reviewed. Is it fictional or researched or autobiographical? Make this clear in your introduction.

2. Summarize the book or article's content.

3. Critically analyze the book or article and weigh its merits.

How do I summarize?

A summary is a concise statement in your own words of the book or article's thesis, main points, and conclusion. Make your summary an appropriate length: Do not retell all the information, but do not leave out anything important. Also, do not include your opinion in the summary. Keep the following questions in mind:

1. What are the major points that the author is trying to get across? How does the author support these points?

2. What are the key terms that the author uses?

3. What organizational structure does the author use.

For additional guidance on writing summaries, refer to the Writing Center's handout.

How do I write a critical analysis?

Your analysis should reflect your opinion of the book or article. Do not be misled by the word "opinion"; keep your criticism as objective and logical as possible. Judge the book or article on its merits, not by your personal feelings or preferences. Also, back up your analysis with examples and supporting arguments; do not just tell your reader your gut feelings about the work.

Consider the following questions:

1. Is the author successful in getting the main points across?

2. Does the author adequately define key terms?

3. How does the author support the main points? What type of evidence does he use? Is that evidence strong enough?

4. Does the author's conclusion coincide with your knowledge of the subject?

5. Do you have any personal experience which supports or conflicts with the author's conclusions?

6. Have you read other books or articles which agree or disagree with this one?

7. Do you think this book is worthwhile reading?

Writing a Personal Response

What is a personal response?

A personal response is a paper which explains your own reactions to what you have read. Your emotions and perspectives are prominent; your writing should be honest and personal, not dry and scholarly. (This does not mean that you can get away with poor writing, however. Your paper should still be clear and effective!) When you write a personal response, use "I."

A personal response, by definition, can take any of several forms. Your professor should let you know if he or she wants you to adhere to any specific guidelines.

How do I write a personal response?

Here are three types of personal responses, which might help get you started:

1. You can write your personal response in much the same manner as you write other types of essays: You state a thesis--in this case, you describe your emotional reaction to what you have read (anger, sadness, hilarity, joy, tedium, confusion, etc.). In the body of your essay, you analyze why the work moves you the way it does. Your analysis describes the elements that stand out in the work--for example, in the case of fiction, these elements might include themes, the plot, characters, atmosphere, structure, language, particular episodes, or powerful passages.

2. If you do not have a strong reaction to the work--or if you do, but you cannot explain it--you may write a personal response in which you simply point out any elements that are most vivid to you and tell what it is about these things that attracted your attention and interest.

3. Finally, you might tell a story from your own life which relates to the work. Perhaps you have gone through an experience like that of one of the characters. Maybe you or someone you know is similar to one of the characters. Or perhaps the images or emotions evoked by the work remind you of something you have experienced.

What other information should I put into my essay?

Regardless of which approach you use in your personal response, your introduction should mention (1) the title and author of the work, (2) what it was about the work which evoked your response, and (3) what your response was.

You should quote from the work if there is a specific passage that has affected you (but avoid long quotations). In writing one of the first two types of responses (as opposed to telling a story), you should illustrate each point with at least one exact quotation or paraphrase from the work. Also tell the reader where the passage is found in the text (put a page number or line number in parenthesis after the quotation or paraphrase), and briefly describe the context. Be clear; be concise, but do not leave the reader guessing what the passage is about and why you chose it.

In a personal response, express any opinions or emotions you wish, and use informal language if it is appropriate, but discuss your ideas clearly, in logical order, and with good evidence from the text.

Literary Analysis: Getting Started

What is an analysis essay?

Think about these questions, and use one or more of them to help you analyze the work. You have to come to some sort of conclusion about the content of the work, not just discuss the content itself.

When you are asked to write an essay about literature, it is not acceptable to just summarize the work. Instead, you should use quotations and insights to illustrate a certain point or answer a certain question about the work.

Read through the following questions and try to find one which might help you discuss something important about the work you are studying.

What is the theme of the work, or what is the author trying to say? How does the author communicate that theme to the reader?

Does the author use any special techniques, such as foreshadowing, flashback, or story-within-a-story? How do these techniques contribute to the work's message or effect?

Does the author use irony or satire? How and why? (Irony and satire have several very specific meanings. Look them up.)

What is the author's tone (style or manner of expression)? The tone might be sarcastic, tongue-in-cheek, spiteful, pitying, amused, etc. How is this tone expressed, and why does the author use this tone?

Who is the narrator in the work? (The narrator is often not the same as the author.) Can you characterize the narrator? How does s/he fit into the work? What is the narrator's perspective, and how does that perspective contribute to the author's message? Why did the author choose this particular narrator?

What is the setting of the story? Does the setting contribute to the meaning? (For example, Stephen King's The Shining is about a man going insane, and part of the setting is a maze, representing his mind.) Or does the work teach us something about the setting? (For example, did The Great Gatsby teach you something, about women in 1920s America?)

Does the author use symbols (things, people, colors, names) to contribute to the meaning of the work? (For example, white often symbolizes purity, and night often indicates death. A caged bird is a common symbol of physical, mental, or emotional imprisonment, and an unnamed character shows a lack of identity.)

Does the work have a motif, or a reoccurring thematic element? In other words, does the same image (like water, coldness, music, birds) pop up again and again? What is the significance of the motif.) How does it contribute to the theme?

Is there a certain character who is particularly interesting to you? Can you do an in-depth study of that character? How does s/he develop or change? How does he/she fit into the work, or contribute to the theme?

Can you compare and contrast any two characters in the work, or can you compare and contrast one to a character in a different but somehow related work? (You can also compare/contrast settings, themes, characters or symbols.

Have you seen a movie or play version of the work you are writing about? Compare the book and the movie. How and why are they different?

Can you do feminist criticism of the work? How does the author portray women? (Or how does the author portray any particular social group: African Americans, Latin Americans, Jews, Muslims, Christians, homosexuals, businessmen, writers...)

Writing a Synthesis Essay

What is a synthesis essay?

A synthesis essay draws on two or more sources and combines their ideas into a coherent whole.

What do I need to write one?

Writing a successful synthesis essay will require you to do four things:

read accurately and objectively,
see relations among different viewpoints,
define a thesis based on these relations,
support the thesis effectively.

You will not discuss all the points in every essay; but you should use every essay assigned, and you should use points from each that are appropriate for the thesis of your own essay.

How do I write it?

A synthesis essay may be developed in several ways, including the following:

Thesis supported by examples. Develop a thesis based on common points among the works, and Support the thesis with appropriate examples from each work. This strategy works well with essays that approach a subject from highly diverse viewpoints.

Comparison and contrast. Discuss the similarities and differences in the writers' viewpoints and draw whatever conclusions are possible from your comparison.

Argument. If you have a clearly defined opinion about the subject, support that opinion by incorporating the valid viewpoints of the writers of the essays you have selected, and show the weaknesses of those ideas which you feel are not valid.

What steps should I take in writing this essay?

Consider using the following procedure for writing your essay:

1. Read carefully. First, skimming through the readings and look for similar issues in each essay. Reflect on those issues, and jot down your ideas. Reread and decide on one topic that will unify your essay. Note each essay's thesis and main points. Finally, take notes.

2. Next, determine your thesis. A thesis is a direct statement of a main issue or idea that you have developed from studying the essays. If you are writing a comparison/contrast essay, your thesis may explain the main points of agreement and disagreement among the writers you are dealing with. If you are writing a thesis-with-examples essay, your thesis may state the main idea you have developed from your readings, which will be supported with examples from the readings in the body of your essay. If you are writing an argument, your thesis will state your opinion about the subject and will indicate that you will be supporting your views through an analysis of the essays.

3. Then, organize your essay with your thesis in mind. The type of organization you use depends on your thesis, but in general you should be able to use either block-by-block or point-by-point organization with any of the essay types.

4. Write a rough draft after you have decided on the organization you will be using. Here are some pointers: Early in your paper, mention the titles and authors of the essays you will be discussing. Quote or paraphrase brief passages from the essays to show how the essays illustrate, agree with, or disagree with each point you make. Whenever you quote or paraphrase, cite the author properly.

5. And finally, REVISE. Remember: All good writing is rewriting.

The synthesis essay is one of the most difficult essays to write. It can be very confusing and the assignment can be hard to understand. Stop by the Loudoun Campus Writing Center and we will help you out.

Writing a Research Paper

1. Take advantage of handbooks.

Handbooks about writing (put out by such publishers as Prentice-Hall, St. Martins, and Random House) usually have good chapters about research papers: note-taking strategies, citing sources, formulating a thesis, etc. The Loudoun Campus Writing Center has several handbooks you can use, and you should own one if you have taken English 111.

2. Choose your topic wisely.

When choosing a topic, ask yourself the following questions: Am I genuinely interested in this topic? (There is no reason to make the project boring for yourself.) Are sources about the topic readily available? (No reason to make it too difficult.) Can I cut the topic down to manageable size? (The more specific, the better.)

3. Use sources well.

You must be painstaking about your accuracy in quoting from outside sources. In using sources, you can either quote directly (use the exact words and mark them with ,.quotation marks"), paraphrase (say the exact same thing but in your own words), or summarize (briefly give the high points from a bulk of information). In all these cases, the original author must be acknowledged, and your writing should make it absolutely clear if you are quoting, paraphrasing, or summarizing. Also, use direct quotations sparingly--only if the author's exact wording is essential or especially eloquent and enlightening. A research paper is more than a bunch of quotations strung together; you must comment on sources, show relationships between them, etc.

4. Avoid plagiarism.

Plagiarism is using a source in any way without acknowledging it. You plagiarize when you borrow someone's words without using quotation marks and giving the author's name--BUT you also plagiarize when you simply borrow an idea or a train of thought without citing the author. When in doubt, ALWAYS cite the author. Plagiarism is a very serious offense.

5. Write a good thesis statement.

Your thesis statement is a concise statement of EXACTLY what your paper is showing, arguing, enlightening, exposing, etc. Make sure some form of this statement appears in both your introductory and concluding paragraphs. (If you ca not state your paper's purpose in one or two sentences, you lack direction and need to give it some more thought!)

6. Use the campus writing center for any help you need.

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