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Stop Writing Summaries!

Updated: Feb 27, 2020

When students write analytical essays for school, one of the most common notes that they get from teachers is "too much summary." Sometimes, teachers will take another step and tell students that they need to perform more analysis and less summary. But what's the difference? Most students that I speak to do not have a clear idea of what analysis is, and many say that the difference between summary and analysis is difficult to define.

It isn't! Summary answers the following questions: "what," "where," "when," and "who." Analysis answers the questions "how" and "why." It's really that easy, but most students either don't learn this or don't understand how important it is to their writing.

Here's a quick example. A student might have a history paper in which they are asked to analyze the fall of the Roman Empire. A student might point out that the last Roman emperor was Romulus Augustus (who), and that most historians consider the empire to have fallen in 476 AD (when). Summary. This student might note that although the Western Empire collapsed, the Eastern Empire survived for a thousand years more (where). Still summary. Finally, the student might point out some of the causes of the fall: a decline in the military, inflation, and barbarian invasion (what). Unfortunately, this is all summary. Students get confused because they can do a lot of research and provide a lot of evidence, but as we just saw, it's still summary.

An analytical essay would explain, for example, why the inflation occurred (making coins out of cheap tin instead of expensive silver) and how it damaged the empire (making it harder to pay soldiers and weakening the army). Performing analysis isn't any harder than summary, it just requires knowing the difference and applying it to your writing.

If your assignment is to write a summary, go ahead. If your assignment is to write an analysis, though, make sure you consistently answer the questions "how" and "why."

Thanks for reading, and write on.

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