Summary is indispensable in preparing for and writing an argumentative essay. When you summarize a text (or describe visual material), you distill the ideas of another source for use in your own essay. Summarizing primary sources permits you to keep track of your observations. It helps make your analysis of these sources persuading, because it is based on careful observation of fact rather than on hazy or inaccurate recollection. Summarizing critical sources is particularly useful during the research and note-taking stages of writing. It gives you a record of what you’ve read and helps you distinguish your ideas from those of your sources.

Summaries you write to prepare for an essay will generally be longer and more detailed than those you include in the essay itself. (Only when you’ve established your thesis will you know the elements most significant to retain.) It is crucial to reminisce, however, that the purpose of an analytical essay is only partly to demonstrate that you know and can summarize the work of others. The greater task is to showcase your ideas, your analysis of the source material. Thus all forms of summary (there are several) should be implements in your essay rather than its entirety.

True summary always concisely recaps the main point and key supporting points of an analytical source, the overall arc and most significant turns of a narrative, or the main subject and key features of a visual source. True summary neither quotes nor judges the source, concentrating instead on providing a fair picture of it. True summary may also outline past work done in a field; it sums up the history of that work as a narrative. Consider including true summary—often just a few sentences, uncommonly more than a paragraph—in your essay when you introduce a fresh source. That way, you inform your readers of an author’s argument before you analyze it.

Instantaneously after his introduction to an essay on Whittaker Chambers, a key player in the embark of the Cold War, Bradley Nash included four sentences summarizing the foreword to his main source, Chambers’s autobiography. Nash characterizes the genre and tone of the foreword in the very first two sentences before swiftly describing, in the next two, the movement of its ideas:

The foreword to Chambers’s autobiography is written in the form of “A Letter to My Children.” In this introduction, Chambers establishes the spiritual tone that predominates the figure of his book. He primarily characterizes the Cold War in a more or less standard style, invoking the language of politics and describing the conflict as one inbetween “Communism and Freedom.” But as the foreword progresses, Chambers introduces a religious element that serves to cast the fight inbetween communism and capitalism as a kind of holy war.

Every essay also requires snippets of true summary along the way to “orient” readers—to introduce them to characters or critics they haven’t yet met, to remind them of items they need to recall to understand your point. (The underlined phrase in the paragraph introducing Nash’s summary is an example of orienting information.) True summary is also necessary to establish a context for your claims, the framework of reference you create in your introduction. An essay examining the “usable past” created by the Vietnam Veterans Memorial, for example, might begin by shortly summarizing the history of the idea of a usable past, or by summarizing the view of a leading theorist on the topic.

Sometimes your essays will call for interpretive summary—summary or description that at the same time informs your reader of the content of your source and makes a point about it. Interpretive summary differs from true summary by putting a “spin” on the materials, providing the reader hints about your assessment of the source. It is thus best suited to descriptions of primary sources that you plan to analyze. (If you put an interpretive spin on a critical source when you originally address it, you risk distorting it in the eyes of your reader: a form of academic dishonesty.)

The interpretive summary below comes from an essay examining a Civil War photograph in light of Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address. The essayist, Dara Horn, knew she needed to describe the photo but that simply “walking through” its details would bewilder and bore her readers. So she exposed the point of her description in a pair of topic sentences (solid underline), summarized the details of the photo (dual underline), and gave the description some interpretive “spin” (via).

As skeptical moderns, we often have trouble accepting drawings or paintings as historical records, but we tend to believe in photographs the way that we believe in mirrors; we simply accept them as the truth. Alexander Gardner’s photograph Trossel’s House, Battle-Field of Gettysburg, July, 1863 might therefore be viewed as evidence rather than commentary. Unlike some of Gardner’s other “sketches,” this picture includes no flawlessly placed rifles, no artistically angled sea, no well-posed studs in uniform—indeed, no people at all. The photograph’s composition could slightly be more prosaic; the horizon slashes the picture in half, and the subject, a white colonial-style house, sits smack in the center. Yet this straightforward, almost virginal perspective sets the viewer up for the photograph’s stealthy horror. At very first glance, the photograph shows up to be a portrait of a house, perhaps even a poor portrait of a house; in a Osketch bookO of war, one might roll right by it to the gory pictures before and after. But the terror in this photograph lies in its delayed shock, the gut-wrenching surprise when the light on the house leads the eye to the light on the fence and the viewer notices that the backyard fence is cracked, and then thatthe backyard is a mess, littered with—what are those?—horses, dead horses, twelve dead horses. What must have happened to topple twelve nine-hundred-pound horses, and where are the people who railed them? Crushed underneath? The viewer doesn’t know, because Gardner’s picture doesn’t tell us. All we see is a house, a cracked fence, twelve dead horses, and an empty sky.

Reminisce that an essay that argues (rather than simply describes) uses summary only sparingly, to remind readers periodically of crucial points. Summary should always help build your argument. When teachers write “too much summary—more analysis needed” in the margin, generally they mean that the essay reports what you’ve studied rather than argues something about it. Two linked problems give rise to this situation. The very first is a thesis that isn’t indeed a thesis but rather a statement of something evident about your subject—a description. (The visible cannot be argued.) A statement of the visible tends to force further description, which leads to the 2nd problem, a structure that either goes after the chronology of the source text from beginning to end or simply lists examples from the source. Neither treatment builds an argument.

Copyright 2000, Elizabeth Abrams, for the Writing Center at Harvard University

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