Digging Deeper: Summary vs. Analysis

My (sporadic) posts lately have been rather brief and focused on current writing projects. With that in mind, I thought I’d turn to general writing this week.

Something that has been coming up in tutoring a lot lately is problems understanding analysis.

A lot of student-clients who come in have been demonstrating difficulty transitioning from summary to analysis. Now, summary is good and useful. Virtually every piece of non-fiction has at least a little summary in it, if only to ensure that the reader and writer are on the same page or to refresh the reader’s memory. However, purely summary pieces are, quite frankly, rather simple and don’t take much thought. (There are, of course, exceptions. Trying to summarize a 250 page book in one paragraph is a hell of a thing to do.)

So, summary is easy and basic. Analysis, on the other hand, takes work, understanding, and knowledge. It demonstrates whether the writer understands the subject of analysis and knows the general subject matter. It also shows whether the writer is thinking about the subject or simply parroting back pieces of data. And it is something we all do regularly.

Examples:

1) Whenever we buy a car, or a house, or groceries, we conduct comparative analyses. We look at different options, weigh their strengths and weaknesses (cost, usefulness, flavor, looks, safety ratings, neighborhoods, size, etc.), and determine the best product to purchase.

2) Whenever we drive (or, say, ride a bike), we are constantly and unconsciously analyzing literally hundreds or thousands of pieces of data from our speed and position on the road to locations of other vehicles, pedestrians, potential problem drivers (e.g. the one who doesn’t use the turn signal, the one who is speeding, the one on his/her phone) to road conditions and weather conditions.

3) Anyone who plays any sport or game is continually analyzing elements of the playing field. That could include locations of other players, where the ball (or whatever) is, available resources, relative exhaustion of other players, body language, coaching commentary, etc.

To use an analogy that seemed to work the other night:

Summary is saying: “There’s a fin above the waves.”
Analysis is saying: “There’s a fin above the waves, therefore there is a shark beneath the surface and we should probably get out of the water.”

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