Best Laid Plans and All That

I intended to get a post together for Thursday, then the week decided to kick my rear.

An unexpected winter weather day off for the kid threw off the week’s plans. As did some minor setbacks on a home repair project (ceiling light replacement).

Pro Tip: Don’t paint a section of textured ceiling two days before a martial arts rank test. (Biceps are still recovering)

On the upside, 2nd kyu rank test went as well as can be expected, passed with flying colors. Not bad, as it had been nearly eight years since my last test. Just another 90 hours of training (and at least 6 months, probably more like 12) until the next one.

The coming week looks good for normalcy, though we’re expected to get wind chills down to -30F by Wednesday or Thursday. Which means more “winter weather” days off for the kid.

Still writing, doing about five pages of worldbuild notes for every one page of story writing, as usual. And copy-editing an anthology on circus cinema for a friend. Occasionally finding time to prep two classes, too. 😁

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.


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.”

Non-Fiction Writing Tips

Over the last decade or so of teaching composition, I’ve come up with a variety of ways to look at and discuss different elements of writing. Because various people “click” with different explanations, I’ve had to try out a variety of analogies and such during that time. For this week, I figured I’d pass on a few of the most effective ones:

Before the analogies, I do want to stress the importance of prewriting. Whether brainstorming, outlining, webbing, or whatnot, or some combination of methods, prewriting is extremely helpful. Personally, I find brainstorming followed by outlining to be the most effective, as the outline gives me a sort of checklist for my main ideas. But, everyone is different and that combination may not work for all people. This is one way in which writing is an art, something everyone has to experiment with to see what works best for them.

One of the things students seem to have the biggest problems with is introductions. Basically, every introduction should include three things: an attention grabber, a thesis, and a brief outline of major points.

To help, I like to use the analogy to a movie trailer. This seems to be the most effective analogy. Basically, an essay introduction is very much like a movie trailer. It is the one paragraph summary of the essay. It needs to provide enough information to draw the reader in, but not so much that the reader decides there’s no point in buying the movie ticket.

Another way to consider introductions is to place oneself in the role of researcher. The researcher has ten articles, each of twenty pages. Would the researcher rather read through 200 pages of material to determine which articles are useful, or ten paragraphs (say, five pages)? The answer should be obvious.

To clarify for the science and math folks: a thesis is the same thing as a hypothesis. We’re just lazy over in the humanities. For everyone: a thesis is an arguable theory. It is a possible answer to a question. So, every research project, every essay, begins as a question. The thesis is an answer to that question. It is also the Big Idea™ that every part of the project-essay will refer back to.

An essay, an article, is made up of claims. Sometimes, especially in elementary through high school, these are also called topic sentences or paragraph theses. Claims are usually the first sentence of a paragraph. They must be arguable, e.g. they need to be proven, and they need to relate back to the over all thesis. Basically, a claim is a miniature thesis.

Thesis-Claim Relationship
As noted, claims always need to relate back to the thesis. But, students often ask about the difference between a thesis and a claim. I’ve found this analogy works well in answering the question:

The thesis is the roof of a house.
The claims are the walls of a house.
The evidence is the foundation of the house.

With no roof, the house isn’t very effective. Without a thesis, the essay isn’t going to be effective. Additionally, the thesis acts like a roof in that it is the overarching, all-covering idea.

With weak walls, the house collapses. With weak or no claims, the essay falls apart since nothing is there to support the roof-thesis.

With a weak foundation, a house settles and collapses. With weak or no evidence, the essay collapses because there is nothing to support the claims and therefore the thesis.

Writer vs. Quotes
Another major question students often ask is how much they should quote. Many instructors have a minimum number of quotes requirement. I’ve always avoided that, it tends to lead people to build the argument and essay around the quotes, rather than using quotes in a support role. My answer to the question of how many quotes is: However many you need to fully support your argument. That said, if the writer finds that (s)he is stringing quotes together, then there are too many. The voice of the writer must still be there; if the instructor (editor, publisher, reader) wanted to read, say, Thoreau, they’d read Thoreau, instead, they want to read Writer and Writer’s ideas.

The other caveat is that every field of study is different in terms of quoting. In literature, we tend to quote more than other fields because the words are our data. In psychology (APA), the rule is to summarize or paraphrase, reserving direct quotes for use only when there is absolutely no better way to say things. Other fields fall somewhere in between.