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In Summary, Don't Summarize

In Summary, Don't Summarize

By Miss Marm

If you've ever written a paper, you've probably struggled with the question of how much summarizing you need to do. A Sparkler writes:

For summer homework for my AP U.S. History class, I am supposed to write a book report on a chosen book about the US in the 1830s. The one I have chosen is Huckleberry Finn. The directions are to write a 3-5 page report on what you think was the author's message. No where in the directions does it say to include a summary of any sort. I am confused about that. No way has our teacher read every single novel set in the 1830s, so it seems appropriate to place at least a few sentences on what our book was about. I have been thinking about a few different ways I can do this.

1. Should I just make the entire first supporting paragraph (after the introduction) a summary about Huck Finn? However, that seems extremely off topic and would take up a lot of unnecessary space.
2. Should I put one or two opening sentences in the introduction paragraph and explain the rest as I talk about different themes in later, supporting paragraphs? This seems okay, but also that it would be somewhat repetitive.
3. Should I explain only the parts of the book that I need to explain in order to get the author's message (and main point of the report) across? It seems like this would make it seem unconnected and leaves it up to the reader to string all the events up together, or awkward because I'd spend too much of each supporting paragraph saying what happened rather than why Mark Twain wrote about it.

When you're working on a report or a paper, write as if your audience has just recently read the book in question. Spend almost no time summarizing. When you must summarize, do so in the service of your analysis.

Bad: "After stealing the robbers' boat, Huck feels guilty about stranding them, and reports their whereabouts to a watchman."

Better: "Huck empathizes with everyone, including criminals and 'dead beats.' Because he identifies with the robbers whose boat he steals, he behaves kindly to them, reporting their plight instead of stranding them."

See how, in the second example, the summary is there not for its own sake, but so we can understand the analysis?

Instead of spending time worrying about where to explain the plot, make it your goal to do no plot-explaining at all. Instead, focus entirely on the arguments you want to make. That approach will lead to a bit of summarizing—but it will be summarizing in the service of analyzing. You'll find yourself pulling quotations and examples from the text that help you back up your arguments, rather than trying to capture the plot of Twain's masterpiece in a paragraph or two.

How much summarizing do you do?

If you have a question about grammar, an assignment, or writing in general, send it to

Topics: summaries, huck finn, huckleberry finn, ap history, book reports

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