Basic Writing/Writing about reading
A common form of writing is a basic reading response paper. Short of an essay or longer thesis analyzing text, the summary and critique are often employed to identify details or provide support to a more lengthy assignment to the reading. Teachers assign summaries to ensure students' understanding of the reading material or build a composite of background knowledge for future assignment. When teachers assign critique, they are looking for a reaction to the reading material that involves specific detail. Summary and critique are common elements in many assignments other than formal papers, including reading response journals, book reports, and essay exams.
- A basic report on a reading is a summary.
A summary is generally a shorter paper, detailing the action of a text. Summaries are used in order for you to prove you have read the text and have thought about the content. Since summaries are generally shorter works, they may be a part of a larger project in the course.
Students sometimes write summaries with their teacher in mind as the audience, although the teacher has read the text several times. However, when you write a summary, assume you are writing the paper for someone who has not read the book you are describing.
- Think about the type of text you are reading and take notes.
Make highlights. If you are reading a story, you will want to keep track of the order of events. If you are reading a persuasive article, you will want to keep track of main ideas and arguments. These notes will make quick reference when it is time to write the summary.
- Assignment sheets can be helpful.
If you have an assignment sheet, look over the content carefully to see what the teacher expects. Your instructor may have listed a specific question that you need to answer or some specific issue for focus. If the instructor hasn't provided an assignment sheet, don't be afraid to ask questions to better understand what is expected of you. Don’t go into the writing assignment without understanding of the expectations or guidelines (always ask!).
In the summary, name or make reference to the text and the focus of your writing. For instance, if you are writing a paper summarizing the Odyssey with a focus on the conflict between Poseidon and Odysseus, consider this opening sentence:
- In the Odyssey, Odysseus struggles against Poseidon in order to get back home.
This sentence makes direct reference to the assignment and the reading. The following summary will detail the action with a focus on the conflict of Odysseus and Poseidon. The teacher is aware of the focus since the topic is outlined in the opening sentence. The rest of the essay will be a summary of the action with reference to the opening sentence.
Here's an example of a complete (very brief) reading summary responding to the prompt, “Summarize the conflict between Odysseus and Poseidon in the Odyssey.”
In the Odyssey, Odysseus struggles against Poseidon to return to Ithaca. Zeus, at the request of Athena, calls for a consensus among the gods to allow Odysseus to return home safely. Missing from the meeting atop Mt. Olympus is Poseidon who is still angry with Odysseus for blinding his son Polyphemus. As Odysseus sails from the shores of the Cyclops Polyphemus prays to his father to bestow the curse that if Odysseus is to return home that it be many darks years before it happens. Polyphemus curse is granted by Poseidon, his father, and the consequence for Odysseus’ action is to suffer wind, wave, and storm on his every return to sea for ten long years.
Always use specific names of places, people, and references in your writing as evidence to your teacher that you have read the material closely. If you have time, it is never a bad idea to work through drafts to use more precise terms and language. Develop your sentences by using sentence combining techniques to connect more ideas and details to your thoughts.
Critique is also called evaluation, analysis, or interpretation. Teachers will often ask for a response to a reading assignment which goes beyond summary, one which analyzes a text and explains why it works (or doesn't). A summary is assigned to make sure you understand the reading, but for a critique you are showing your ability to think critically and make judgments about the assigned reading using details, support, evidence.
A literary critique is an analysis of a story or poem.
Critique Homer's presentation of courage in the Odyssey.
A good way to approach your critique is to begin with a thesis in order to layout your argument.
In Homer's Odyssey, courage is the risk of self for ideals.
This thesis works as a statement that can be supported. The sentence is put forward as a statement of argument to move forward with elaboration. Notice this claim of courage can be supported by examples from the reading.
Supporting the thesis requires finding those details that support your claim. Finding details can includes using notes, rereading the text, or class discussion to provide evidence to the claim of the thesis. Any details should serve as direct evidence: quotes, summary, paraphrase in direct support to the thesis statement.
Samples of evidence:
In direct reaction to Eurylochus's objection of possibly being consumed by Circe and saving themselves, Odysseus charges up to save his men who have been turned to pigs by the witch.
To allow his men to escape the Sirens, he has his men tie him to the mast and endures the Siren song.
Even so, evidence by itself is insufficient. Show how it fits together by providing explanation of your evidence to the thesis statement.
In Homer's Odyssey, courage is the risk of self for ideals. Odysseus puts the life of his crew before the concern for self in his actions. In Eurylochus's return from the witch Circe, where twenty-three men have been lost to her sorcery, he reasons they should put out to sea in order to avoid further loss. Odysseus, without reservation, goes after his men (book 10). His thought is for his men and not his self, similar to his selfless action of exposure to the Sirens' song. As his men safely row past the harpies with beeswax in their ears, Odysseus endures the torturous song until they have gone a safe distance (book 12). Homer presents Odysseus's courage as sacrifice for those important to him.
It is a good practice to use quotations where the exact words are necessary. Do not rely too heavily upon direct quotation, pure summary, or paraphrase - use explanation to show relationship between ideas. This is where an assignment sheet or discussion with your teacher may be helpful to clarify the expectation.
In the academic world, argument doesn't mean fighting--it means making a point using reasoning. The example above of the Odyssey analyzes literature rather than an argument. Literary analysis may be familiar from high school assignments, but college assignments more frequently require you to analyze an argument--to critique someone's reasoning. Instead of looking at plot, characters, and setting, you'll look at the author's reasons, evidence, and how it supports her main point. Besides this, the process of analysis is much the same: you will need a thesis about the author's argument and supporting details drawn from their reasons and evidence.
Although a good critique often starts with a relevant summary, keep in mind your goal--making your own point about the author's argument. Also ask your professor whether you are supposed to take a side on the issue the author is arguing about. Unless your instructor asks you to take a stance, concentrate on the author's presentation of the issue, not whether you agree with the stance he or she takes. Remember, a person may have bad reasons for believing right things or good reasons for believing wrong things.
Some elements to focus on:
- The writer's credibility: Does the writer seem reasonable? Is she an expert in the field?
- Underlying assumptions: Does the writer seem to assume everyone holds her viewpoint?
- Emotional appeals: Does the author play on the reader's emotions? Does that work?
- Evidence: Does the author have good reasons and examples to support her conclusion?
- Room for improvement: What would have made the argument more convincing?
Analyze one of the articles we read for this unit and explain whether or not the author does a good job making his or her case.
Martin Luther King successfully defends himself against the criticisms of white clergymen through sensitivity to his audience.
Samples of evidence:
King builds credibility by referring to the Bible.
King concedes that his audience has good points.
In "Letter from Birmingham Jail," Martin Luther King successfully defends himself against the criticisms of white clergymen through sensitivity to his audience. He does this first by building his credibility as a fellow clergyman, quoting and alluding to the Bible throughout the letter. He also avoids making his audience confrontational by conceding his reader's most reasonable points: King admits that negotiation is a better approach than protest, but he argues that negotiation isn't possible until people are willing to listen. By setting himself up as a reasonable, Godly man, King does his best to gain the sympathy of the white clergy who opposed his methods.
Notice how the critique focuses on how King argues rather than whether he was right or wrong. It also does more than simply summarize the letter--it makes a specific point about it and backs that point up with examples from the text.
After a whole process of content-writing, you still need to draw a natural and complete conclusion of what you've already written down to restate and strengthen your points of view with which the readers could get a better understanding of the central idea of your paper. Just make it a beautiful final stroke on your paper!
In many courses, you may find yourself asked to write an in-class essay, or essay exam. An essay exam will often ask for a summary or critique of readings for the class, so the major techniques are the same. The common "five paragraph essay" is at its most useful in the essay exam: write an introduction with a clear thesis, about three subpoints which prove or illustrate your point, and a conclusion that ties it all together. This doesn't mean you can't be creative, but an essay exam is most different from take-home essays in the amount of time you have to work on it. You can't do anything too complicated. There are a few tips we can share with you to get through an essay exam:
- Many instructors will give you a list of possible questions on the test. Study them! There is no substitute for understanding the assigned reading.
- Find out if you are allowed to use your reading material or notes during the exam.
- If you are allowed to use notes and the instructor has shared questions that may appear on the exam, write an outline for each question ahead of time. You don't want to waste time during the actual exam trying to think of good examples.
- If you are not allowed to use notes, write outlines anyway. Study them at home and review them before the exam. You can write them down as soon as you begin the exam. (Even if the exam begins with multiple choice, you can turn it over and write it down before you forget.)
- Prewrite. Think about the question and figure out what you want to say.
- If you already know the questions that will be on the exam, do your prewriting at home so you can spend more time writing during the exam.
- If you didn't know the questions ahead of time, read the question carefully and prewrite on a piece of scrap paper or on the exam itself. (You can erase it afterward.) Write an outline.
- Don't ramble. Have a clear structure in mind before you start writing. Stick to this outline.
- After you finish, check to make sure your main point is clear and stays the same throughout the essay. Remember, even a summary has a main point.
- If you are writing a critique, check to make sure your line of reasoning is clear and makes sense.
- Fix major errors, but don't spend all your time on grammar--your instructor wants you to show you understand the material.
Don't forget about citations. When your writing refers to texts written by others, citations help the readers of your paper to locate the information from your source. When you don't cite your source, your reader assumes that everything you wrote came out our your own mind. A basic rule of thumb with citations is that if the idea is not your own, you should cite the source. This will help protect you from plagiarism. Consequences for plagiarism can be quite severe, so always ask your instructor for advice if you're not sure when or how to cite.