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Making objective summaries of literary texts | Reading

Being objective is *hard*, but it provides a necessary backbone for your analysis. Once you've got an objective summary, then you can bring opinions back in for your analysis. (Opinions are good! Opinions are where analysis lives!). Created by David Rheinstrom.

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Video transcript

- [David] Hello readers, let's talk about summarizing stories. This is a useful skill for life. I've found myself describing the plots of movies, TV shows and books to my friends, my coworkers, my family, and it's also very useful in writing. Understanding the plot of a story is essential to writing about it. You can't write about a story if you can't express what happened in it. So what I want to do today is talk about creating objective summaries of texts. Summaries that are free of opinion, or non biased. If you're summarizing a book, you wanna get across the events of the story. Objectivity is hard and weird and has a very specific purpose. You use it to build the bones of your analysis. Once you've got the structure in place, bring opinions back. Here are the facts and now here's what I think about those facts. Let me be clear, opinions are good. Opinions are where analysis lives. The whole field of literary criticism would be awfully boring if nobody ever held opinions but all that criticism rests on a basis of objectively summarized texts. So let's talk about how to do just that, how to objectively summarize a text. Here's what you need to do. Step one, read the thing you want to summarize. You can't do one without the other. Step two, ask yourself, what are the important parts of this story? Not the interesting parts, not the cool parts, but the most essential parts of the story. Remember we're trying to be objective here so it's not about including the parts you especially liked. So who are the main characters, where does the story take place, what happens in the plot? Step three, pare it down. Look at all those important parts you listed, and cut out everything that isn't absolutely essential. Major characters only, setting, conflict, climax, resolution. Step four, put it in order. Write it all out as sentences in the order the plot happened in. The idea is to be able to summarize a whole story in a handful of sentences, like a single five sentence paragraph. And you're gonna wanna paraphrase here. Whatever you need to say, say it in your own words so you can get it across as quickly as possible. Ordinarily, I'd say quoting from the text is an important skill but this is one time you won't use it. All right so, those are the four steps. To demonstrate, I'm gonna take a fiction piece from a Khan Academy exercise and I'll go through that process with you. Step one, let's read it all, read this little story chunk. "'Wilky!' Captain Martello bellowed below deck. "'We need your help!' I climbed the ladder quickly "and was astonished that I hadn't awakened on my own. "Usually I could sense a storm brewing "hours before it arrived. "Captain Martello noticed my look of surprise. "'She's coming on quick, this one. Here, grab the rope, "Help me pull down the sail.' "Overboard, the waters had changed. "No longer were they an inviting green hue, "they were dark, foreboding. "The moon above tried to peek through the angry sky "but the clouds kept hijacking her hopeful glow. "Suddenly, a giant slow rolling wave "forced my side of the vessel to dip into the water. "I tried to hang on but the lurching wave was tugging at me. "Captain Martello grabbed my leg "and managed to yank me onto Adelina's salt sprayed deck. "'You're safe,' he said firmly, 'for now.'" Okay step two, what are the important parts of the story? Okay so Wilky comes on deck when Captain Martello asks him to. They're on a boat. And note here that I'm just sort of scribbling down notes, these aren't even sentences. There's a storm coming that Wilky didn't predict. The captain tells Wilky to help him strike the sail. The water is a scary color, a wave nearly washes Wilky overboard but the captain saves him. Oh and the ship is called the Adelina. I think that's a neat name for a ship. All right step three, pare it down. So the fact that I think that Adelina is a neat name for a ship is opinion and not relevant. It's also not super relevant that Wilky didn't predict the storm. Or that the water is a spooky color. So do we have all the important details in here? The name of the ship, check. The name of Wilky and Captain Martello, the fact that there is a storm. So part of this is relevant but not the prediction part and Wilky nearly being tossed overboard but saved by the captain. So step four, let's take all of that, put it in order. Start afresh, full sentences, okay. Captain Martello calls Wilky up to the deck of the Adelina to help him prepare the ship for a sudden storm. Wilky is nearly washed overboard by a big wave but Martello saves them. That's our strategy, you see? Boil down the story to its essentials, strip away unnecessary detail and rephrase events in your own words in the order that they happened in. Once you've got that squared away, you're ready to back up that great big dump truck full of opinions. All right bring her in. (truck backing up beeping) Let them have it, fellows. (crashing) You love to see it. You can learn anything, David out.