Summarizing vs Analyzing in English Literature

By Sonali Khemka

(English Literature, English Language, LNAT tutor at The Edge Learning Center)

Throughout your tenure as an English literature student, you will often be faced with the task of “analyzing” a particular text. While most students believe they at least have an idea of what this means, the task is often misinterpreted and students end up simply summarizing or describing the contents of a text. Below, let’s take a look at how you can ensure you are truly analyzing a text:

1. Step away from the text

Studying English Literature

When reading a text, it is very easy to treat the characters, setting, and events as if they exist in real life. We tend to forget that every single word written was chosen by the author. Instead of simply reacting to the text like a reader would, we need to step away from the text and examine it. Remember, you are a literature student when you are reading a text, not a member of the reading audience. Instead of saying – “this text confuses me.” (reacting), step back and ask yourself why does it confuse you? (examining) Has the author intentionally created confusion? If so, how? 

2. Ask yourself, if not —- then what?

Look at the text more broadly in English Literature

You may or may not find something worthy of analysis every time you do a close reading. Some of the lines in a poem or some parts of a narrative may simply seem mundane without any interesting literary features to extract from them. Be careful before you make this judgment. It is likely that the author’s craft is still very much at play, even in those seemingly ordinary bits of the text. Perhaps all you need to do is either narrow or widen your vision, i.e. either look at that “boring” part of the text more broadly (for e.g. look at tone, mood or structure) or zoom in and narrow down onto some specific words (for e.g. diction) and then ask yourself – “if not —- then what?”

What this means is that you take that broad or narrow feature, and then ask yourself, had the author made an alternative choice, how would that have changed things? For example, you could be reading a poem and after broadening your vision a little, you realize the poem’s tone is quite reassuring and self-confident. Ask yourself this then – had the tone not been reassuring or self-confident, how would the poem change? If you are zooming into some details, ask yourself – had the writer not used this word, how would the sentence change? It is likely that doing this will enable you to appreciate these subtle yet powerful writing choices a writer makes. By considering the alternative you should be able to understand why the author did make the decision to write the text in a particular way.

3. Use analytical verbs

When annotating a text, try to include an analytical verb next to each literary feature that you notice. This will push you towards questioning what the literary feature is doing, which will ensure that you are not simply describing or pointing out the literary feature but actually analyzing its effect. Instead of simply underlining a line in a poem and labeling it as “personification”, use an analytical verb to note down the effect – (for e.g. personification conveys the wrath of nature.) Verbs are action words so by using analytical verbs throughout your annotation, you will be directing yourself towards examining the function/role of the literary feature in what it does for the text. There are several resources online which provide a list of analytical verbs (listed below) – know them and try to use them as often as possible.

Links to analytical verbs:

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