Sunday, November 04, 2012

Summary and response

One of the disadvantages of not going to college as a young man is that I didn't learn then valuable techniques developed by academia that apparently are not well-propagated to the outside world. One problem that easily solvable by a stock academic technique is the problem of "fisking," creating a running, point-by-point critique of an essay or other written work. I remember fisking other people's posts back in the olden days when I posted a lot at the Internet Infidels Discussion Board. I felt that while it was thorough, fisking was a very ineffective technique. It somehow seems all to easy to miss the forest for the trees. For example, Andrew Louis recently commented on my post, Social constructions and Libertarianism. He's not fisking my post in the sense of trying to show that the post is completely, utterly, absolutely terrible, but the point-by-point form that Louis uses makes it unclear exactly what he is objecting to and why. There is an easy solution to this problem: the classic summary/analysis/response format taught in Freshman Composition at most colleges.

A standard summary/analysis/response (SAR) format consists of three sections, perhaps unsurprisingly, the summary, the analysis, and the response. Each section can be as short as a single paragraph. The summary neutrally summarizes the original work, without revealing the respondent's position. The analysis analyzes the effectiveness of the original work. The response gives the respondent's opinion or judgment of the original work. Essentially, the SAR format is: what did the original author say? How and how well does he or she say it? Is he or she right or wrong (or somewhere in between)? Structuring a critique in this way has some significant benefits.

The summary section begins with a reference to the original work and a statement of the original author's thesis. The thesis summarizes the author's main point in a short clause or sentence. The summary continues with an explanation of how the original author supports the thesis. (If the original author doesn't try to support the thesis, the work is probably not even worth criticizing analytically.) The summary usually ends with a paraphrase or summary of the original author's conclusion, tying the original thesis to the larger world.

After the summary, the analysis section begins with the critic's judgment of the effectiveness of the original work, which will usually include the major rhetorical styles (logos, logical argument; pathos, appeal to emotion; and ethos, credibility) of the original work. The analysis section will then support that judgment and description using evidence from the original work. The response section is not to agree or disagree with the author; it is to show how well or poorly the author employs the rhetorical techniques appropriate to the original work.

Finally, the response section informs the reader of the critic's judgment of the original work. Note that the judgment is often independent of the analysis. It is entirely possible that an author can construct a brilliant, clear, concise, and perspicacious argument that is nonetheless dead wrong. Again, the critic should support his judgment, but, unlike the summary and analysis sections, the judgment should include information outside the original work, including other cited sources, or the critics own experience and opinion.

This structure has some important advantages. The analysis examines the internal strengths and weaknesses of the original work, more-or-less unbiased by the critic's judgment, and the response section shows and supports the critic's actual judgment. But the summary section is the most important: it shows how the critic is reading the original work. The critic's reading may be completely different from the original author's intention. Such a difference would not mean the critic has read the original work incorrectly; the original author may have been unclear or obtuse, or the critic may be seeing valid implications beyond the original intention. In any case, any critical commentary is more intelligible and valuable if the reader of the criticism knows what precisely the critic is examining.

In my own case, most of the content of the blog is pretty much free-writing. I may have a thesis in mind when I begin—I might even state a thesis at its usual position at the end of the first paragraph—but I may swerve hard somewhere in the middle of the essay. I might not even have a thesis at all. (I do tend to ramble sometimes). When reading criticism of my work, the summary and analysis are especially valuable. I very well may not be saying what I want to say, but I can't know that until I learn how readers actually read it. I may well be making a terrible argument, but I need to know why it's a terrible argument, and what the critic thinks I'm arguing for. And finally, I might be dead wrong. I don't care too much that anyone thinks I'm dead wrong (I already know a lot of people disagree with me), but I'm keenly interested in why someone thinks I'm dead wrong. And in that case especially, I really want to know what a critic thinks I'm wrong about.

Summary. Analysis. Response. It's a pretty good structure. Learn it. Use it. Make it your friend.

For example, see Christianity and Suffering. I've slightly varied the format, but it still seems like a pretty good example of the SAR format.


  1. Touche', Larry, touche'. In my defense, if there is one, that's generaly the approach I take in blog comments... Force of habit I guess.

    I've crafted what I hope is a better more specific response and posted it on my blog. To lengthy to put in comment moderation.

  2. I remember your fisking Larry. It was so thorough I felt I was reading an assembly compiler error log.

  3. Larry,

    This is very interesting, thanks. I'm observant enough to have already noticed that fisking has major problems, but I haven't (perhaps until now) known of any good solution. So far all I've been able to do is resist the urge to excessively quote---sometimes. I say "sometimes" because even though I sort of know it leads to problems, nevertheless it's just so darn tempting to lapse back into fisking.

    I'll try out your suggestion here and see if it helps. I have high hopes that it will.


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