Most nonfiction writing—and most college essays!—have three main writing styles that are woven together into a narrative: scene, summary, and reflection. Before considering how these components are working in your own draft, take a look at these examples from Andy Duehren’s essay, about his relationship with his father, to better understand the role of each:
Scenes allow the reader to be in the story, experiencing what unfolds moment to moment. Andy begins his essay with this scene:
My dad and I made the ascent together. We climbed the Precipice Trail, the Acadia National Park path of lore whose steep cliffs and trail-side signs warning of death convinced more prudent hikers to turn around before the halfway mark. Resting, I gazed out beyond the dizzying drop below to the green Maine foothills and blue Atlantic Ocean.
Summary is your tool to efficiently deliver information. Later in Andy’s essay, he summarizes how things changed for him and his father. With this summary, Andy doesn’t invite us into a particular moment, but instead gives us an overview of an ongoing experience. He can’t say everything about his father’s mental illness or his own response as a son, so he moves the essay forward by condensing a lot of information into a few details:
He lost his job and fell into a depression and an absent-mindedness I found hard to understand. Despite his dealing with a mental illness, I became more critical, more attentive to his flaws and shortcomings.
Reflection is your method of communicating significance to your readers, building their investment in your experience. By offering your insights and interpretation of the scene and summary, you show readers what it means and why it matters. Toward the end of his essay, Andy reflects on what he’s realized about his father and what it means to be a man worthy of admiration:
I looked at my dad and I saw that being a man isn’t about any sort of superficial, external measure.
Now it’s time for you to look at the anatomy of your own essay. If you have access to a printer, this exercise can also be done with a hardcopy, making notes in the margins with a pen or pencil.
- Next to each paragraph in your draft, make a margin comment of that section’s style of writing: scene, summary, or reflection.
- Next, write in the margin what that paragraph helps communicate to the reader. For example, next to a paragraph of scene, you might write: “These details of scene help the reader to feel how humiliating this experience was for me.” Next to a paragraph of summary, you might write: “This summary conveys a lot of important information that the reader needs in order to understand why this experience influenced me.”
- Now assess your pattern or sequence of scene, summary, and reflection. While there’s no perfect formula, becoming aware of your writing patterns in this way can help illuminate whether you might need to make changes. Do you need to add more information through summary? Alternatively, do you need to take out some summary and add a short scene instead? Do you need to add more reflection so the reader understands how an experience impacted you?
- Make revisions based on your assessment.