Researching

48 Writing Summaries

A summary is a short overview of the main points of a text. The purpose of a summary is to quickly give the reader or listener an idea of what this material is saying. You may create summaries of material by other authors, such as articles, plays, films, lectures, stories, or presentations.

Why Summarize?

At some point in your classes, you will likely be given an assignment to summarize a specific text, an assignment in which summary is the sole intent. You will also use summaries in more holistic ways, though, incorporating them along with paraphrase, quotation, and your own opinions into more complex pieces of writing. You might summarize for several reasons, both in your time as a student and in your life outside of education.

Here are some common uses:

  • A summary can show your understanding of the main points of an assigned reading or viewing, so your instructor might ask you to summarize in order to know that you’ve understood the material.
  • You might summarize a section from a source, or even the whole source, when the ideas in that source are critical to an assignment you are working on and you feel they need to be included, but they would take up too much space in their original form.
  • You might also summarize when the general ideas from a source are important to include in your work, but the details included in the same section as those main ideas aren’t needed for you to make your point. For example, technical documents or in-depth studies might go into much, much more detail than you are likely to need to support a point you are making for a general audience. These are situations in which a summary might be a good option.
  • Summarizing is also an excellent way to double-check that you understand a text—if you can summarize the ideas in it, you likely have a good grasp on the information it is presenting. This can be helpful for school-related work, such as studying for an exam or researching a topic for a paper, but is also useful in daily life when you encounter texts on topics that are personally or professionally interesting to you.

What Makes Something a Summary?

When you ask yourself, after reading an article (and maybe even reading it two or three times), “What was that article about?” and you end up jotting down—from memory, without returning to the original article to use its language or phrases—three things that stood out as the author’s main points, you are summarizing. Summaries have several key characteristics.

You’re summarizing well when you

  • Use your own words.
  • Significantly condense the original text.
  • Provide accurate representations of the main points of the text they summarize.
  • Avoid personal opinion.

Summaries are much shorter than the original material—a general rule is that they should be no more than 10% to 15% the length of the original, and they are often even shorter than this.

It can be easy and feel natural, when summarizing an article, to include our own opinions. We may agree or disagree strongly with what this author is saying, or we may want to compare their information with the information presented in another source, or we may want to share our own opinion on the topic. Often, our opinions slip into summaries even when we work diligently to keep them separate. These opinions are not the job of a summary, though. A summary should only highlight the main points of the article.

Focusing on just the ideas that best support a point we want to make or ignoring ideas that don’t support that point can be tempting. This approach has two significant problems, though:

First, it no longer correctly represents the original text, so it misleads your reader about the ideas presented in that text. A summary should give your reader an accurate idea of what they can expect if we pick up the original article to read.

Second, it undermines your own credibility as an author to not represent this information accurately. If readers cannot trust an author to accurately represent source information, they may not be as likely to trust that author to thoroughly and accurately present a reasonable point.

How Should I Organize a Summary?

Like traditional essays, summaries have an introduction, a body, and a conclusion. What these components look like will vary some based on the purpose of the summary you’re writing. The introduction, body, and conclusion of work focused specifically around summarizing something is going to be a little different than in work where summary is not the primary goal.

Introducing a Summary

One of the trickier parts of creating a summary is making it clear that this is a summary of someone else’s work; these ideas are not your original ideas. You will almost always begin a summary with the author, title, and thesis of the piece. This information will appear again in your Works Cited, but is also useful here so the reader can follow the conversation happening in your paper. You will want to provide it in both places.

In summary-focused work, this introduction should accomplish a few things:

  • Introduce the name of the author whose work you are summarizing.
  • Introduce the title of the text being summarized.
  • Introduce where this text was presented (if it’s an art installation, where is it being shown? If it’s an article, where was that article published? Not all texts will have this component—for example, when summarizing a book written by one author, the title of the book and name of that author are sufficient information for your readers to easily locate the work you are summarizing).
  • State the thesis.

Summary within Your Essay

You will probably find yourself more frequently using summary as just one component of work with a wide range of goals (not just a goal to “summarize X”).

Summary introductions in these situations still generally need to:

  • Name the author.
  • Name the text being summarized.
  • State just the relevant context, if there is any (maybe the author has a specific credential that makes their work on this topic carry more weight than it would otherwise, or maybe the study they generated is now being used as a benchmark for additional research).
  • Introduce the author’s full name (first and last names) the first time you summarize part of their text. If you summarize pieces of the same text more than once in a work you are writing, each time you use their text after that initial introduction of the source, you will only use the author’s last name as you introduce that next summary component.

Presenting the Body of a Summary

Again, this will look a little different depending on the purpose of the summary work you are doing. Regardless of how you are using summary, you will introduce the main ideas throughout your text with transitional phrasing, such as “One of [Author’s] biggest points is…,” or “[Author’s] primary concern about this solution is…”

If you are responding to a “write a summary of X” assignment, the body of that summary will expand on the main ideas you stated in the introduction of the summary, although this will all still be very condensed compared to the original. What are the key points the author makes about each of those big-picture main ideas? Depending on the kind of text you are summarizing, you may want to note how the main ideas are supported (although, again, be careful to avoid making your own opinion about those supporting sources known).

When you are summarizing with an end goal that is broader than just summary, the body of your summary will still present the idea from the original text that is relevant to the point you are making (condensed and in your own words).

Since it is much more common to summarize just a single idea or point from a text in this type of summarizing (rather than all of its main points), it is important to make sure you understand the larger points of the original text. For example, you might find that an article provides an example that opposes its main point in order to demonstrate the range of conversations happening on the topic it covers. This opposing point, though, isn’t the main point of the article, so just summarizing this one opposing example would not be an accurate representation of the ideas and points in that text.

Concluding a Summary

If the author has a clear conclusion, use that. Otherwise, this is also a good place to state (or restate) the things that are most important for your readers to remember after reading your summary.

When your writing has a primary goal other than summary—such as response, analysis, or compare/contrast sources—your conclusion should

  • Include an in-text citation, if appropriate. (To learn how to do this correctly, see the discussion of in-text citation in “Crediting and Citing Your Sources,” part of the “Using Sources Correctly” section of this text.)
  • Discuss the summary you’ve just presented. How does it support, illustrate, or give new information about the point you are making in your writing? Connect it to your own main point for that paragraph so readers understand clearly why it deserves the space it takes up in your work. (Note that this is still not giving your opinion on the material you’ve summarized, just making connections between it and your own main points.)

Exercise

Write a summary paragraph for a reading you are assigned. A summary is an effective restatement focusing on the main idea of a writing passage.

Requirements

  • Your topic sentence should provide the author and title along with the thesis of the work.
  • Only mention key points that support the thesis.
  • Keep the same order or sequence of information.
  • Mention only information from the original writing. Do not include new information, personal opinions, or interpretations.
  • Include a fair distribution of summary statement, paraphrase, and quote.
  • Your assignment must be formatted in correct MLA formatting.

Step-by Step Instructions

Follow these steps carefully.

  1. Read through once, not taking notes or highlighting, but simply noting the overall main idea of the text.
  2. Re-read with pen in hand. Make note of key words and ideas—highlight, underline, or circle them.
    1. Divide the text into sections that focus on one key idea in each section.
    2. Note a key term for each section.
    3. Plan which sections best suit summary statement, paraphrase, and quote.
  3. Write an outline: your topic sentence and a list of the points that support the main idea.
  4. Write a sentence for each point. Conclude with a sentence showing the significance of the writing from the author’s point of view, not yours. (If the author makes a clear conclusion, skip writing a conclusion of your own.)
  5. Make sure to use correct MLA formatting. Run the spelling and grammar check and follow the revision process before submitting your final assignment.

Don’t forget to ask for help if you need it!

Text Attributions

  • This chapter was adapted from “Writing Summaries” in The Word on College Reading and Writing by Carol Burnell, Jaime Wood, Monique Babin, Susan Pesznecker, and Nicole Rosevear, which is licensed under a CC BY-NC 4.0 Licence. Adapted by Allison Kilgannon.

License

Icon for the Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial 4.0 International License

Advanced English by Allison Kilgannon is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

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