Writing summaries

Being able to write a clear and accurate summary is a valuable skill in both school and the workplace. Often when we do research, we read many more pages than we write, and our job is to condense and make sense of that material for our reader, perhaps to use what we have read to make some claim or recommendation. (Otherwise we could simply send our audience to read the original sources themselves.) In addition, writing summaries allows a writer great practice in “pruning” his or her prose to convey the most information within a limited space.

Especially when we are dealing with long texts or difficult material, summary writing can be a real challenge. Even if a reader carefully and completely annotates a text, it can be difficult to start writing because it’s often hard to hold the outlines of the entire article in one’s mind. I think some version of what Bruce Ballenger calls “writing in the middle” is very useful before starting a summary, some form of note-taking or outlines so that you can “see” a map of a multipage article in a small space.

I am an enormous fan of the index card when it comes to summary writing. Depending on the length of the article and the desired length of the summary, I choose an appropriate size of index card and fit all my notes onto that card. I can easily group and rearrange points because I can see the overall structure of the article, and as I take notes I’m working out a possible paragraph structure for my summary. Yes, it takes time to do it this way, but once your index card is complete, the summary writing itself proceeds quite quickly, and the overall result is, I believe, a much more complete and accurate summary. I will post a scan of one of my index cards in a few days…

Qualities of an effective summary

  • The author and title of the work are given. A typical summary might start as follows: In “Some Article,” Jack/Jill Black argues that something or other is true or should be done because x, y, and z. (Note summaries are conventionally written in present tense.)
  • A summary should represent accurately the original text.
  • A summary should be largely in your own words. (It is not sufficient to change a word here or there to its synonym; you should be careful to change both the vocabulary and the structure of the sentence.) It is acceptable to quote an especially important sentence or phrase, but this should be done very sparingly (probably no more than one per paragraph or so). If you do use a quotation, be sure to copy the quote accurately and use quotation marks.
  • A summary should be as complete as possible within the given space limitations; that is, it should be dense (packed tightly with information, with as much info as can fit the space provided or assigned).
  • A summary should be objective, representing fairly the claims of the original author without revealing (except perhaps implicitly) the viewpoint of the summary writer. In order to remind the reader of our summary that you are summarizing someone else’s article, you may want occasionally to use theĀ  author’s last name or “the author” in your summary.
  • A summary should be well-written (with all that implies), in clear and grammatically correct prose (stylistic grace is nice, too!).

Here’s a page on Guidelines for writing a summary that gives some useful tips.

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