Summarizing

A summary represents, for an uninformed reader, information and ideas from another source. The writer of a summary is responsible for conveying to his or her reader everything that is needed to understand the main ideas of the original source, without giving unnecessary evidence or explanation and without plagiarizing.

Summaries are often used in writing in order to incorporate others’ ideas, as in a research paper, or in order to provide evidence for a claim. In both cases, the writer must decide how to prioritize the source information and ideas, and how to represent those responsibly and clearly to the reader.

To prepare your summary:

Highlight key ideas and information, as well as important evidence.

This step is most important: it’s the “research” portion of your summary, where you determine the material that will be the foundation of your writing.

Topic sentences might help guide you with this, but don’t rely on them alone, as writers don’t always use them the same way.

This is the time for you to make sure that you’re not glossing over parts of the essay that you find difficult or confusing or  uninteresting. Your summary needs to take into account everything that is present in the original essay. You don’t—in the end—need to make specific reference to every single element, but you do need to be sure you’re not overlooking any elements in your understanding of the essay.

Determine the writer’s main purpose overall and within individual sections of the text.

Again, thesis statements and topic sentences may be helpful with this, but don’t rely on them alone.

Also, again, be sure you’re not misunderstanding, or insufficiently understanding, the writer. This is the step where most less-successful summaries falter: don’t assume that what you’re initially understanding is actually what the writer is conveying. Spend time grappling with understanding the parts, and the whole, in terms of the writer’s purpose—which you’ll need to determine carefully.

As you go through:

Write a one-sentence summary of each section of the text, which will first require you to determine how the text is organized, as you will find that some “sections” of the text are just 1-2 paragraphs long, while other sections may be 5 paragraphs long.

Bear in mind not only the content but also the purpose of each section.

Once you’ve done that, write a one-sentence summary of the entire text, which will be your version of its thesis.

To write your summary:

Begin by giving your reader the context for your summary, introducing the source by indicating its author or director, its original publication location and time, etc.

Then draft the summary:

Present your one-sentence summary of the entire text, followed by the one-sentence summary of each (relevant) section.

Revise to combine those sentences into a cohesive and unified paragraph (or set of paragraphs, depending on how long and detailed your summary should be). You will need to add transition words and make clear to your reader the ways in which the different ideas are connected in the original.

You may use direct quotes from the original, particularly in order to convey an idea that the writer expressed especially well, but avoid relying on the writer’s words for your summary. One quote per paragraph (if you quote at all) is usually a good guide, and even these quotes should just be 1-5 words long.

Typically, you don’t want to spend much of your summary on particular examples used by the writer. If there is an extended, central example, you will want to include reference to that; otherwise, avoid that level of detail in your summary.

To revise your summary:

Find an uninformed reader (who hasn’t read the original), or at least imagine what kind of understanding such a reader might bring to the experience of reading your summary. Then make sure that you’re (a) including everything you need to for the reader to be able to follow, and (b) not including too much.

Then imagine the original writer reading your summary. Would he or she be likely to recognize–and claim–the essay you’re summarizing?

Finally, once you feel comfortable that the summary fairly represents the original essay, revise with an eye and ear tuned to the way your own essay reads.

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