How to write a summary

Part I
What is a summary?

A summary is a record in a reader's own words that gives the main points of a piece of writing such as a newspaper article, the chapter of a book, or even a whole book. It is also possible to summarize something that you have heard, such as a lecture, or something that you have seen and heard, such as a movie. A summary omits details, and does not include the reader's interpretation of the original

When are summaries used?
1. If you are reading something that is very important for your studies and/or difficult to understand, writing a summary helps you to make sure that you have understood it. You can also refer to it later to refresh your memory, for example when you are revising for an exam, or when you are talking about it in class. (It is also a good idea to turn lecture notes into summaries.)

2. When writing academic papers people often need to insert summaries of something that they have read or heard. For example, you might want to summarize the the main points of a book that is relevant to your topic. In such cases, it is extremely important to use your own words, or quotation marks if you are actually quoting, in order to avoid plagiarism. (We will talk more about plagiarism later in the course.)

First steps to writing a summary

1. As you read, underline all the important points and and all the important evidence. For example, you could look for all the topic sentences.

2. List or cluster the main idea of the whole piece, the main supporting ideas, and the main evidence for each idea. Be careful to use your own words rather than copying or just rearranging. Do not include too much detail.

Part II
What is a good summary?

1. A good summary should give an objective outline of the whole piece of writing. It should answer basic questions about the original text such as "Who did what, where, and when?", or "What is the main idea of the text?", "What are the main supporting points?", "What are the major pieces of evidence?". It should not be a paraphrase of the whole text using your own words.

2. You should not give your own ideas or criticisms as part of the summary. However, if you want to comment on a piece of writing it is usual to begin by summarizing it as objectively as possible.

3. A good summary should not include selected examples, details, or information which are not relevant to the piece of writing taken as a whole.

4. A good summary should probably include the main idea of each paragraph, and the main evidence supporting that idea, unless it is not relevant to the article or essay as a whole. A summary does not need a conclusion, but if the original ends with a message to the reader this should not be left out.

5. A good summary may use key words from the original text but should not contain whole phrases or sentences from the original unless quotation marks are used. Quotations should only be made if there is a reason for using the original words, for example because the choice of words is significant, or because the original is so well expressed.

6. Rearranging the words used in the original, or keeping the same structure but just substituting different words is not enough. You must express the sense of the original using your own words and structures.


How to write a summary of a short piece of writing:

1. As you read, underline all the important points and and all the important evidence. For example, you could look for all the topic sentences.

2. List or cluster the main idea of the whole piece, the main supporting ideas, and the main evidence for each idea. Be careful to use your own words rather than copying or just rearranging. Do not include too much detail.

3. Change the order if necessary, so that the main idea comes first and is followed by the supporting ideas and evidence in a logical sequence. Omit any repetitions.

4. If the original uses 'I' replace this with the writer's actual surname, "the writer", or "s/he". If the original uses 'you', substitute "people" or "they".

5. You should now be ready to write the summary. Start with a sentence that a) identifies the writer and the piece of writing, for example by giving the writer's name, the title of the piece and where/when it appeared, and b) gives the main idea. Use transition words to join everything together.

For some model summaries, click here. All but one of them contain a link to the original passage.