How to write a summary
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.
You may be used to reading English in order to answer questions set by someone else. In that case, you probably read the questions first and then read the passage in order to find the correct answer. However, when you read in order to write a summary, you must read in order to decide for yourself what the main points are. This involves reading to understand the message that the writer has for the reader, rather than reading in order to get the correct answer to someone else's questions. Since people have different backgrounds and read for different purposes, it is possible that different readers will interpret a writer's message in different ways. Even if they agree, they will probably write their summaries in different ways. In other words, there is unlikely to be only one "correct" summary. On the other hand, to write a summary it is necessary to understand a passage as a whole, and therefore at a deeper level, than when one's purpose is just to answer questions.
When are summaries used?
1. In general terms, writing summaries is a good way of improving one's ability to read because it forces the reader to focus on understanding the whole of something rather than on just following each word or sentence.
2. In academic terms:
a) 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.)
b) 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. Words that are repeated several times are likely to be keywords. Transition words can help understanding of the overall structure of a passage.
2. List or cluster the main idea of the whole piece, the main supporting ideas, and the main evidence for each idea. Use of the same keywords or technical expressions is probably unavoidable. However, be careful to express the ideas in your own way, using your own vocabulary and expressions as much as possible, rather than copying or just rearranging. Do not include too much detail.
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. A reference should be made to the original piece either in the title ("A Summary of..."), in the first sentence, or in a footnote or endnote.
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 of an essay 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. (A good summary of a chapter should probably include the main idea of each group of paragraphs or each section; a good summary of a book should probably include the main idea of each chapter, or perhaps the main idea of each section of each chapter.)
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. If there is a word or words that are repeated throughout the passage, this is likely to be related to the topic.
Transition words and phrases should help you to understand how the piece is joined together. The main idea should be in the first or second paragraph, probably in a thesis statement at the end of the paragraph, or in the concluding paragraph. (You could look out for the 5Ws - What?, Which?, Who?, Where?, When?, Why? - and the 1H - How?)
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. In other words, try to find your own way of expressing the writer's ideas. Of course, you can use key words or phrases. (For example, if the piece of writing is about digital technology, it is fine to use key technical words that are in the original, such as "digital technology", "binary digit" or "analog".) 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.