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.)
Remember to summarize the text you have read. Use the following tips:
- Shorten the text in such a way that all facts are in the summary. Leave out examples, evaluations and interpretations.
- Skim the text. You should know what is the main content of it. Read the headline carefully.
- Read the text again to understand more details. You must have understood the whole text.
- Make notes (use keywords). Underline important words in the text.
- Form sentences with the help of your keywords. These sentences should reflect the main content of the text.
- Connect the sentences using suitable conjunctions. The first sentence should describe the main content of the text.
- Use Simple Present or Simple Past. Write sentences in Reported speech.
- Sometimes you have to change the persons.
- Check your summary. Watch out for spelling mistakes.
Process and Hints to Summary Writing
One major challenge with summary writing is deciding what to include and what to leave out. A bit of instruction on the process to follow, along with useful techniques, will have you writing expert summaries in no time.
- Read the text for understanding, without editing. Make sure you understand the content, including major and minor sections, as well as the overlying message being conveyed. Look closely at topic sentences and key words repeated throughout.
- Read through the material and cross out non-vital information. Underline what you believe to be the most important points, even if those points are words or phrases.
- Write your summary in your own words. Follow both the organization of the original as well as its tone, though you need to make sure your own point of view is purely objective (reporting content of the text, only). Opinions should not appear in a summary. Any words or phrases from the original need to be properly documented and punctuated.
- Your summary should be 15 to 20% the length of the original.
- Be sure to go back when you’ve finished your summary and compare it to the original for accuracy.
Summary Writing Format
- When writing a summary, remember that it should be in the form of a paragraph.
- A summary begins with an introductory sentence that states the text’s title, author and main point of the text as you see it.
- A summary is written in your own words.
- A summary contains only the ideas of the original text. Do not insert any of your own opinions, interpretations, deductions or comments into a summary.
- Identify in order the significant sub-claims the author uses to defend the main point.
- Copy word-for-word three separate passages from the essay that you think support and/or defend the main point of the essay as you see it.
- Cite each passage by first signaling the work and the author, put “quotation marks” around the passage you chose, and put the number of the paragraph where the passages can be found immediately after the passage.
- Using source material from the essay is important. Why? Because defending claims with source material is what you will be asked to do when writing papers for your college professors.
- Write a last sentence that “wraps” up your summary; often a simple rephrasing of the main point.
Example Summary Writing Format
In the essay Santa Ana, author Joan Didion’s main point is (state main point). According to Didion “…passage 1…” (para.3). Didion also writes “…passage 2…” (para.8). Finally, she states “…passage 3…” (para. 12) Write a last sentence that “wraps” up your summary; often a simple rephrasing of the main point.
When Should You Summarize an Article?
There are a few instances when you might want to summarize an article. These are:
- To show how an author’s ideas support your argument
- To argue against the author’s ideas
- To condense a lot of information into a small space
- To increase your understanding of an article
Effective and Ineffective Summaries
“For nearly 1,400 years Islam, though diverse in sectarian practice and ethnic tradition, has provided a unifying faith for peoples stretching from the Atlantic to the Indian Ocean and beyond. Starting in the 1500s, Western ascendancy, which culminated in colonization, eroded once glorious Muslim empires and reduced the influence of Islam. After the breakup of the Ottoman Empire following World War I and the decline of European colonial empires following World War II, Muslim nations adopted Western ideologies–communism, socialism, secular nationalism, and capitalism. Yet most Muslims remained poor and powerless. Their governments, secular regimes often backed by the West, were corrupt and repressive” (Belt 78).
Belt, Don. “The World of Islam.” National Geographic. January 2002: 76-85. Print.
Despite Western-style governments, Muslim countries are mired in deep poverty and radical governments. This despite the fact that the religion has existed for several centuries. European colonization ruined the Islamic religion for a long time. You would find it hard to imagine how many Muslims there really are out there.
- does not follow the order of information found in the original
- the phrase “several centuries” minimizes the historic significance of the religion
- sentence-level problems like “mired,” “you would,” and “out there” change the formal tone of the original to a biased, informal representation
- it is approximately half the length of the original, which is too long
- no credit is given to the original source
For almost 1,500 years, Islam has united people globally. Western interference, through colonization and political ideologies, has not improved Muslims’ lives (Belt 78).
- follows the order of the original
- maintains the original tone
- is approximately 20% of the original’s length
- is properly documented and punctuated
How to Quote the Author of an Article
When you refer to the author for the first time, you always use their full name. When you refer to the author after that, you always use their last name. The following examples show how to use the author’s name in an article summary after you have already introduced them.
Johnson comments …
According to Wood’s perspective …
As Jones implies in the story about …
In conclusion, Kessler elaborates about …
You don’t need to use an author’s title (Dr., Professor, or Mr. and Mrs.), but it does help to add their credentials to show they are an authoritative source. The sentences below show ways to do this.
In “Global Warming isn’t Real,” Steven Collins, a professor at the University of Michigan, claims that …
New York Times critic Johann Bachman argues in “Global Warming is the Next Best Thing for the Earth” that …
If you are discussing the ideas of the author, you always need to make it clear that you are reciting their ideas, not your own.
How to Introduce the Ideas of the Author in an Article Summary
- Use author tags
- Use mentions of “the article” or “the text”
- Add the page number that the information is found on in parenthesis at the end of the sentence
Using Author Tags
In writing your summary, you need to clearly state the name of the author and the name of the article, essay, book, or other source. The sentence below is a great example of how to do this.
According to Mary Johnson in her essay, “Cats Make Good Pets,” the feline domestic companion is far superior to the canine one.
You also need to continue to make it clear to the reader when you are talking about the author’s ideas. To do this, use “author tags,” which are either the last name of the author or a pronoun (he or she) to show you are still discussing that person’s ideas.
Also, try to make use of different verbs and adverbs. Your choice of author tag verbs and adverbs can contribute to the way you analyze the article. Certain words will create a specific tone. See the tables for a selection of different word choices.
List of Author Tags
Helps us understand
Presents the idea
Creates the impression
How Long Is a Summary of an Article?
The length of an article summary will depend on the length of the article you are writing about.
If the article is long (say, 10-12 pages) then your summary should be about four pages. If the article is shorter, your summary should be about one to two pages. Sometimes, an article summary can be less than one page.
The length of a summary will also depend on the instructions you have been given. If you are writing a summary for yourself, it’s up to you how long or short it will be (but remember, a summary is supposed to be a short regurgitation of the information outline in an article). If you are writing a summary for a class assignment, the length should be specified.
Example Summary Paragraph
The following paragraph is an example of a one-paragraph summary of an article.
In “My Favorite Shoe,” Treyvon Jones explains that Nike shoes are the best brand of running shoe for serious track athletes. Jones supports this view by pointing out that Nike shoes are more comfortable, last longer, and provide more cushioning for the feet. He notes that the statistics from sales and scientific evidence of how Nike shoes are better for the feet support his claim. In addition, Jones points out that most professional runners use Nike and he tells his own story of how he won the 100-meter men’s competition after switching to Nike shoes.
Below is a template showing the components of a great summary.
Part of Summary
In “My Favorite Shoe,” Treyvon Jones explains (insert main idea).
Jones supports this view by pointing out (insert author’s supporting arguments).
In addition, (insert author’s overarching argument and point).