How to Write a Summary
Writing a summary is surprisingly difficult, but very useful to help you understand what a source document really says. To get some cobwebs out of the way, here are a few things that a summary is NOT:
- A summary is not an outline. It's a paragraph or two that presents the original in highly-condensed form.
- A summary is not an evaluation. Someone who loves the source document should produce about the same summary as someone who hates it. Do not include such phrases as:
- "I really liked this point."
- "The author did a good job."
- "The author was wrong."
- A summary is not a daisy chain. It has structure. It won't sound like: "First he said this, then this, then this, then this, then this, then this, then this."
- A summary is not a sentence-by-sentence translation of the original. You can't make one by simply knocking out a couple of extra adjectives (that produces a Reader's Digest condensation) or by finding shorter synonyms for longer words.
A Sample Summary
Summary: "Deaf President Named"
by Stu Dent
According to a March 14, 1988 news article in the Houston Post, "Deaf President Named," the selection of Gallaudet University President I. King Jordan was a joyous event for the campus community, which had long sought a deaf university president for the college.
In addition to Jordan's appointment, Gallaudet University Board of Trustees member Phillip W. Bravin, one of four deaf board members, was selected to replace Chair Jane Bassett Spilman. Spilman resigned from her position after criticism from protestors. According to Bravin, the trustees will establish a committee to ensure that the board has a majority of deaf members. Bravin also said that none of the demonstrators will be penalized for participating in the protest.
Jordan had at one point during the protest supported the selection of Elizabeth Ann Zinser, a hearing woman originally chosen by the Board of Trustees as Gallaudet University President. However, Jordan reversed his position the next day in support of the protest.1 (158 words)
Students often begin writing too soon; you can't summarize something you don't thoroughly understand, so set apart time to read the original more than once, find a dictionary, and get started. As you write, mark unfamiliar words so you can deal with them later.
- Look at the title. Professional writers and editors take a great deal of trouble to title their articles. Here are some examples from Slate (OK—these are from 2008, but that's a good thing because you must actually look at them. You won't be depending on what you saw on Fox last night):
- Romney's New New Thing
- Has AT&T Lost Its Mind?
- MacBook Err (Note the cute pun on the product's name)
- Look at the subtitle. If it's there, it's often an explanation of a catchy (but unclear) title—it makes things more specific:
- Romney's New New Thing His Mr. Fix-It Pitch—Do We Have A Winner?
- Has AT&T Lost Its Mind? A Baffling Proposal To Filter The Internet.
- MacBook Err Why I'm Disappointed In Apple's Ultraslim New Laptop.
- Pay attention to the beginning and the end. Professional writers set up the reader for the whole piece within the first few words and often deliver a final "punch" or wrap-up at the end. Here are examples from the MacBook article2:
- Opening: "Apple's new super-extra-ultraslim MacBook Air laptop is undeniably sexy. [. . .] But as I watched Steve Jobs demo his new products onstage at San Francisco's Moscone Center, I was struck by all the things you can't do with the MacBook Air.
- Closing: "I'm a sucker for products that look good, but there need to be some guts beneath the shiny skin."
- Look at running subheads. Those are the boldface words that sometimes break up an article. Here are the subheads from a recent BBC article3 titled "Bush Calls For Economy Kick-Start." (Notice that the third one is somewhat unexpected—when you read the article, you should be asking who is disappointed and why.)
- 'Shot in Arm'
- Tax relief
- Look at side material: pictures, sidebar articles, charts. All can give you a better idea of where the document is going. The BBC article includes:
- Two pictures:
- Bush speaking, with the caption "Mr. Bush said the US needed help but was still strong"
- For Sale sign in front of a house, captioned "Economists fear a housing market slump will lead to a recession"
- Two pull-out quotations:
- "While I am confident in the long term, the short-term risks are to the downside" Henry Paulson, US Treasury Secretary
- "At first blush it appears the news is a little less dramatic than people were hoping for" Peter Kenny, Knight Equity Markets
Time to Really Read
First reading: Try to get the whole thing in one sitting. Don't let unfamiliar vocabulary sabotage you: mark the word so you can look it up later in the dictionary. At this point, you're trying to figure out what the main point is and the support for that point.
- Worst thing you can do #1: Read when/where you're distracted, sleepy, or hurried.
- Worst thing you can do #2: Stop every few words to puzzle over words or ideas that you don't know—if you really want to foul yourself up, tell yourself that you need to remember all 3000 words of this piece.
- Worst thing you can do #3: Get in a fight with the author. Tell yourself the author is stupid and/or immoral and you are not going to let this article teach you anything.
- Worst thing you can do #4: Get out a highlight marker and mark all the stuff you really love—make whole pages turn pink.
Interlude: Get out a dictionary and look up all those words you marked in the previous step. Go beyond the first meaning, because sometimes an author is working with a secondary meaning or a nuance that isn't immediately obvious.
Second (and perhaps third) reading: This one is a bit slower and involves a conversation with the author.
- Ask structure questions. What's the real point (thesis) of this piece? What are the main sub-points? Is there a significant change in direction? This would be a good time to mark the "skeleton" of the piece—and often authors signal you with words such as "My first point is . . ." You're trying to see a pattern here.
- Ask what the author has emphasized. If the text includes italics or boldface type, pictures, or charts, ask yourself how these elements work with the content.
- Talk back. Write marginal comments. Ask questions. Point out places where other sources seem to agree or disagree. Ask yourself how the text applies to other situations—how the truth here can step outside the boundaries of this piece of writing..
Get Ready to Write
You don't want to write a line-by-line translation of the original; rather, you should aim at a coherent short essay that presents the original's ideas (but not necessarily language).
- Go back to the copy you were reading and look at the places where you underlined important ideas and words.
- Now turn the source document over so you can't see it and write down the main ideas as you remember them. These are probably the most important thoughts.
- Go back to the text and compare the list you just wrote with the material you underlined. Add to your list if you need to.
- Now quickly write a summary based on what you remember of the text.
- With your summary in one hand and the source material in the other, read through the original and compare it with your product. Note places where you need to make changes.
- Ask yourself if any BRIEF quotations of the source material would be appropriate. (If you quote more than five or ten words, you should seriously wonder whether you can sum up the author's language.)
Moving to a Final Draft
Jack Rawlins points out (P-7) that the magic number is seven: the human mind can only hold seven items at a time, so your summary can have only seven items, whether you're summarizing a short article or a long book.4 Your first draft will probably be too long, and it will probably have trouble deciding what's important enough to include. After you've written a nearly-final draft, your main task will be trimming: what's really important enough to include here?
As you finalize your summary, remember:
- The summary should have the same sequence and emphasis as the original. If the original ended with a discussion of the university's Board of Trustees members, your summary should too. If the original only briefly mentioned the iPhone, don't make the iPhone the cornerstone of your summary.
- The summary should read like a short essay, not a bullet list or an outline.
- The summary is written in your language, not the original author's. You cannot do this by copying, pasting, and then deleting.
- If you do choose to quote the original, do it right. Use the grammar handbook to learn how to introduce and punctuate a quotation. A direct quote must be the exact words of the source. Do not introduce your own errors or misspellings. Only introduce a direct quotation for a really good reason (and use only a very few words if you do it at all).
- Remember that this isn't an evaluation. Go through the summary and knock out all discussion of the author doing a good (or bad) job, how much you liked (or hated) this piece, and whether your reader should read the original.
- Knock out meaningless filler.
- We already know from your title and first few words that you've written a summary. You don't need to keep up a running commentary of "he said," "he also said," and "he claimed."
- While you're knocking out meaningless filler, take out all the dummy subjects ("It is," "There is" and "There are"). Rephrase without them and your summary will be tighter.
- Don't try to be a mind-reader. You have no way of knowing what the author was trying to say. All you can know is what the author said.
- "What the author was really trying to say was …" Many students are REALLY in love with this cliché (or its close relatives). It does nothing good: it's pompous, arrogant, wordy, and meaningless.
- Save your guess about what the author was really trying to say (if the poor author wasn't so ignorant or such a terrible writer) for a séance. Don't put it in an English paper.
1 Dent, Stu. "English Works! Sample Article Summary." Academic Departments - Gallaudet University, 8 Mar. 2002, depts.gallaudet.edu/englishworks/writing/DPNfinal.html. Accessed 19 Jan. 2008.
2 Boutin, Paul. "MacBook Err." Slate, 16 Jan. 2008, www.slate.com/id/2182227. Accessed 19 Jan. 2008.
3 "Bush Calls for Economy Kick-start." Home of the BBC on the Internet, 18 Jan. 2008, news.bbc.co.uk/2/hi/business/7196517.stm. Accessed 19 Jan. 2008.
4 Rawlins, Jack. The Writer's Way. 6th ed., Houghton Mifflin, 2008.