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 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)

Let's Begin

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.

  1. 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):
    1. Romney's New New Thing
    2. Has AT&T Lost Its Mind?
    3. MacBook Err (Note the cute pun on the product's name)
  2. Look at the subtitle. If it's there, it's often an explanation of a catchy (but unclear) title—it makes things more specific:
    1. Romney's New New Thing His Mr. Fix-It Pitch—Do We Have A Winner?
    2. Has AT&T Lost Its Mind? A Baffling Proposal To Filter The Internet.
    3. MacBook Err Why I'm Disappointed In Apple's Ultraslim New Laptop.
  3. 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:
    1. 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.
    2. Closing: "I'm a sucker for products that look good, but there need to be some guts beneath the shiny skin."
  4. 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.)
    1. 'Shot in Arm'
    2. Tax relief
    3. Disappointment
  5. 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:
    1. Two pictures:
      1. Bush speaking, with the caption "Mr. Bush said the US needed help but was still strong"
      2. For Sale sign in front of a house, captioned "Economists fear a housing market slump will lead to a recession"
    2. Two pull-out quotations:
      1. "While I am confident in the long term, the short-term risks are to the downside" Henry Paulson, US Treasury Secretary
      2. "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.

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.

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).

  1. Go back to the copy you were reading and look at the places where you underlined important ideas and words.
  2. 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.
  3. 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.
  4. Now quickly write a summary based on what you remember of the text.
  5. 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.
  6. 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:

1 Dent, Stu. "English Works! Sample Article Summary." Academic Departments - Gallaudet University, 8 Mar. 2002, Accessed 19 Jan. 2008.

2 Boutin, Paul. "MacBook Err." Slate, 16 Jan. 2008, Accessed 19 Jan. 2008.

3 "Bush Calls for Economy Kick-start." Home of the BBC on the Internet, 18 Jan. 2008, Accessed 19 Jan. 2008.

4 Rawlins, Jack. The Writer's Way. 6th ed., Houghton Mifflin, 2008.