Writing a Summary

In the world outside of English classes, you will run into summaries in several places:

In addition, many college instructors assign summaries to ensure that the student has truly understood the reading material.

In a summary (also referred to as a précis or an abstract), you reduce material in an original work to its main ideas and key supporting points. Unlike an outline, however, a summary does not use symbols such as I, II, A, 1, and so on to indicate the relationships among parts of the original material.

A summary may be a word, a phrase, several sentences, or one or more paragraphs in length. The length of the summary you prepare will depend on your instructor's expectations and the length of the original work. Most often, you will be asked to write a summary of one or more paragraphs.

Writing a summary brings together a number of important reading, study, and writing skills. To condense the original matter, you must preview, read, evaluate, organize, and perhaps outline the material. Summarizing, then, can be a real aid to understanding; you must "get inside" the material and realize fully what is being said before you can reduce its meaning to a few words.

How to Summarize an Article

To write a summary of an article, follow the steps described below If the assigned material is a TV show or film, adapt the suggestions accordingly.

  1. Take a few minutes to preview the work. You can preview an article in a magazine by taking a quick look at the following.
    1. Title: The title often summarizes what the article is about. Think about the title for a minute and how it may condense the meaning of an article.
    2. Subtitle: A subtitle, if given, is a short summary appearing under or next to the title. For example, in a Newsweek article titled "Splitting Up the Family," the following caption appeared: "The courts are changing rules of divorce and child custody—and often making things worse." The subtitle, the caption, or any other words in large print under or next to the title often provide a quick insight into the meaning of an article.
    3. First and last several paragraphs: In the opening paragraphs, the author may introduce the subject and state the purpose of the article. In the closing paragraphs, the writer may present conclusions or a summary. In either case, you get a quick overview of what the entire article is about.
    4. Other items: Note any headings or subheadings that appear in the article. They often provide clues to the main points and give an immediate sense of the content of each section. Look carefully at any pictures, charts, or diagrams that accompany the article. Page space in a magazine or journal is limited, and such visual aids are generally used only when they help illustrate important points in the article. Note any words or phrases set off in italic type or boldface type; such words have probably been emphasized because they deal with important points.
  2. Quickly read the article for a general understanding the first time through. Do not slow down or turn back. Mark off what seem to be main ideas and key supporting points. Pay special attention to all the items noted in the preview. Look for major enumerations (lists of items), since these often indicate key ideas. Also, try to identify important information by turning headings and subheadings into questions and by reading to find the answers to the questions.
  3. Go back and reread more carefully the areas you have identified as most important. Also, focus on other key points you may have missed in your first reading.
  4. Keep the following items in mind when working on the rough drafts of your summary.
    1. Express the author's ideas in your own words. Do not imitate or stay too close to the style of the original work. You cannot write a good summary by simply copying the original and deleting words.
    2. Do not write an overly detailed summary. Remember that the purpose of a summary is to reduce the original material to its main ideas and essential supporting points. A paragraph summary should be between 150 and 200 words in length.
    3. Do not begin your sentences with expressions like "the author says"; equally important, do not introduce your own opinions into the summary with comments like "another good point made by the author." Instead, concentrate on presenting the author's main ideas directly and briefly.
    4. Preserve the balance and proportion of the original work. If the original devoted 70 percent of its space to one idea and only 30 percent to another, your summary should reflect that emphasis.
    5. As you work on the summary, pay attention to the principles of effective writing (unity, support, coherence, and clear, error-free sentences).

Some general considerations

A Model Summary

In "Breaking the Divorce Cycle" (Newsweek, January 13, 1992), Barbara Kantrowitz reports on the first generation of children who have seen widespread divorce and who are now adults. Still carrying wounds from their childhood traumas, they often have difficulties with their own love relationships. Reports show that they are more likely than children of intact families to fear commitment and to have troubled relationships and broken marriages. Social scientists aren't sure whether these adjustment problems stem from the unhappy parental relationship before the divorce, the divorce experience itself, the economic decline following the divorce, or life in a single-parent family. In addition, there seems to be no way to predict how well children of divorce will do as adults. Some factors, however, have been identified as having a positive influence. One is having had a parent with a strong positive attitude. Another is having had parents who continued to communicate with each other about their children and to share parenting decisions. For whatever reasons, some adult children of divorce have managed to overcome their childhood pain and somehow learn from their parents' mistakes. These are the adults who have ended up with the independence and maturity to build a strong marriage of their own.

(204 words)


The views and opinions expressed in this page are strictly those of the page author.

The contents of this page have not been reviewed or approved by Ashland University.

Revised 1/8/22 • Page author: Curtis Allen • e-mail: callen@ashland.edu.