The first three chapters in this section of Reading and Writing Successfully in College provide guidance for locating and evaluating sources. The rest of this section provides guidance for using the sources you have located. All of this guidance assumes that you understand the sources you are trying to use. If you don’t, review Part 1: Successful College Reading for reading techniques and/or talk with a classmate, your professor, or a tutor for help.

A summary is, by definition, a condensed version of the original. It’s shorter, and it must focus on the original’s main point(s) to be accurate.

Summaries vary in length. Some will be very short, even just a phrase. For example, if I write, “A coming-of-age story set in a fictional Southern town, To Kill a Mockingbird explores issues of racism and discrimination,” the phrase “a coming-of-age story set in a fictional Southern town” is a kind of summary. It doesn’t provide any details at all, but it still encapsulates the book. Notice that the idea that the book takes up issues of racism and discrimination is not a summary. That’s an interpretation.

Some summaries will be long. For example, in graduate school, I was asked to write 500-word summaries of major theories of literary criticism. In academic settings, professors sometimes assign long summaries to make sure that you understand the texts that you are working with, which is exactly what my graduate instructor wanted.

More often, though, summaries are somewhere in between. Writers summarize in order to make sure our readers understand the text in the same way we do. To accomplish this, our summaries need to be honest. From a sentence or two to a paragraph, writers usually offer summaries to make sure that reader and writer are on the same page, metaphorically speaking, before the writer uses the source to support their own work.

To write a summary well, we cannot misrepresent the ideas in a text, either by accident or on purpose, nor can we write a summary as if a minor point is the central idea of a text. Even if we are going to argue with an author’s points, the summary must accurately represent the ideas in the original.

Using Summaries to Improve Your Understanding

Writing a summary can help you better understand the material that you are reading. Whether you write summary annotations in the margins of your textbook or write summary paragraphs for every reading, summarizing can help you by clarifying what is really important in a reading—even if you aren’t going to write about it.

Honest summaries start with careful reading. You won’t be able to summarize well if you don’t understand what you are reading. Once you have a good understanding, you’ll be able to write a good summary.

Activity: Writing a Summary

The following activity will help you write a successful summary that covers the entire text. This activity assumes that you have carefully read the text and that you understand it.

  1. Divide the text into sections. Sometimes those sections are marked for you by headings or extra spaces between paragraphs. If they aren’t, look especially for transitions that indicate contrast or sequence, which frequently indicate a shift in focus. Don’t worry about getting these sections “right”; instead, make sure that you understand why you are grouping those particular paragraphs together.
  2. For each section, determine the main point of that section. Separate that point from examples, counterarguments, and subordinate points. Write a one- or two-sentence summary of each section, focusing on that point.
  3. Write a one- or two-sentence summary of the entire piece based on your understanding of the whole text. It can help to read over the sentences you have written in Step 2.
  4. Check your high-level summary (Step 3) against the original text. Are you accurately representing the author’s main idea? If not, revise your overall summary sentence.
  5. Consider the length of summary that you need. Do you just need a sentence or two? If so, the work you did in Steps 3 and 4 should probably serve you well. If you need a longer summary, though, keep going!
  6. Combine your summary of the entire piece with your section summaries into a paragraph (or more, depending on how long the original is). As you combine these sentences, eliminate repetition and details that you don’t need.
  7. Check what you have written against the original text. Are you accurately representing the author’s ideas? If not, revise your summary to increase your accuracy.
  8. Consider length again. If you need a shorter summary than your draft, look for details or more minor points that you can eliminate. If you need a longer summary, go back to the original for additional details or even examples.

Writing Strong Summaries

Here are some tips for writing good summaries:

  • Be sure to refer to the author as you write your summary. A good rule of thumb is to reference the author by name at or near the beginning of your summary, and then to reference them at least one more time in every summary paragraph. This practice reminds your reader that the ideas you are describing are not your ideas.
  • In general, don’t quote in summaries unless the quotations are very short or the summary is long (more than a page). Quotations require a lot of extra material and are usually too specific to be useful in summaries. In addition, quoting gets in the way of your comprehension of the text since you are relying on the author’s words instead of your understanding.
  • If there is an introductory narrative, skip (or at least minimize) that as you write your summary. These introductory narratives are usually a way to draw the reader in. They hint at the main point, but they rarely spell that point out. Moreover, you can end up spending far too much time summarizing that narrative and miss the main point entirely.

You should be able to summarize every source that you use, even if you aren’t required to write a summary. If you can summarize a text successfully, you both understand that text and you are able to put it into your own words.

Key Points: Summarizing

  • A summary condenses a text, so it is always shorter than the original, though the summary itself can be very short, somewhat long, or in between.
  • Summaries identify the main point of a text and provide as much information about the supporting points and specific examples as the writer (and reader) need, given the purpose of the summary.
  • An effective way to write an accurate summary is to divide a text up into sections, summarize each of those sections, and combine those smaller summaries with a statement summarizing the overall point of the text.
  • When you write a summary, be sure to refer to the author’s name so that your reader knows which ideas belong to you and which belong to the author.
  • Generally, you won’t quote in summaries, except for very short quotations.




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Reading and Writing Successfully in College: A Guide for Students Copyright © 2023 by Patricia Lynne is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

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