Guidelines for Writing a Summary — Hunter College

What strategies can help me avoid excessive summary?

Knowing how to summarize something you have read, seen, or heard is a valuable skill, one you have probably used in many writing assignments. It is important, though, to recognize when you must go beyond describing, explaining, and restating texts and offer a more complex analysis.

Not necessarily. But it’s important that your keep your assignment and your audience in mind as you write. If your assignment requires an argument with a thesis statement and supporting evidence—as many academic writing assignments do—then you should limit the amount of summary in your paper.

You might use summary to provide background, set the stage, or illustrate supporting evidence, but keep it very brief: a few sentences should do the trick. Most of your paper should focus on your argument. (Our handout on argument will help you construct a good one.)

Writing a summary of what you know about your topic before you start drafting your actual paper can sometimes be helpful. If you are unfamiliar with the material you’re analyzing, you may need to summarize what you’ve read in order to understand your reading and get your thoughts in order. Once you figure out what you know about a subject, it’s easier to decide what you want to argue.

You may also want to try some other pre-writing activities that can help you develop your own analysis. Outlining, freewriting, and mapping make it easier to get your thoughts on the page. (Check out our handout on brainstorming for some suggested techniques.)

Many writers rely too heavily on summary because it is what they can most easily write. If you’re stalled by a difficult writing prompt, summarizing the plot of The Great Gatsby may be more appealing than staring at the computer for three hours and wondering what to say about F.

Scott Fitzgerald’s use of color symbolism. After all, the plot is usually the easiest part of a work to understand. Something similar can happen even when what you are writing about has no plot: if you don’t really understand an author’s argument, it might seem easiest to just repeat what he or she said.

To write a more analytical paper, you may need to review the text or film you are writing about, with a focus on the elements that are relevant to your thesis. If possible, carefully consider your writing assignment before reading, viewing, or listening to the material about which you’ll be writing so that your encounter with the material will be more purposeful. (We offer a handout on reading towards writing.)

As you read through your essay, ask yourself the following questions:

  • Am I stating something that would be obvious to a reader or viewer?
  • Does my essay move through the plot, history, or author’s argument in chronological order, or in the exact same order the author used?
  • Am I simply describing what happens, where it happens, or whom it happens to?

A “yes” to any of these questions may be a sign that you are summarizing. If you answer yes to the questions below, though, it is a sign that your paper may have more analysis (which is usually a good thing):

  • Am I making an original argument about the text?
  • Have I arranged my evidence around my own points, rather than just following the author’s or plot’s order?
  • Am I explaining why or how an aspect of the text is significant?

Certain phrases are warning signs of summary. Keep an eye out for these:

  • “[This essay] is about…”
  • “[This book] is the story of…”
  • “[This author] writes about…”
  • “[This movie] is set in…”

Here’s an example of an introductory paragraph containing unnecessary summary. Sentences that summarize are in italics:

    The Great Gatsby is the story of a mysterious millionaire, Jay Gatsby, who lives alone on an island in New York. F. Scott Fitzgerald wrote the book, but the narrator is Nick Carraway. Nick is Gatsby’s neighbor, and he chronicles the story of Gatsby and his circle of friends, beginning with his introduction to the strange man and ending with Gatsby’s tragic death. In the story, Nick describes his environment through various colors, including green, white, and grey. Whereas white and grey symbolize false purity and decay respectively, the color green offers a symbol of hope.

Here’s how you might change the paragraph to make it a more effective introduction:

    In The Great Gatsby, F. Scott Fitzgerald provides readers with detailed descriptions of the area surrounding East Egg, New York. In fact, Nick Carraway’s narration describes the setting with as much detail as the characters in the book. Nick’s description of the colors in his environment presents the book’s themes, symbolizing significant aspects of the post-World War I era. Whereas white and grey symbolize the false purity and decay of the 1920s, the color green offers a symbol of hope.

This version of the paragraph mentions the book’s title, author, setting, and narrator so that the reader is reminded of the text. And that sounds a lot like summary—but the paragraph quickly moves on to the writer’s own main topic:

Analysis requires breaking something—like a story, poem, play, theory, or argument—into parts so you can understand how those parts work together to make the whole. Ideally, you should begin to analyze a work as you read or view it instead of waiting until after you’re done—it may help you to jot down some notes as you read.

Your notes can be about major themes or ideas you notice, as well as anything that intrigues, puzzles, excites, or irritates you. Remember, analytic writing goes beyond the obvious to discuss questions of how and why—so ask yourself those questions as you read.

The St. Martin’s Handbook (the bulleted material below is quoted from p. 38 of the fifth edition) encourages readers to take the following steps in order to analyze a text:

  • Identify evidence that supports or illustrates the main point or theme as well as anything that seems to contradict it.
  • Consider the relationship between the words and the visuals in the work. Are they well integrated, or are they sometimes at odds with one another? What functions do the visuals serve? To capture attention? To provide more detailed information or illustration? To appeal to readers’ emotions?
  • Decide whether the sources used are trustworthy.
  • Identify the work’s underlying assumptions about the subject, as well as any biases it reveals.

Once you have written a draft, some questions you might want to ask yourself about your writing are “What’s my point?” or “What am I arguing in this paper?” If you can’t answer these questions, then you haven’t gone beyond summarizing.

  • Read the assignment (the prompt) as soon as you get it. Make sure to reread it before you start writing. Go back to your assignment often while you write. (Check out our handout on reading assignments).
  • Formulate an argument (including a good thesis) and be sure that your final draft is structured around it, including aspects of the plot, story, history, background, etc. only as evidence for your argument. (You can refer to our handout on constructing thesis statements).
  • Read critically—imagine having a dialogue with the work you are discussing. What parts do you agree with? What parts do you disagree with? What questions do you have about the work? Does it remind you of other works you’ve seen?
  • Make sure you have clear topic sentences that make arguments in support of your thesis statement. (Read our handout on paragraph development if you want to work on writing strong paragraphs).
  • Use two different highlighters to mark your paper. With one color, highlight areas of summary or description. With the other, highlight areas of analysis. For many college papers, it’s a good idea to have lots of analysis and minimal summary/description.
  • Ask yourself: What part of the essay would be obvious to a reader/viewer of the work being discussed? What parts (words, sentences, paragraphs) of the essay could be deleted without loss? In most cases, your paper should focus on points that are essential and that will be interesting to people who have already read or seen the work you are writing about.

That depends. If you’re writing a critique of a piece of literature, a film, or a dramatic performance, you don’t necessarily need to give away much of the plot. The point is to let readers decide whether they want to enjoy it for themselves. If you do summarize, keep your summary brief and to the point.

Instead of telling your readers that the play, book, or film was “boring,” “interesting,” or “really good,” tell them specifically what parts of the work you’re talking about. It’s also important that you go beyond adjectives and explain how the work achieved its effect (how was it interesting?

If you’re writing a review of an academic book or article, it may be important for you to summarize the main ideas and give an overview of the organization so your readers can decide whether it is relevant to their specific research interests.

If you are unsure how much (if any) summary a particular assignment requires, ask your instructor for guidance.

Writing the Summary
Essay:

A summary essay should
be organized so that others can understand the source or evaluate your
comprehension of it.  The following format works well: 

Introduction
(usually one paragraph)

1.    Contains a
one-sentence thesis statement that sums up the main point of the source.
�� This thesis statement is not your main
point; it is the main point of your source. Usually,
though, you have to write this statement rather than quote it from the source text.  It is a one-sentence
summary of the entire text that your essay ����������� summarizes.

2.    Also introduces the text to be
summarized:
(i) Gives the title of the source (following the
citation guidelines of whatever style sheet you are using);
(ii)  Provides the name of the author of the source;
(ii) 
Sometimes also provides pertinent background information about the author of the
source or about the text to be summarized.
The introduction should not offer your
own opinions or evaluation of the text you are summarizing.
 

Body (one or more
paragraphs):
This paraphrases and condenses the
original piece.  In your summary, be sure that
you:

1.     Include important data but omit
minor points;
2.     Include one or more of the author�s examples or
illustrations (these will bring your summary
to life);
3.     Do not include your own ideas, illustrations,
metaphors, or interpretations.  Look 
upon
yourself as a summarizing machine; you are simply repeating what the source
text says, in fewer words and ����������� in
your own words.  But the fact that you are using your own words does
not mean that you are including your own
ideas. 

Conclusion

There is customarily
no conclusion to a summary essay.


�����������
When you have summarized
the source text, your summary essay is finished.  Do not add your own
concluding ����������� paragraph unless
your teacher specifically tells you to.


Characteristics:

   
Summaries identify the source of original text.

   
Summaries demonstrate your understanding of a
text’s subject matter.

   
Summaries are shorter (at least 60% shorter)  than the original text—they omit the original text’s
«examples, asides, analogies, and rhetorical strategies.

   
Summaries differ from paraphrases—paraphrases
more closely follow the original text’s presentation (they still use your
words, but they are longer than summaries).

   
Summaries focus exclusively on the presentation
of the writer’s main ideas—they do not include your interpretations or
opinions.

   
Summaries normally are written in your own
words—they do not contain extended quotes or paraphrases.

   
Summaries rely on the use of standard signal
phrases («According to the author…»; «The author believes…«; etc.).

Tips on Writing
Summaries

Step One (Prewriting):

Read the article quickly.

Try to get a sense of the article’s
general focus and content.

Step Two (Drafting):

Restate the article’s thesis simply
and in your own words.

Restate each paragraph’s topic
simply and in your own words.

Step Three (Revising):

Combine sentences in Step Two to
form your summary; organize your summary sentences in the same order as the
main ideas in the original text.

Edit very carefully for neatness
and correctness.

A summary of a thesis is like an abstract of a research paper. Basically, the purpose of the summary is to give the reader an overview of the main points of your thesis. The summary should include the following points:

  • What is the thesis about?
  • What is the purpose of the thesis?
  • What were the methods used to research the information?
  • What are the results, conclusions, and recommendations that the thesis presents?

Generally, the summary is about 200-350 words long, but you should verify this with your supervisor. Also, it generally follows an introduction-body-conclusion structure. 

Related reading:

The basics of converting your PhD thesis into journal articles

Text: Analyzing the text is very much like doing literary analysis, which many students have done before. Use all of your tools of literary analysis, including looking at the metaphors, rhythm of sentences, construction of arguments, tone, style, and use of language. Example:

The organization of «essay title» is effective/ineffective because ___________ . The essay’s opening causes the reader to ___________ . The essay’s style is ___________ and the tone is shown by ___________ . The language used is___________ . The essay’s argument is constructed logically/illogically by ___________. The essay is organized by ___________ (give a very brief description of the structure of the essay, perhaps telling where the description of the problem is, where claims are made, and where support is located—in which paragraphs—and why this is effective or ineffective in proving the point).

Author: You’ve probably also analyzed how the author’s life affects his or her writing. You can do the same for this sort of analysis. For example, in my sample reading the response about Michael Crichton’s «Let’s Stop Scaring Ourselves» article, students noted that the fact that Crichton is the author of doomsday thrillers like Andromeda Strain and Jurassic Park makes his argument that we shouldn’t pay much attention to current doomsday scenarios like global warming rather ironic. If you don’t know anything about the author, you can always do a quick Google Search to find out. Sample format:

The author establishes his/her authority by ___________ . The author’s bias is shown in ___________ . The author assumes an audience who ___________ . He/She establishes common ground with the audience by ___________ .

Reader: You can write this section by inferring who the intended reader is, as well as looking at the text from the viewpoint of other sorts of readers. For example,

Readers are interested in this issue because of the exigence of ___________. Constraints on the reader’s reaction are ___________. I think the reader would react to this argument by ___________. I think that the author’s ___________ is effective. ___________ is less effective because ___________ includes ___________. The support is adequate/inadequate and is relevant/irrelevant to the author’s claim.

Common Mistakes

– Including too much or too little information in your essay.

– Forgetting to cite quotations, so that the words of the original texts’ author looks like your own.

– Concentrating on insignificant details, examples, and anecdotes.

– Trying to interpret or explain what the author wanted to say in his or her work. You must give a concise overview of the source, not present your own interpretation.

Now that you have acquainted yourself with the basic summary essay writing tips and rules, you can check out our summary essay samples to link theory with practice.

Do and Don’t

Do
  • Do cite the author’s words if you need to use them. Otherwise, it may look like plagiarism.
  • Do write in present tense, even if the author of the original text has passed away a long time ago.
  • Do understand the original source completely. If you have doubts about the meaning of certain terms, clarify them before you start to write.
  • Do make sure you’ve said exactly what the author did when citing their words.
  • Do revise your paper when it’s ready. You may find a nice place to insert a new quotation, correct some mistakes, and make other improvements. You can also give your essay to a friend or a colleague to read to see if they can grasp the main idea of the source after reading your summary essay.
Don’t
  • Don’t include your own examples or interpretations in your paper. You literally need to repeat the information given in the original text, but in a shorter frame and in your own words.
  • Don’t insert any of your evaluations or judgments about the text. Your task is to summarize, not give a personal opinion.
  • Don’t try to grasp all of the ideas contained in the original text in your essay. Focus only on the most important points.
  • Don’t report on unnecessary details.
  • Don’t forget to include transitions to signal when you move to a new idea within the same paragraph.

Key Points to Consider

  1. One of the most important aspects about a summary essay is its connection to the source. Keep in mind that your interpretation of the source can mislead your readers or even distort the meaning of the original text.
  2. Your summary essay should serve as a substitute for the original source; by reading your summary essay, a reader should be able to develop an understanding of the original work.
  3. This type of essay is about summarizing the original text, not criticizing it.

Steps for Writing a Summary Essay

There are many instances in which you will have to write a summary. You may be assigned to write a one or two page summary of an article or reading, or you may be asked to include a brief summary of a text as part of a response paper or critique.

Also, you may write summaries of articles as part of the note-taking and planning process for a research paper, and you may want to include these summaries, or at least parts of them, in your paper. The writer of a research paper is especially dependent upon summary as a means of referring to source materials.

You may also summarize your own paper in an introduction in order to present a brief overview of the ideas you will discuss throughout the rest of the paper.

Depending on the length and complexity of the original text as well as your purpose in using summary, a summary can be relatively brief—a short paragraph or even a single sentence—or quite lengthy—several paragraphs or even an entire paper.

A good summary should be comprehensive, concise, coherent, and independent. These qualities are explained below:

  • A summary must be comprehensive: You should isolate all the important points in the original passage and note them down in a list. Review all the ideas on your list, and include in your summary all the ones that are indispensable to the author’s development of her/his thesis or main idea.
  • A summary must be concise: Eliminate repetitions in your list, even if the author restates the same points. Your summary should be considerably shorter than the source. You are hoping to create an overview; therefore, you need not include every repetition of a point or every supporting detail.
  • A summary must be coherent: It should make sense as a piece of writing in its own right; it should not merely be taken directly from your list of notes or sound like a disjointed collection of points.
  • A summary must be independent: You are not being asked to imitate the author of the text you are writing about. On the contrary, you are expected to maintain your own voice throughout the summary. Don’t simply quote the author; instead use your own words to express your understanding of what you have read. After all, your summary is based on your interpretation of the writer’s points or ideas. However, you should be careful not to create any misrepresentation or distortion by introducing comments or criticisms of your own.
  1. Thoroughly read and study the original text. When you read it, get a feeling for the author’s style, tone and mood, and try to identify the main ideas expressed.
  2. Divide the text into several sections, and sketch a rough outline. Breaking the text into several parts will make the material easier to grasp. Then read each part once more, but this time highlight some of the key points. Mark areas you want to refer to in your summary, as well as those that shouldn’t be included in your essay.
  3. When you have a clear understanding of the information in each part of the source, write down the main idea in each section in the form of a short overview.
  4. Write an introduction. It should briefly present the main ideas in the original text. The introduction should include the name of the author, the title of their work, and some background information about the author, if needed.
  5. In the main body paragraphs, state the ideas you’ve chosen while reading the text. Expand on them by including one or more examples from the original text. Include important information only and avoid describing minor, insignificant points.
  6. After you have summarized the main ideas in the original text, your essay is finished. A conclusion paragraph should be added if your teacher specifically tells you to include one.

You can write a summary essay on a scientific work, an interesting article, a novel, or a research paper. This type of essay can be on any subject. For example, you might want to write a summary essay on:

  • Catcher in the Rye (book)
  • Citizen Kane (film)
  • Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy (book)
  • Captain Fantastic (film)
  • Lord of the Rings (book)
  • Song of Two Humans (film)
  • Of Mice and Men (book)
  • Mad Max: Fury Road (film)
  • Moby Dick (book)
  • Ben Hurr (film)
  • For Whom the Bell Tolls by Ernest Hemingway
  • A movie by Ingmar Bergman
  • A novel by Jack London
  • The Critique of Pure Reason by Immanuel Kant
  • An article in The New York Times
  • A blog post of a famous journalist

Summarizing Longer Texts (more than ten pages)

  • Write a one-sentence summary of each paragraph.
  • Formulate a single sentence that summarizes the whole text.
  • Write a paragraph (or more): begin with the overall summary sentence and follow it with the paragraph summary sentences.
  • Rearrange and rewrite the paragraph to make it clear and concise, to eliminate repetition and relatively minor points, and to provide transitions. The final version should be a complete, unified, and coherent.
  • Outline the text. Break it down into its major sections—groups of paragraphs focused on a common topic—and list the main supporting points for each section.
  • Write a one or two sentence summary of each section.
  • Formulate a single sentence to summarize the whole text, looking at the author’s thesis or topic sentences as a guide.
  • Write a paragraph (or more): begin with the overall summary sentence and follow it with the section summary sentences.
  • Rewrite and rearrange your paragraph(s) as needed to make your writing clear and concise, to eliminate relatively minor or repetitious points, and to provide transitions. Make sure your summary includes all the major supporting points of each idea. The final version should be a complete, unified, and coherent.

Works consulted

We consulted these works while writing this handout. This is not a comprehensive list of resources on the handout’s topic, and we encourage you to do your own research to find the latest publications on this topic.

Please do not use this list as a model for the format of your own reference list, as it may not match the citation style you are using. For guidance on formatting citations, please see the UNC Libraries citation tutorial.

Barnet, Sylvan and William E. Cain. A Short Guide to Writing about Literature. 12th ed. New York: Pearson, 2011.

Corrigan, Timothy. A Short Guide to Writing About Film. 9th ed. New York: Pearson, 2014.

Lunsford, Andrea A. The St. Martin’s Handbook. 5th ed. Boston: Bedford/St. Martin’s, 2003.

Zinsser, William. On Writing Well. 6th ed. New York: Quill, 2001.

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