Part 3: Chapter 11
A summary is an accurate retelling in your own words of the main points or events from something you read, saw, or experienced.
For example, your friend asks you about the latest movie you saw and what it was about. You mention an interesting article to your instructor and they ask for a description. You probably responded with a shortened version of the plot of the movie or main points of the article. That is summary.
Summary is a useful tool for writers and can do the following:
Provide background information for your audience
Entertain your audience, or…
Persuade your audience by supporting a point you make.
When you write a summary, you will need to think about your audience and purpose. If you are writing a summary in order to provide background information, you will need to include the key ideas your audience needs to know in order to understand what follows the summary. If you are writing a summary for an annotated bibliography, you are writing to other researchers and also to your future self. You will need to include all the important information so that you can remember what that article was about when you pull all of your sources together for a larger writing project. Summarizing is also a comprehension aid, which forces you to read in-depth to understand a reading.
A summary usually has most, if not all, of the following features:
Accurately and objectively presents the author’s main points or findings
One feature that distinguishes summary from other genres is that it only includes the main points or events of the text you are summarizing. If you are summarizing an argument, you might ask: What is the author’s thesis or main idea? What are their supporting claims or points? If you are summarizing a story or fictional work, you might include the main events or ideas. In order to keep your summary concise, leave out minor or unimportant details.
In addition, you should try to present the author’s ideas accurately and objectively, even if you disagree with the author. Because you are the go-between for the author and your audience, you should consider what your responsibility is to both. Set aside personal commentary or analysis so that readers don’t confuse your ideas with the author’s ideas.
Uses your own words and phrases
- Talking about a word as a word: Use italics. For example, “Rodriguez repeatedly uses the word zeitgeist to describe what drove his creative process.”
- Using a direct quote or characteristic word: Place in quotation marks. For example: Rodriguez writes that he was driven by “the haunted zeitgeist” of his generation. (Notice how this is still my summary, but I’ve put quotes around a phrase I found especially important or powerful. Be careful not to over-quote, as that defeats the purpose of a summary.)
Summarizes main ideas or events in the same order as they were presented in the original article, story, or text
In general, a summary presents main ideas or events in the same order that they appeared in the original author’s work. This helps give your audience an accurate understanding of the author’s work and avoids confusing them. For example, if you were summarizing an argument, the author has probably stated their thesis, then their supporting points, and their conclusion. A summary of that argument, then, would concisely state their thesis, supporting points, and conclusion in the same order. As always, you will have to use your judgment as there can be exceptions. For example, if a thesis is implied it would be up to you to decide where to include it in your summary. But, for starters, going in the same order as the author is a good rule of thumb
A summary also often has the following features:
- Includes an opening line that states the title, author, and genre of the text (aka a “TAG”). For example, if I were summarizing Jurassic Park, my first sentence might read: “In the action film Jurassic Park, produced by Stephen Spielberg, dinosaurs are brought back to life with disastrous consequences.”
- Title: Jurassic Park
- Genre: Action Film
- Author (in this case producer): Steven Spielberg
- Uses signal phrases (and possibly citations) to remind the reader you are summarizing someone else’s work or reporting someone else’s findings. For example, “The author states…” or “In the article…”
- Uses transitions (Next, then, as a result) to help the reader understand the order of ideas or events and how they are connected.
- Uses present tense (The author states…The author writes…) unless it is illogical to do so.
- Example: The author states that in his childhood he had a red wagon named Rosebud.
- Think of it this way—the text you are summarizing still exists, so the author is still essentially speaking in the present. However, events or occurrences from the past should be reported as happening in the past.
- Uses neutral, non-biased language while avoiding conversational language.
Summary: An Example
In this section, you will find an example of a one-paragraph summary. The full article that is being summarized can be found at the end of this chapter.
Example Summary of “Universal Health Care Coverage for the United States”
In the article, “Universal Health Care Coverage for the United States,” the writer argues that U.S. citizens should see health care as a universal right instead of something based on income or wealth. The author points out that, although there are concerns that universal health care (UHC) will increase tax-payer costs, there has been little investigation into what the actual cost would be compared to the current cost of insurance premiums. In addition, the author feels that the current system does not align with current U.S. values such as love and compassion because hospitals sometimes have to turn away the uninsured. The article challenges the argument that UHC systems in other European countries have proven that a UHC is too problematic, due to high costs and long waits to see a doctor. The article instead points out that the current U.S. health system has similar complaints. Finally, the author observes that even wealthy and insured families are not protected from healthcare costs. If a required treatment is not covered by a family’s policy, they must pay out-of-pocket which can be a severe financial burden. The author believes that this is another reason readers should contact their representative and request a UHC system. In conclusion, the author states that Americans should consider health care a right, similar to public education and access to police services.
This summary mostly uses neutral language and retains only the main ideas from the article. The writer leaves out their personal response and attempts to accurately convey the original author’s main point and everything the audience needs to understand the argument. In addition, they include a “TAG” in their opening sentence, and use signal words and transitions to lead readers through their summary. Because there is no author for the article, the signal phrases use “the writer” or “the author.” Typically, however, a summary would refer to the writer by their last name.
Summaries can be any length—the length will vary depending on your audience, purpose, and, possibly, the length of the work you are summarizing. Here you can see the same summary as above, compressed into one sentence and used in a paragraph.
Summary Used in a Paragraph
Universal health care has been a controversial topic in the US in recent years and there are many sides to the issue. In the article “Universal Health Care Coverage for the United States,” one writer argues that U.S. citizens should see healthcare as a universal right. Meanwhile, other commentators feel that such an approach is impractical (Baum). These attitudes, and countless other examples, provide a glimpse of the many perspectives on the topic.
The highlighted sentence summarizes the article. Here, you can see how the summary is used to support the author’s point—to illustrate that “Universal health care has been a controversial topic in the US in recent years and there are many sides to the issue.”
What follows is the article summarized above. We’ve included it here for context.
Writing a Summary: Some Tips
Like most writing tasks, everyone has their own way of summarizing information. In fact, if you search for “how to write a summary,” you will likely find many, many tutorials. The key idea to keep in mind is your audience and purpose. What do they need to know? How can I organize my work to make the most sense for them? What tone would be the most appropriate? However, if you are looking for some guidance, here is one way to begin:
- First, read the text.Try to use active reading strategies as you go.This will make it easier to identify the text’s main points.
- Make a list of the text’s main points in your own words and phrases. This will require you to read the text agin.
- Use your list to write a summary of the text in your own words. Write in complete sentences and present the main points in the same order they appeared in the text. Remember to include an opening sentence where you state the title, author, and genre of the text you are summarizing and any other relevant features.
- Revise, edit, and proofread your summary.
- Did you include all the main events or ideas?
- Did you omit unnecessary details or personal commentary? Are main ideas and events presented accurately(i.e. they have not been misunderstood or distorted)?
- Do you include signal phrases (for example, “the article explains…” The author states…”) to remind the reader that you are summarizing or paraphrasing an idea from the reading or article?
- Did you use your own words? (not copied from text)
- Extras: Did you use a TAG in your opening sentence? Did you use transition words to connect your sentence and paragraphs? Did you use present tense or appropriate verb tenses throughout? Did you use complete sentences with standard punctuation, syntax, and grammar usage?