Summary Writing Tips

A summary presents the significant information found in a book, article, or other source. The summary will be primarily, if not totally, a paraphrase of the author's work-as such, it will contain few (if any) direct quotation. Often the summary writer will have to condense paragraphs or even chapters of analysis or discussion into a sentence or two. So one must have good reading and analytical thinking skills in order to accomplish this academic writing task.

Summaries usually appear in the context of larger works such as research papers or book reviews. Depending on the purpose of the summary and its relationship to the larger work, it may consist of just a few sentences, it may run for a paragraph or several paragraphs, or it may be divided by sections of analysis or discussion. When a summary occurs in a larger work, it is either cited informally in the text or footnoted.

The content of the summary will depend on:

1. The content of the source
2. The purpose of the assignment
3. The needs of the reader

The finished product should give the reader the essential information found in the source, but not give so much detail that it destroys the shape of the assignment. The following questions may help the writer discover important information in the source:

  • What is the author's thesis, hypothesis, or research purpose?
  • Why is the author investigating this problem?
  • What methods does the author use?
  • What are the author's main arguments or research results?
  • What conclusions does the author reach?
  • What implications (if any) of the research does the author discuss?
  • Of what use will this work be to the reader?

The questions follow roughly the same order that most scholarly articles and reports follow. The information may be presented in the same order that it is given in the source, or it may be summarized in some other way. But the arrangement of the material should be logical and easy for the reader to follow.

A Note of Caution

Many students plagiarize, unintentionally, when they summarize. You should not summarize material until you command of it is such that you can write a summary without looking at the source. If you summarize sentence by sentence, you run the risk of copying the sentence structure and ultimately the exact phrasing of the original.

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