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Reading & Writing Across Curriculum

Writing a Summary    

A summary is a short explanation of the main ideas in a text. Learning to summarize is a very important skill. When writing and responding to a text (essay, article, lecture, story, novel, or video), as you are often expected to do in college, you will be expected to summarize what you read, often in the introduction of each essay you write. It takes a careful reading of a text to write a good summary, and writing a good summary will illustrate your level of comprehension of a text.

When you write a summary, you are answering the question, “What was the essay (or article, or lecture, or story, or video) really about?” Summaries vary in length depending upon the purpose of the summary and/or scope of the specific assignment given. A general summary differs from a detailed summary in that fewer supporting details are stated. 

Summary Dos and Don'ts

A good summary:

  • Reports the overall topic right away (see list of reporting verbs below)
  • Begins with the name of the essay and the author
  • Is written in present tense
  • Gives the main points covered in the text
  • Includes supporting details as needed depending upon the length and depth of the summary desired
  • Mentions any important conclusions drawn
  • Uses language that shows the information is being reported on rather than being provided by the writer himself or herself

    The article covers...

    The article is about...
    The author of the article mentions...
    The author discusses...

 

Good summaries usually do not:

  • include your own opinion about the text unless you have been asked to do so
  • use quotes from the original text
  • exceed half the length of the original text

Reporting Verbs

When writing a summary, it is very important to make it clear that you are describing the ideas in the text, not your own ideas. The use of reporting verbs shows that you are reporting on someone else's (the author's) ideas. Learn more about verbs. Below are some reporting verbs that you might use:

The article presents
reports on
deals with
focuses on
examines
covers
describes
addresses

 

The author states
claims 
argues  
criticizes
describes
concluded with the idea
concluded by saying 

 

The researchers state
claim
report

 

 

Examples of summaries

Summary of an Article

Below is an example summary of Michael Moore's article, "Why Doesn't GM Sell Crack?" (The article can be found here).

Notice that the summary has the following strong aspects:

  • It begins with the title and author.
  • It is much shorter than the orginal.
  • It focuses on the most important parts of the argument
  • It uses reporting verbs
  • It remains objective

 

In the article "Why Doesn't GM Sell Crack?" Michael Moore argues that companies need to be regulated so that they do not take actions that hurt the community or environment. He explains that many people believe that companies should have the right to do whatever will make the most money. However, he disagrees with this philosophy. He gives the example of selling crack, which would be very profitable for companies but bad for the consumers and community. This example shows how the government does make some laws to restrict companies and protect society. Moore points out that most Americans agree that a company should not be able to sell crack just to make a profit. Therefore, he argues, we might extend this reasoning to other harmful actions, such as polluting the environment or treating workers unfairly. Moore believes that companies should be restricted from committing actions that hurt society.

 

Notice that the summary uses reporting verbs such as "argues" and "shows" to indicate that the viewpoint in the paragraph comes from Moore's article, not from the author of the summary. Also notice that the summary is objective; it does not give any opinion about Moore's argument but simply reports it as accurately as possible. Finally, notice that the summary covers the essay's main ideas, with a few brief supporting examples.

Summary of a Story

Below is an example summary of the Brother’s Grimm version of the story “Little Red Riding Hood.” While “Little Red Writing Hood” is not an argumentative/non-fiction work (the type you’ll most likely be expected to summarize in college) it is a story that most people know, making it a good story to summarize and provide as an example. Go to Wikipedia entry on "Little Red Riding Hood."

Notice that the summary has the following strong aspects:

  • It begins with the title and author.
  • It is much shorter than the orginal.
  • It focuses on the most important parts of the story rather than the details.

Summary of "Little Red Riding Hood"

The Brother’s Grimm version of the traditional tale “Little Red Riding Hood” is a story about a girl who wears a red riding hood and who is asked by her mother to take some food to her ailing grandmother who lives across the woods. Little Red Riding Hood, who is quite young, walks from her house, through the woods from her house to her grandmother’s house, carrying a basket of food. On the way to her grandmother’s house, she meets a wolf who asks her many questions about what she’s doing and where she’s going. After a bit, the wolf goes on his way, leaving Red Riding Hood to continue on her way alone. Once at her grandmother’s house, Little Red Riding Hood, notices that her grandmother looks different, that her eyes, ears, nose, and teeth are much bigger than she remembers. After a long conversation about the “grandmother’s appearance,” the wolf, who had eaten Little Red Riding Hood’s grandmother and had dressed in her clothing, jumps from the bed and eats Little Red Riding Hood. At the very end of the story, a hunter comes by the grandmother’s house and cuts the grandmother and Little Red Riding Hood from the wolf’s stomach and they are removed alive.

 

Notice this summary begins with the title of the story and the author and that the summary is much shorter than the original version of the story itself. Also notice that it is written in the present tense, as is necessary to do when writing about a text – even one that was read a long time ago and/or that was written in the past tense.

This summary does not go into a lot of detail; it only focuses on the plot (if this were a summary of an essay, it would focus on the essay’s main points rather than plot). The details in the story of “Little Red Riding Hood” that would be tempting to focus on, but unnecessary, are the lines of dialogue between Little Red Riding Hood and the wolf, regarding the wolf’s appearance: “’My grandma, what big eyes you have,’” said Little Red Riding Hood. ‘The better to see you with, my dear,’ responded the wolf.” To include details about the dialogue, and/or quotes from this part of the story, would be unnecessary, as they are not totally important to the plot, and can easily be summarized. Lastly, it’s important to notice the use of phrases like, “On the way to her grandmother’s house,” “After a long conversation with the wolf about the grandmother’s appearance,” and “At the very end of the story,” and recognize that these phrases are stand-ins for the kinds of details not necessary to include in a summary.

This page was created by Michelle Gonzales and Karin Spirn.

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Richard Dry
Coordinator

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Originally Created by Karin Spirn
and Meghan Swanson

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Page last modified: February 22, 2011