For the Reading 0950 class, consider the summary as a report.  Your boss wants you to summarize some incredible amount of information and give it to him.  He doesn't want your opinion on it; he merely wants you to make the size more manageable for him.

A summary is a shorter version of a non-fiction piece of writing.  (For fiction, like movies and books, it's called a synopsis.)  How short it is depends on who is requiring it.  Let me use my own writing as an example.



In the past, many new authors of novels could actually be "discovered" by sending their whole novel, in manuscript form to various editors.  In their free time, the editors would dig into the "slush pile" to read and see if they liked the books sent to them.  However, the book business has changed.  It has gotten leaner and meaner.  Editors are too busy to take unsolicited books any more.  Instead, they use agents to cull out the icky novels.  And now, even agents won't read your whole book.  You have to send them a chapter or two and then summarize the book.

Let's look at the math.  My first novel (Spirit Reader) is about 100,000 words long.  In manuscript form, it's approximately 500 pages.  It has 40 pretty short chapters.  Some agents ask for a page of summary for every chapter of the book.  That would be 40 pages.  Other agents want no more than five pages of synopsis.  That's a synopsis that's 1% of the original size of my book!  And of course, when you first pitch the story to an agent, you'll have to summarize it in three short paragraphs. 

The worst of it all is having to summarize the whole thing in one sentence.  I did that on a business card to try to pitch my book:  "An ex-assassin with an extrasensory skill seeks redemption by rescuing a young girl abandoned in the mountains of New Mexico."

Now I'm only asking for your summary to be 20-25% of the original article.  If I can reduce my book to one sentence, you can reduce an article you choose to one-fifth or one-fourth its size.

First Step:  Gathering the information

Taking notes:

So how do you do that?

Well, first, you need to understand the article and recognize which of the ideas are main ideas and which are details.  Chapters 5 in our textbook should help you with that.  Marking your readings also will help.

Be careful, though.  In high school, it seems most of what you had to know was the details.  The questions you were going to be asked on tests tended to be the names, the dates, the numbers, etc.  So you might be in the habit of noting only the details.  (This information is what you focus on for the Study Reading Project or for taking a test.)

Now, while identifying the main ideas, you need to see relationships of ALL the ideas -- how those details prove or illustrate or give examples of the more main ideas, which themselves support THE main idea.  Recognizing the organization of a writing helps you see which of the ideas are more important than the other ideas.

Paragraph by paragraph:

The best way to summarize, then, is to take it paragraph by paragraph.  Why?  A paragraph is the writer's way to say THIS is one topic.  The next paragraph is a new topic.  So after reading the paragraph, cover it up, and write one sentence that tells the main idea of the paragraph.  As you do so, use your own vocabulary, your words that mean the same thing as the author's words.  (The instructions for this usually read "summarize in your own words.")

Of course, "in your own words" does not mean in a made up language, or even any other language than English, so don't try Calvin's tactics.

In addition to using your own words, to make it more yours, you can change the order of the information in the main idea sentence.  

For example, if the paragraph expresses the idea "One effect of aerobic exercise is that it increases your heart and lung capacity," you can change that around, and again, using your own words, say something like, "The ability of your lungs and heart are increased by aerobic exercise."  (There are certain key words that don't have synonyms, like "aerobic."  It wouldn't make sense to say "oxygen-increasing" instead of "aerobic."  So you don't change those key words.)

Another way to get the main idea of a paragraph is to think, what is the purpose of this paragraph?  Does it add more support to the main idea?  Or does it transition from one topic to another?  Does it introduce the topic, or another, related topic?  Does it conclude?  Often you can tell the purpose of the paragraph by its first words, the transitions.  Again, you can also tell the purpose of the paragraph through the organization of the article.  What part of that organization does this paragraph serve?

So even though you won't turn in the paragraph-by-paragraph paraphrasing, it is one step to get you closer to your summary.

Once you have one sentence that expresses the meaning of each paragraph, group the sentences into paragraphs, without changing their order.  The order is important because that's the order of the main ideas that the author chose. 

Let me try to illustrate what I mean using a structure outline for a simple essay.


The Main Idea (Thesis) -- My dog, Shiloh, is more interesting to watch than TV.

Paragraph 1 describes how we had lost my old dog and I wanted a puppy.

  • Paragraph 2 continues the story, telling how a family was giving away free puppies at Albertson's
  • Paragraph 3 finishes the story, how we picked out the puppy that protested the most against the cold

Paragraph 4 begins the support that shows how she is more interesting than TV -- that she is very smart (so we like to watch her reasoning things out).

  • Paragraph 5 gives an example of how smart she is (learning tricks with only two tries).
  • Paragraph 6 gives another example (how she figured out how to get into the house through the cat door in the kitchen window)
  • Paragraph 7 gives contrast to her intelligence by explaining that she's stubborn, so sometimes chooses not to obey

Paragraph 8 adds another piece of support -- that she does funny things (which are fun to watch).

  • Paragraph 9 adds example to that -- her running around the house like it's a race track
  • Paragraph 10 is another example -- how she bounces off the furniture when playing with the older, bigger dog, Tanker
  • Paragraph 11, another example -- how when she was a puppy, she'd spread herself on top of Tanker's head like a dog toupee
  • Paragraph 12, another example -- how she tries to entice us to play by putting her toy in our hands

Then paragraph 13 is the conclusion -- where I describe how my husband and I will sit and watch her instead of the TV.

Now if you gather the supporting paragraphs with the idea they were supporting, you'd have the sentences for paragraphs 1-3 serving as the introduction (group the sentences together to make one paragraph or your own writing.)  Then the sentences for paragraphs 4-7 would be another paragraph.  Then you'd group the sentences for paragraphs 8-12.  So the summary for a 13-paragraph essay would be three paragraphs. 

If that's not short enough, take the main idea of each of your summary paragraphs (basically, the sentences for paragraph 1, 4, and 8).  But usually, one sentence for each paragraph is good for the length of your summary.  (One possible exception is when the article is a news story or done in the journalistic style.  News reporters write very, very short paragraphs because the editor of a newspaper can cut the end of the story off to fit into the space available, but the editor can ONLY cut between paragraphs.  Writing many little paragraphs makes it easier to cut the story as needed so the article won't end with an unfinished sentence.  If the article you have chosen to summarize is such an article, your solution to this problem would be to think of the tiny paragraphs in "paragraph groups" without rearranging the paragraphs, and then write one main idea per paragraph group.) 

Nothing but article:

Here's another point that's very crucial.  You must NOT put any comments of your own in the summary.  Sometimes a teacher will say she wants a "summary" but if she expects your opinion in the assignment, then technically, it's not a summary; it's a report that includes both a summary and a response.  A true summary tells only what the author of the article said.  It's a little like if a friend asks you to tell you what a movie is about.  If all you say is how good it is, you're not telling your friend what it's about.  If you tell your friend what it's about, then at the point you start saying how good it is, you leave off summarizing.

Second Step:  Writing the Summary

Rough draft:

Your very first sentence must tell the title of the article and the author's name.  I subscribe to the convention -- rule -- that the title cannot give information that is not expressed in the summary, so basically, you need to start out with the crucial information in the summary itself, whether you've given that information in the summary title or not.

The easiest way to do this is to have 1[the article title], by 2[the author] expresses 3[the main idea.]  But there are so many different ways to do it.  Here are some examples:

  • "Treat Pains Ginger-ly" by Dr. Jeannie Dyke gives a ginger compress as a way to treat muscular pain.  (1 by 2 expresses 3.)
  •  In "Treat Pains Ginger-ly," Dr. Jeannie Dyke gives a ginger compress as a way to treat muscular pain.  (In 1, 2 expresses 3.)
  • Dr. Jeannie Dyke gives a ginger compress as a way to treat muscular pain in her article "Treat Pains Ginger-ly."  (2 expresses 3 in 1.)

Then you follow with the sentence paraphrases of the paragraphs, grouping them into their own topical paragraphs.  As you write, continue to refer to the author, especially if some of the information you are writing is opinionated and might look like your opinion.  Do it like this: Dr. Dyke says using a compress is better than taking aspirin.

There is no need for a conclusion.  If you feel the need, you may paraphrase the article's conclusion, but that will be it.   

Type your summary up double-spaced on MS Word (or whatever word processing program you use) and save it under "Summary." 

Revise: Read your summary and check it for organization and accuracy.  Use this handy checklist as you look over your summary.

By accuracy, I mean what the author wrote and in the order he wrote it.  You may think you know better than the author, for example, and that the author is wrong in a statement, but you cannot correct the author.  Instead, you must say, "The author wrote such-and-such information" even if it's wrong!  Saying he's wrong would be injecting your own knowledge/information, and you are not, at that point, summarizing the article.  By the same token, do not change the order the author presents the information in.

  This page last updated Wednesday, January 01, 2014, by Connie Gulick.