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The Writing Center

A Short Discussion of Summaries

What is a summary?

  • It is a brief restatement, in your own words; of the content of a text. It usually is one-fourth the length of the original, but this varies with the density of the material and your teacher’s directions. It does not necessarily need to follow the order of the original passage points (a group of paragraphs, an article, a chapter, a book, etc.), but will identify the major.

A good summary will . . .

  • make clear to the audience the central idea of the text.
  • indicate, in condensed form, the main points of the text that support or explain the central idea.
  • reflect the order in which these points are presented and the emphasis given to them.
  • include some important examples from the text.

A good summary will not. . .

  • include minor details.
  • repeat points for emphasis.
  • use the author’s exact words without quotation marks.
  • contain any of the summarizer’s own opinions

Therefore, the key qualities of a good summary are:

  • brevity
  • completeness
  • objectivity

How is summary used in academic writing?

  • When writing a critique, material is summarized in order to analyze it.
  • When writing a synthesis, summarized material shows relationships between sources.
  • When writing research papers, summarized material is used when taking notes and in the text when using sources for support. 
  • When writing persuasive research papers, summarized material is used to show differing views and the evidence which supports them.

Remember that a summary is not a replacement for analysis or argument.

Learning to accurately summarize texts is important in developing critical reading skills.

Reading tips:

  • As you read, imagine yourself in a conversation with the author of your text.  Write questions and comments in the margins.  Don’t be afraid to be messy, but don’t get so carried away that you can’t see the forest for the trees!
  • Read the passage carefully to determine the structure and the author’s purpose for writing the piece. Label on the passage itself, where the text divides into sections or stages of thought. Underline a few key points and terms.
  • Write one sentence summaries for each stage of thought.
  • Write a thesis, a one or two sentence summary of the entire text. The thesis should express the central idea of the text, determined by the preceding steps.  Look for the “journalist’s” questions: the who, what, when, where, why and how of the issue.  In some cases, a suitable thesis may be explicitly stated in the original passage. In that case, you may want to quote it directly in your summary.


  • The thesis of your summary essay will be the same as the thesis of your chosen text.
    • In her article “The Future of Love:  Kiss Romance Goodbye—It’s Time for the Real Thing,” Barbara Graham describes how our unrealistic expectations that passionate love leads to lasting union may be partly causing the troubled state of marriage today; thus she suggests we develop a new model for love and relationships.
  • In this essay, unlike the ones that will follow, you only need to cite a page number if you use a direct quote.
    • “We are what we do.  Choose again and change” (25).
  • You do need an MLA-style works cited page for this assignment.
  • There is a difference between quoting, paraphrasing, and summarizing
  • A quotation records the exact language used by someone in speech or writing.
  • A paraphrase is a restatement of what someone else has said or written, it is often as long as the original source and follows the same sentence pattern.
  • A summary is half the length of the original and totally in your own words and sentence pattern.

Final steps:

  • Write the first draft of your summary by combining the thesis with you list of one sentence summaries. Eliminate any repetition and less important information, including minor details.
  • Check your summary against the original passage and make whatever adjustments are necessary for accuracy and completeness.
  • Revise your summary by inserting transitional words and phrases where needed. Check for readable style. Avoid short, choppy sentences.
  • Edit for grammatical correctness, punctuations and spelling.

Remember:  a summary is an objective re-statement of the author’s ideas.   Your own opinions about either the subject or the author are not included.  Forming accurate summaries is a first step in academic and research-based writing.

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