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 approximately one-fourth the length of the original, but length varies with the density of the material and your instructor’s directions. A summary should identify the major ideas of the original text.

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, here are the key qualities of a good summary:

  • brevity
  • completeness
  • objectivity

How is summary used in academic writing?

  • When writing a critique, students summarize material in order to analyze it.
  • When writing a synthesis, students use summarized material to show relationships between sources.
  • When writing research papers, students summarize material when taking notes and when using sources for support in papers.
  • When writing persuasive research papers, students use summarized material to show differing views and the evidence supporting 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 get caught up in the details and lose sight of the big picture.
  • 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 single statement summarizing the entire text. The thesis should express the central idea of the text, determined by the preceding steps. Look for answers to the “journalist’s” questions: the whowhatwhenwherewhy, 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 if your instructor finds such quoting acceptable.


  • The thesis of your summary 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.
  • 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 (in your own words and sentence patterns) of what someone else has said or written; it is often as long as the original source and includes more detailed information than a summary.
  • A summary is usually much shorter than the original and written completely in your own words and sentence patterns.

Final steps:

  • Write the first draft of your summary by combining the thesis with your 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.
  • Be sure to use signal phrases throughout your summary to give credit to the person/people who came up with the ideas you are summarizing. Graham describes … Graham suggests … She claims … According to Graham, … would be examples of signal phrases. For a more comprehensive list of signal verbs, refer to a writing handbook.
  • Revise your summary by inserting transitional words and phrases where needed. Check for readable style. Avoid short, choppy sentences.
  • Edit for grammatical correctness, punctuation, 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.