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The ability to summarize a text is one of the most difficult and most useful skills you can acquire as a student and a writer. It shows that you understand the text you're summarizing (an assignment instructors will often give you) and summaries and/or abstracts can help readers get a sense of whether the full text is worth their time to read.

A summary condenses information; for example, a summary of an article would be a general overview of the main ideas and arguments of the article with little if any direct quotes from the article. A summary should not include your opinion or analysis of the text (unless your instructor or reader has requested your opinion or analysis). The summary should include only a condensed version of the text that restates the author's points in a shorter format—in your own words (very important!) for the convenience of your readers.

The following "says/does" method for taking notes, creating an outline, and writing a summary will help you, first and foremost, to understand the text you're reading—you can't write about something well if you don't understand it thoroughly! Then, you should be able to write the summary quickly since you've identified the main points while reading and taking notes.

When writing a summary, try using the following steps as a guide:

  1. Quickly read the article through once to ascertain its general meaning, overall organization, and tone. Take special notice of headings and subheadings, the first and last sentences of paragraphs, and other rhetorical elements that provide clues to both content and context.
  2. Reread the article, more carefully this time, with a pen in hand to "gloss" the text. That is, jot notes in the margin of each paragraph (or group of closely related paragraphs) that describe what the paragraph "says" (a statement summarizing the content). In the other margin, write what the paragraph "does" (how it contributes to the argument's development: for example, makes a claim, provides evidence, creates emotion, draws conclusion, etc.) in order to see the structure and to quickly find the thesis and main ideas.
  3. On a separate sheet of paper, use your notes to make an outline, flowchart, or diagram of the article from the main divisions or parts of the argument. As you do this, make decisions about which points are the most important and which details in support of those points are the most salient and crucial for your audience to know. You do not need to explain everything the author has said; find the most relevant and crucial points for readers to get an understanding of the author's meaning and intent. Indicate the author's main point or thesis in your outline or diagram.
  4. Use your list, notes, and outline to create a prose summary. Include the most important points and relevant supporting details, showing how the author makes connections. To do this, you might start with a lengthy paragraph-by-paragraph summary and then prune it down in successive drafts, or you may want to start with a one-sentence summary of the author's main argument (this is, the author's thesis and one or two major supporting reasons), and then gradually develop the summary with more supporting ideas until you reach the desired length (usually about one-half to one page, or approximately 150 to 250 words).
  5. Include the author's full name and the title of the text in the first sentence. For example, In "Against the Grain," David Bartholomae argues that... Refer to the author by last name in the rest of the summary.

Reviewing Your Summary for Effectiveness

Analyze the effectiveness and accuracy of your summary by responding to the following questions:

  1. Does the first sentence of the summary include the source information and the original author's main point? For example,
    • In "Against the Grain," David Bartholomae argues that [state the main argument in your own words].
  2. Write down the main points of your summary. Are they the same as the main points of the original article?
  3. Is there any information in the summary that should have been left out, for example, something that is too detailed or is a side note rather than a main point?
  4. Judging by the summary, what was the original author's thesis or main point? Do you think the summary accurately reflects the author's main point?
  5. Wherever you have borrowed a string of three or more words from the original author's text, did you use quotation marks and a citation? (See the "Citing Sources" handout for help with writing proper citations.)