Summary Writing
From Reaching Across the Curriculum, copyright 1997, Eva Thury and Carl Drott. All rights reserved.

Starting with an overview. In writing a summary, you usually start with an overview that states the whole point of the source, even though the source you are basing it on did not start that way. For example, let us take a look at "In Alaska: Where the Chili is Chilly," an article written by Gregory Jaynes about Fran Tate, who started a Mexican restaurant in Barrow, Alaska. Even though Gregory Jaynes does not put his point as bluntly or as directly as we do, it is probably a good idea to start our summary of his article as follows:

For Gregory Jaynes, Fran Tate embodies the astonishing independence and toughness that is typical of Alaska at its best. Tate has opened a Mexican restaurant-- an unlikely enterprise-- in Barrow Alaska.

This direct way of starting is often effective because of a difference between how readers are likely to use the summary and the source. In some situations, the summary can substitute for the source, while in others it cannnot. People will use a summary for general information, even when they don't want to read the whole article. After reading the summary, you know more than you knew before. If you have learned as much as you needed to know, you may not go on to the whole article. However, the summary by itself is not usually considered evidence enough for you to change your views.

Readers are likely to use a summary to add detail to parts of their mental map, as this will not affect their overall thinking greatly. They are less likely to use a summary to change the shape or structure of their mental map. For an important function like this, they would be more likely to seek out the source as a whole. They would want to see the author's whole view, with all of its evidence, before going to all the trouble of reorganizing their thinking.

As a result, a source is more likely to lead up to its argument gradually. It is usually written for the reader committed enough to the issue to read all of it in order, and to spend some time thinking about it. Summaries, on the other hand, are documents that people usually want to deal with quickly. They use the summary for reference, or for extra bits of information. Because it is often used by readers who want to save time, a summary should usually start with a quick overview of the source as a whole. This will allow readers to quickly determine if they want to read the rest of the summary or not. (That, in turn, may help them decide whether they want to look up the whole source or not!)

Also, a summary is not going to reflect all the subtleties of evidence or style that the author put into her argument. Therefore, it is less likely that your reader could come to the same conclusions from a brief recap of the author's evidence as you could from the full version of his argument. So you, as the reader who has experienced the source itself, should spell out for your reader the main point that you saw the author making. This will not convince your readers, but it will guide them in determining the usefulness of this source.

Kinds of summaries. There are at least two kinds of accounts which are called summaries. It is important for you, before you start to write a summary, to find out which of these two kinds is called for. One is called the analytic summary and the other the paraphrase summary. The major difference between these two kinds of summaries is in the perspective from which you write them. In the analytic summary, you speak in your own person, explaining what the author of the work you are summarizing said, and speaking of the author as a separate person. In a paraphrase-summary, as in a paraphrase, you pretend to be the author of the work and speak from her or his point of view. In the previous section, when we explained the importance of starting with an opening overview, we gave you an example of one from an analytic summary of the article about Fran Tate:

For Gregory Jaynes, Fran Tate embodies the astonishing independence and toughness that is typical of Alaska at its best. Tate has opened a Mexican restaurant-- an unlikely enterprise-- in Barrow Alaska.

From the opening overview, you can see that the summary will take the perspective of a writer who is reading or analyzing an article written by another writer. The two major techniques to use in writing such an analytic summary are: 1) classification of your source's arguments and 2) giving examples. In a paraphrase summary you would adopt a wider range techniques from your source.

The beginning of a paraphrase summary would still convey the same idea as the analytic summary, but would express it more indirectly, by presenting the author's arguments in the same way as the author does. A paraphrase summary of the same article might begin with this overview:

In the fall of 1978, Fran Tate wrote some hot checks to finance the opening of a Mexican restaurant in Barrow, Alaska. All the banks she had applied to for financing had turned her down. But Fran was sure that Barrow lusted for a Mexican restaurant, so she went ahead with her plans.

Here the writer of the summary is writing as if she were the author of the article about Fran Tate. The summary writer jumps right in and starts talking about Fran Tate, and does not speak of Jaynes at all. The summary starts the same way as does the article, with an account of what Tate did to open her restaurant. This shows what the writer (of the summary and of the article, since they are being treated as one and the same) admires about Tate: her determination and her independence. From these examples, you can see that the paraphrase summary differs from the analytic summary in the perspective you must take as you write it. The steps needed to write an analytic summary are, however, the same as the steps in writing a paraphrase summary.


Going beyond the topic. Notice that, when we explained how to start a summary we did not recommend an opening like this, "This article is about a woman named Fran Tate who moved to Alaska." Although this sentence is an accurate statement of the topic of the article, it is not informative enough. It would help the reader of your summary to know not just the topic, but what the author is trying to show about it. Below, we will provide you with a set of questions to ask yourself to help you write a good opening for your summary.

Benchmarks: understanding the meaning of a source. Sometimes you will read a source and immediately understand it, even if you don't necessarily like it. We started this chapter with an example of such a source: the article about Fran Tate is for a general reader, and most people will not have much trouble figuring out what it shows. However, looking at this article will let us analyze what we mean by "what a source means." That is, if we can identify the aspects of the Jaynes article that contribute to our understanding of it, we will be able to look for these same aspects or elements in sources whose meaning is less clear. Typically, the meaning of a source includes the following elements. In this book, we will use them as benchmarks to indicate understanding of a source:

In discussing the article about Fran Tate, we did not formally answer any of these questions. We just assumed that the article was pretty clear. If we backtracked, and answered the above questions about this article, we would come up with the following:

Benchmarks for Meaning in "In Alaska: Where the Chili is Chilly"

Subject -> Fran Tate, a woman who has several successful business enterprises in Barrow, Alaska
Audience-> written for TIME magazine; general readers
Audience Assumptions-> no specific technical knowledge or interests; some focus on business themes, general culture; interest in people
Style of Writing-> journalistic article, more or less in chronological order
Kind of Evidence-> uses anecdotes, quotes, detail to make the point; focus on Tate's personal characteristics as much as on her business sense
Attitudes/Beliefs/ Actions Encouraged-> enthusiasm for Alaska's "frontier spirit"; admiration for an unusual entrepreneur

How to use the benchmarks.
It may help to think about the meaning of a benchmark in athletics. Benchmarkes are training goals: an athlete may run a certain amount each day, or perform certain number of exercises to prepare for a contest or event. However, the exercises are only a preparation: the actual athletic event will involve performing activities quite different from the training exercises. The benchmarks or elements of meaning introduced above are guides to the meaning of your source. They represent a preparation for writing the opening, and they will also help you in tying the author's points together, as we will show below. By answering the benchmark questions, you will be ready to write the opening:

In other words, the benchmarks actually help you to analyze the meaning of your source. If you put them directly into a summary, you will turn it into a kind of analysis, and confuse your reader about what yu are writing. So, don't put them directly into the summary:

Expressing the meaning of your source. As we said above, summaries are written to present as well as possible the "meaning" found in their source. The meaning of the source is reflected in at least two aspects of the summary:

Meaning has to do with what is discussed, and with how much emphasis it is given. For example, if I present arguments for two sides, but devote one sentence to one side and two pages to the other, it would be fair to conclude that I am more interested in the side that I devote more space to. Thus, an article's meaning also has to do with the percentage of its argument that is devoted to a particular topic.

So, to write an effective summary, you need to perform some steps to determine the scale of your writing. Scale will allow you to represent your original in a shorter account without distorting its argument. It is easy to take one example or one argument from your source and to present it in full as your summary. This might be all right if your source consists of many instances of the same argument and you have presented the best example. But most of the time, this is not the case. So, if you present only one example, you are likely to distort your original, because you are leaving out an account of many of its points. In your summary you want to represent all the arguments of your source, and you want to present them in the same proportion as the source you are summarizing does. If you do this, your summary will preserve the scale of the original.

Writing a summary. To write a summary, you need to read and understand the source, as well as to write about it. Thus, the process of summary writing consists of both reading steps, and writing steps. We present them here in what seems to us a logical order, but different writers will find that their writing process involves rearranging the steps or revisiting some of them more than once

Reading steps for summary writing:
1) Identify the source's meaning. Read the source document through until you can determine what you take to be its meaning. If you are unsure of this after reading the whole article or essay, look for the benchmarks mentioned above:

Audience Assumptions
Style of Writing
Kind of Evidence
Attitudes/ Beliefs/ Actions Encouraged.

Remember, you will not represent these benchmarks directly in your summary, but you will use them to provide an introductory overview of the source in step 4, below. If you have trouble determining the meaning of the source, then go ahead and perform the next step, which involves going carefully through the article, but don't forget to return to the issue of meaning sometime before you begin to write your summary.

2) Break the source you are summarizing into regions. Regions are the major areas of the argument. Techniques for finding the regions of the source are explained below.

3) Consider the audience for whom you are writing: what language will its members regard as useful? what will they use the summary for? what kind of summary are they expecting, an analytic summary or a paraphrase summary?

Writing steps for summary writing:
4) Provide an introductory overview. That is, represent the meaning of the source in the beginning of your summary, in a sentence or two.

5) Complete the body of your summary. This means writing the fraction of your summary which corresponds to each region of the source. For example, if the summary is to be one hundred words and your source has three regions, you can write, for each region, about two or three sentences (about 30 words) which explain the main argument presented in that part of the source or the kind of evidence used there.

6) Show the connections between the ideas of the source. Tie the ideas in your summary together with transitions that reflect the meaning you determined in step 1.

Finding the regions in your source. The arguments or the exposition of most articles has parts, steps, or stages. Perhaps you have produced outlines of articles for other courses. In an outline, you need to show the main arguments of a source and to identify which arguments are subordinate parts of a main argument. Looking for regions is easier than writing an outline. When you look for regions, you are searching only for the broadest groupings of subject area which an author has made. And it is usually possible to find more than one way to divide up an article correctly. If I am looking for the regions into which I can divide a map of the continental United States, I can divide it into the areas East and West of the Mississippi River. Or I can divide it according to the states with similar geography and history: the New England States, the Middle Western States, and so on.

There are hardly any articles which need to be divided into more than ten areas; most are arranged into only four or five regions. Occasionally, an entire article or essay will consist of only one region, but that actually makes your job a little harder rather than a little easier. Sometimes the regions into which an author has grouped his or her material are very easy to find. We will list here a series of steps for finding regions, proceeding from the easiest ways to determining where the main areas of the article are to some of the harder ones.

1) Headings may indicate the location of regions. If the source is divided into a few major sections which are set off by headings, those areas are probably the main regions. You may be finished with your search right away! You do, however, need to be careful of headings, because they sometimes do not represent the main point of the section below them. Sometimes authors or editors use headings as "hooks" to pull you into reading the article. The headings may just point to the most exciting points made in the next group of paragraphs. So if you have an article with headings, skim through it to make sure that the headings really indicate the subject matter contained beneath them. In some cases, a source will have so many headings, one for every other paragraph or so, that you can't use them for regions. If the headings don't indicate the subject matter or if there are too many of them, you will want to try another technique for locating the regions in your source.

2) The major regions of the source may be obvious. You may spot the regions of your source while you are working on step 1, figuring out the meaning. You may locate the regions while you are considering the types of evidence used, because the source may use one main form of evidence in each section or region. For example, the early part of an article may consist of a lengthy account of previous research on a topic, to show why the particular position investigated in the article is worthwhile. The rest of the article may be divided into an account of the experiment or study performed and a statement of conclusions which can be drawn from it. In fact, this kind of obvious and consistent organization is a characteristic of many kinds of academic writing especially in science. We will talk more about standard forms of organization in later sections of this text. The report on Twinkies presented above derives some of its comic effect by using a standard scientific form of organization to report on some acts that are not really of interest to scientists.

But, even if the article is not organized according to types of evidence, its regions may still be easy to find. Skim through the article, with an eye toward where the topics change. Keep asking yourself, "Is the article talking about the same thing here as it was on the previous page?" If not, what is the difference?" As you skim through, jot down for every page what you think the major topic is. Or if you notice a subject break in the middle of the page, just jot down the earlier and the later subject category. When you are done, look back at your notes and skim the article again to see if it "falls into regions" as you look at it.

3) Locating regions paragraph by paragraph. Much of the time, it will take more effort than just a fast skimming to locate the regions of the source. You will have to go through the source paragraph by paragraph to find what the regions are. This may take a while, but it is usually not difficult. There are two major ways to proceed.

A. Finding regions by looking at opening sentences. You can look at the opening sentence of each paragraph, comparing it to the opening sentence of the next paragraph. Compare the opening sentence of the first paragraph with that of the second, the second with the third, and so on. Are the two paragraphs about the same thing? What is that thing? Write down what you think the topic is on your note pad and keep going until you hit a paragraph with an opening sentence that suggests a new topic. If the opening sentence by itself does not help you see a pattern, go back and look also at the last sentence of the paragraphs in question.

B. Finding regions by taking notes on each paragraph or group of paragraphs. There are instances in which the method of looking at the first sentence of each paragraph does not work very well. This means finding the regions by writing one sentence or phrase about each paragraph. Let us apply this method to the first few paragraphs of "The New Realism," an article by Susan West. First let's be sure we understand the main point of the article. Here is an explanation of the basic elements or characteristics of the article:

computer graphics, as developed in several academic laboratories
written for The Chicago Tribune; general readers
Audience Assumptions
no specific technical knowledge or interests; some interest in science, general culture; interest in people
Style of Writing
journalistic article, describes several scientific techniques by comparing them to everyday things
Kind of Evidence
uses anecdotes, quotes, detail to make the point
Attitudes/Beliefs/Actions Encouraged
excitement about computer graphics; doubt about the ability of computer graphics to replicate reality successfully

This article is about using computers to draw lifelike pictures. A quick reading suggests that West is excited about this discipline, but cautions her readers against thinking that computer graphics will soon meet the challenges which confront it. To do a good job of summarizing this article, we need to determine how much of it is devoted to skepticism and how much of it focuses on enthusiasm. Thus, we will look for the regions of the article. However, this turns out to be an article whose first sentences are not very helpful to understanding it. To determine emphasis in this article it is better to use the running summary approach. This means finding the regions by writing one sentence or phrase about each paragraph, like this:

  1. Charles Csuri shows picture of cloud over rock
  2. Csuri, head of computer graphics research at Ohio State, says soft things are hard to draw with computer graphics
  3. Examples of successful graphics which we have all seen: Star Trek.
  4. But scientist want to use computers to draw natural phenomena perfectly, not just artistically
  5. Fractal geometry helps a variety of scientists to describe the real world accurately;
  6. But it is not yet perfected.
  7. Hard to give computers instructions (which are routine) to draw a picture accurately, especially when the picture includes random elements.
  8. Csuri's lab described

With paragraph 8, we begin to see that groups of paragraphs discuss the same thing. 8-24 explain the work in Csuri's lab. This section shows the reader how computer graphics are done. Paragraphs 25-29 describe the shortcuts taken by those who work in computer graphics to produce realistic pictures that fool the eye but aren't accurate. Figures produced with these shortcuts look right from some angles but not others. 30-33 describe procedural or mass modeling, another shortcut technique used develop a basic tree, for example, which can be varied to produce unique trees. 34-40 describe fractal geometry, a method which produces computer graphics which have infinite detail, no matter what scale at which they are viewed. Paragraphs 40-41 conclude, pointing toward work which still needs to be done.

As we look at the notes we took, we can see that paragraphs 1-7 constitute one region, in which the problems confronting computer graphics are introduced. The key to understanding this turns out to be in paragraph 7, which explains that producing accurate models of the natural world is difficult. Once West has spelled out the problem, she shows us different ways of dealing with it.

The major regions of the article are:

  1. It is hard to imitate nature accurately with computer graphics
  2. Csuri's lab shows how to work with computer graphics
  3. Shortcuts can make your graphic realistic and accurate
  4. Fractal geometry can help produce infinite detail
  5. Conclusion: but a lot of work still remains

Considering your audience.
The first two steps in writing a summary, looking for meaning of the article, and for regions, are actually techniques of analysis to help you understand the essay or article you are summarizing. Once you understand why the author wrote the article and how the article is structured, you are ready to begin writing your summary. Or almost ready. As we said above, whenever you write anything, you need to consider the members of the audience for which you are writing: what can you expect them to know about or care about? what are their needs? what length summary are they expecting? will they enjoy reading about the content of the source from the point of view of the author, or will they benefit from maintaining a critical distance from the source?

1) Use of technical terms in a summary. Unless you are told otherwise, it is usually a good idea to begin with the assumption that our audience does not consist of specialists. So, if you use technical or scholarly terms in your writing, you will want to explain them. You will, however, remember from the chapter on the characteristics of academic writing that in scholarly prose, writers do not usually explain technical terms which are widely known throughout their field or discipline. So you will want to decide before you start to write what, if any, are the terms and ideas which you need to explain to the members of your audience, and what you can assume they know.

Much of the time, you will be writing for a "general" audience. That means that you can assume that your audience is of average intelligence, but you shouldn't assume that its members have any special training in any scholarly or technical field. You should be especially careful not to assume that your audience knows all the details which your source has just explained to you.

2) Determining the length of a summary. If you have not been given a specific length limit, examining the use to which your summary will be put will help you to develop one. Will your summary serve as an introduction to key concepts or does it cover ideas long familiar to your readers? How much detail will your readers be interested in? Will they need to be able to see some of the evidence in the original, so they can form an independent judgment from it or about it? Will your audience use your summary as a guide for further work? Will they need mention of the sources of evidence which the author presents? You will want to consider these and other, similar questions before you begin to write.

3) Selecting a point of view for a summary. Finally, you will need to decide before you write whether you will produce a paraphrase summary or an analytic summary. As we explained above, the paraphrase summary presents the material without saying "I." In it, you pretend to be the author of the article you are summarizing, while in the analytic summary you speak as yourself and discuss the author as a separate person. Your reader is likely to be distracted by your writing if you switch back and forth from one of these styles of writing to the other. You will need to descide on a point of view right from the overview of the source's meaning that you include as your introduction.

Overview of Summary Writing

Reading steps:

  1. Identify the source's meaning.
  2. Break the source you are summarizing into regions.
  3. Consider the audience for whom you are writing.

Writing steps:

  1. Provide an introductory overview.
  2. Complete the body of your summary.
  3. Show the connections between the ideas of the source.


Checklist: Avoiding Plagiarism

In writing a summary:

  1. List the source in a reference list at the end of your summary.
  2. Give your paper a title that shows it is a summary.
  3. Keep direct quotes to a minimum: rephrase points in your own words.
  4. If you use any exact quotes from the source, inlude a parenthetical reference to the page the quote is located on.
  5. Do not include a parenthetical reference for every piece of information you got from your source, if you have put the information into your own words.