How to Write a Summary That Sums It All Up

While you may not have written many summaries, I bet you’ve actually composed a lot of summaries in your day.

Think about it: every time you tell a friend what happened in a movie or what you did on vacation, you’re summarizing. You’re even summarizing when you tell your friend about the professor’s history lecture (that he so conveniently skipped out on).

Writing a summary isn’t much different. The key is to decide the main points or ideas and report them. Leave out all the minor details.

Okay, there’s a little more to it than that, so here’s how to write a summary that sums it all up.

The Definition of a Summary

how to write a summary
“Owl” by Mark Coleman, (CC BY-SA 2.0) / text added

A summary is a shortened version of a longer piece of writing that still expresses the same meaning of the original text.

A summary includes all the key points of the original writing (minus all the details). Because you’re leaving out all the details, a summary is much shorter than the original text. A summary of a five-page article, for instance, might be summarized in a paragraph or two.

Now that you know the key elements of a good summary, you’re ready to learn how to write a summary the right way.

How to Write a Summary That Sums It All Up

I can sum up summary writing in two sentences:

  1. Be succinct.
  2. Report the main ideas.

That really is the gist of it, but if you want to know the finer details (and I’m assuming you do since you’re reading this post), here’s what you need to know about how to write a good summary.

Read carefully (and take notes)

You can’t write an effective summary if you don’t know what you’re summarizing, so read the piece several times and take notes as you do.

Readers take notes for many reasons, but in this case, you should look specifically for the main ideas of the writing.

Start by identifying the author’s thesis. This is basically what the entire piece of writing is about and will identify the author’s argument.

Next, look for the key points that support the thesis. These key arguments are often found at the start of each new paragraph. Skim paragraphs to identify the main focus. (Hint: Look for topic sentences.)

Quick Tip: Don’t underestimate the title. If the title of an article is “Why the Legal Smoking Age Should Be Raised to 21,” you can bet the writer will outline several ideas to support this claim. These will be the main points you’ll include in your summary.

Don’t rewrite the original

The goal when writing a summary is to summarize the key points. You’re not trying to rewrite the piece. Remember, be succinct. Don’t write five sentences when one will do.

Here’s what I mean.

If an article focuses on why the legal smoking age should be raised to 21, the author might include the argument that raising the legal age will reduce the number of teen smokers. The author will likely develop this argument by including a discussion with examples and statistics in order to fully support the idea.

When summarizing, you should not rewrite the argument and all the key supporting points the author uses.

Instead, you should write one or two clear, specific sentences to express the main point and the author’s beliefs and/or arguments.

Remember: Your audience needs to know what it is that you’re summarizing, so don’t forget to include the author(s) name(s) and the title of the work you’re summarizing at the beginning of your summary.

Quick Tip: After you’ve written your summary, look for places to cut words. You might start small by eliminating modifiers: words such as “really,” “extremely,” or “very.” You might also eliminate complete sentences that summarize the smaller details of the writing rather than the main ideas.

Need more help with cutting words? Read Why Eliminating Wordiness Is So Important for Your Essay for three simple ways to reduce wordiness.

Use your own wording and writing style

how to write a summary

Writing a summary doesn’t mean that you re-arrange the words in someone’s writing and call it your own. It also doesn’t mean that you “borrow” the phrases and sentence structure of someone else.

What writing a summary does mean is that you use your own word choices and writing style to identify the main points of the text.

Here are two examples:

  1. If a source uses the phrase “made a determination,” you might simply rewrite the phrase in your own wording and write “decide.”
  2. If a source uses wording like “meddlesome parental figures,” you might reword this into something more common, such as “nosy parents.”

Quick Tip: When summarizing, read a section, then put the text aside. If you don’t look directly at the original source when you write, you’ll be able to write using your own word choices and writing style.

Keep your opinion out of it

Even if you completely disagree with a piece of writing, a summary isn’t the place to include your opinion. A summary must be objective—it must be free from your own opinion and bias.

The goal is to express the author’s key ideas, not express your own.

Take a look at the beginning of this summary that includes personal opinion:

Kay Ruiz’s article “Should We Allow Advertising in Our Children’s Schools?” focuses on the amount of advertising proliferating high schools in the United States. She does a great job highlighting the fact that high schools shouldn’t allow advertising, and it’s easy to see why parents shouldn’t allow corporations to influence teens on school campuses

The phrase “does a great job” indicates that you feel the author’s arguments are effective. The phrase “it’s easy to see why” also indicates that you agree with the author.

Remember: Keep opinions and value judgments out of your summary.

Here’s what a revision might look like. Notice that it remains objective.

Kay Ruiz’s article “Should We Allow Advertising in Our Children’s Schools?” focuses on the amount of advertising proliferating high schools in the United States. She argues that high schools shouldn’t allow advertising and that parents shouldn’t allow corporations to influence teens on school campuses.

Putting It All Together

how to write a summary
“spotted owl chicks” by Tom Kogutus/USFWS, (CC BY 2.0)

Now that you know how to write a summary, and after you’ve formulated your ideas, of course, you’re ready to write your summary—well, almost.

You’ll still need to connect your ideas. To do this, use transitions. Without them, your summary will read like a list of random statements rather than a cohesive summary. Not sure which transition to use? Here are 97 Transition Words for Essays You Need to Know.

You might also want to read How to Revise an Essay and Make It Better Than Ever when you’re tackling revisions. Your first draft should never be your last!

Still not sure what a complete summary should look like? Check out these examples:

Need to summarize an entire article? Read How to Summarize an Article the Smart Way. Or browse example essays with a significant focus on summarizing. You just might gain some extra insight on how to write a summary more effectively.

Have a summary already written but not sure it makes the grade? Let a Kibin editor help!

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