Strategy: Summaries show that you've read and understand the whole text
Whenever you read a text, you should be prepared to summarize it. There are many reasons you might summarize:
- Your instructor might ask you to summarize in order to know that you’ve understood the material (or you can summarize as a way to check your own understanding)
- The ideas in that source are critical to an assignment you are working on and you feel they need to be included, but they would take up too much space in their original form.
- The general ideas from a source are important to include in your work, but the details aren't as important. For example, technical documents or in-depth studies might go into much, much more detail than you are likely to need to support a point you are making for a general audience.
While there are many different reasons to summarize, all summaries share several important characteristics. You know you are summarizing when you
- Use your own words.
- Significantly condense the original text.
- Provide accurate representations of the main points of the text.
- Avoid personal opinion.
A summary is NOT a response
It can be easy and feel natural, when summarizing an article, to include our own opinions. We may agree or disagree strongly with what this author is saying, or we may want to compare their information with the information presented in another source, or we may want to share our own opinion on the topic. Often, our opinions slip into summaries even when we work diligently to keep them separate. These opinions are not the job of a summary, though. A summary should only highlight the main points of the article.
Likewise, we might choose only to focus the ideas that best support a point we want to make, or to ignore ideas that don't support that point. This approach has two significant problems, though:
First, it no longer correctly represents the original text, so it misleads your reader about the ideas presented in that text. A summary should give your reader an accurate idea of what they can expect if we pick up the original article to read.
Second, it undermines your own credibility as an author to not represent this information accurately. If readers cannot trust an author to accurately represent source information, they may not be as likely to trust that author to thoroughly and accurately present a reasonable point.
Who said it, when, and where
The more you write, the sooner the pattern of a summary will feel automatic.
In his July 2017 article in The Atlantic, “Beyond the Five Senses,” Matthew Hutson explores...
In June 2020, Timo Mitze, along with 3 other professors of statistics and economics, published a research article titled "Unmasked! The effect of face masks on the spread of COVID-19,"
Always begin by making it clear that this is a summary of someone else’s work; these ideas are not your original ideas. You will almost always begin a summary with an introduction to the author, article, and publication so the reader knows what we are about to read. Then, you should introduce where this text was presented (if it’s an art installation, where is it being shown? If it’s an article, where was that article published? Not all texts will have this component–for example, when summarizing a book written by one author, the title of the book and name of that author are sufficient information for your readers to easily locate the work you are summarizing. You can also provide context: Is this text responding to a current event? That might be important to know. Does this author have specific qualifications that make them an expert on this topic? This might also be relevant information.
What did they say, why do they think it's true, and how do they support it
The rest of the summary should be a description of the main and supporting ideas of a text. At the very least, you need to state the main idea of a text--it's thesis and it's purpose. Then, depending on why you are summarizing, you should include as many supporting ideas as needed. You don't want your summary to be just a list of ideas in the source. You can still show the relationship between ideas by explaining HOW the source uses evidence and WHY the source has interpreted the evidence the way it has. Provide the reader with a idea of how these supporting points fit together. If a professor asks you to "Summarize this article in 500 words," you will include far more detail than you would if a professor asked you to "Write a brief summary." If a professor asks you to "Summarize the article and then respond," make sure to include in your summary those ideas to which you want to respond.
To review, a summary should:
- Introduce the name of the author whose work you are summarizing.
- Introduce the title of the text being summarized.
- Introduce where this text was presented.
- Give context when necessary.
- State the main ideas of the text you are summarizing.
- State as many of the supporting ideas as necessary for your purpose.
So, for example, if you were to get an assignment asking you to summarize Matthew Hutson’s Atlantic article, “Beyond the Five Senses” (found at www.theatlantic.com) a summary might look something like this:
In his July 2017 article in The Atlantic, “Beyond the Five Senses,” Matthew Hutson explores ways in which potential technologies might expand our sensory perception of the world. He notes that some technologies, such as cochlear implants, are already accomplishing a version of this for people who do not have full access to one of the five senses. In much of the article, though, he seems more interested in how technology might expand the ways in which we sense things. Some of these technologies are based in senses that can be seen in nature, such as echolocation, and others seem more deeply rooted in science fiction. However, all of the examples he gives consider how adding new senses to the ones we already experience might change how we perceive the world around us.
Or, if you were asked to summarize an article that includes real evidence of the effect of facemask use, you could summarize "Unmasked! The effect of face masks on the spread of COVID-19,"
In June 2020, Timo Mitze, along with 3 other professors of statistics and economics, published a research article titled "Unmasked! The effect of face masks on the spread of COVID-19," which found that using face masks slowed the spread of COVID. The city of Jena introduced masks sooner than other cities, and through statistical analysis they found that the rate of COVID spread in Jena was 40% lower than in comparable cities that introduced masks later.
To Quote or Not to Quote?
In general, you should avoid quoting in a summary. By definition, a summary is a your own words. That said, sometimes brief quotations of words and phrases from a source will make your summary more accurate and more interesting. If the assignment instructions expressly prohibit quoting, then don't quote. Otherwise, quote as little as possible.
The connection between annotating and summarizing
Effective reading should lead you directly into an effective summary. As you read, mark in the text what you think are the main points. Afterward, review those main points and then choose the points that you think are important to include in your summary. Write the summary without looking at the text. Afterwards, return to the text to check your accuracy.
ProTip: Editing down a summary is easier than building it up
When you first start a summary, don't worry about length. Include all the points you think are relevant to the writer's main idea. Remember, writing is like saving your ideas to the cloud. If you write a good summary the first time, you might not have to go back a re-read the article when you write or revise your essay. You can just cut out the ideas that don't relate to your point (without changing the meaning of the article, of course). But, if your summary is missing key details that you realize you skipped in your initial summary, and you now need those ideas in your essay, you will probably need to re-read the article.
What is the shortest summary you can imagine yourself writing? Next time you write a summary, try it. Imagine you're writing a tweet, for example.
Adapted from The Word in College Reading and Writing