Whenever you read a text, you should be prepared to summarize it. There are many reasons you might summarize:
- A summary can show your understanding of the main points of an assigned reading or viewing, so your instructor might ask you to summarize in order to know that you’ve understood the material.
- You might summarize a section from a source, or even the whole source, when 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.
- You might also summarize when 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.
- Summarizing is also an excellent way for you to double-check that you understand a text–if you can summarize the ideas in it, you likely have a good grasp on the information it is presenting.
What Makes Something a Summary?
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.
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.
How Should I Organize a Summary?
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.
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. If you include several supporting ideas, you should also 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.
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.
What to Include in a Summary?
Focusing on just the ideas that best support a point we want to make or ignoring ideas that don’t support that point can be tempting. 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.
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 prohibit quoting, then don't quote. Otherwise, quote as little as possible.