4 Summarizing

Summarizing well is an important skill for college conversations, presentations, and writing. It is a difficult skill that requires practice; you will get better each time you write a summary. Here are some tips to help you succeed.

Consider Your Audience & Purpose

Audience: someone (classmate, instructor, fellow researcher) who hasn’t read the original passage

Purpose of academic summary: to briefly tell the main ideas of an original passage in your own words. A good summary does two things:

  1. it shows that you thoroughly understand the original text, and
  2. it saves time for your readers, since they don’t need to read the entire original text to understand the main ideas

Close Reading

The first step to writing a strong summary is to thoroughly understand the original text. This means that you need to take your time, carefully reading, annotating, and re-reading the original text. Underline, highlight, and take notes on the main ideas while you read. This type of close reading will help you understand the text.

As you read the original passage, think about these “reporter questions” (also called “information questions”):

  • who? what? when? where? why? how?

In other words, as you read, think about who is involved, what they are doing, when it is happening, and so on. The answers to these questions will guide you to the author’s main ideas.

Introductory Sentence

When you write an academic summary, you need to include attribution, often in your Introductory (first) Sentence. Attribution includes the following information from the work that you are summarizing, if it is available:

  • title
  • author (or speaker of a podcast, video, etc.)
  • source (optional – advised especially if author is unknown)

Sometimes you may not know some of this information. (For instance, there is no author listed on HCC’s webpage about Academic Honesty.) In that case, just include as much as you know.

The beginning of a good summary also clearly shows the overall main idea, or thesis, of the reading passage. A strong Introductory Sentence should include:

  • attribution (author or speaker, title of work, source if needed)
  • thesis

Here are some suggested formats to incorporate the attribution and thesis in your summary. These are sample Introductory Sentences for a summary of the article “How Praise Became a Consolation Prize“:

  1. In “How Praise Became a Consolation Prize,” from The Atlantic, Christine Gross-Loh interviews Carol Dweck about the over-simplification of Dweck’s theories about growth mindset.
  2. “How Praise Became a Consolation Prize,” which appeared in The Atlantic, was written by Christine Gross-Loh to clarify misunderstandings in popular opinion about fixed vs. growth mindsets.
  3. Christine Gross-Loh, author of “How Praise Became a Consolation Prize,” in The Atlantic, argues that teachers’ misconceptions about growth mindset can cause them to create more harm than good.

Notice that we use the present tense here; we say “the author argues” or “the author explains” instead of “argued” or explained.” We also use strong verbs that accurately show the original author’s purpose and overall pattern of organization, such as analyzes, argues, claims, compares, defends, defines, describes, explains, relates, suggests, synthesizes, etc.

Main Ideas

After your Introductory Sentence, write the author’s main ideas in your own words. Be careful to include only the author’s ideas, and not your own. Here are some things not to include in your academic summary:

  1. small details – include only the main points
  2. your own opinion or reflection about the original passage
  3. other information that is not in the original passage, even if you know that it is true

When you write an academic summary, your job is to report on the author’s work in your own words, and to condense a longer passage. 

Note on Summary-Response Essays

Summarizing is a very useful skill in many different types of essay. Generally, an academic summary includes only the original author’s main ideas, not your own opinion. In some courses, you will be asked to write summary-response essays. In these, you will summarize other authors’ work and then respond to that work with your own opinions and ideas.


Activity ~ Summarizing Practice

Summarizing is a difficult skill to learn, but it will become easier with practice. Here are some ways you can practice every day:

In real life….

  • after you have a conversation with a friend, practice telling yourself the main points of the conversation in 1-2 sentences
  • after you watch a movie or show, tell a friend the main storyline in 2-3 sentences
  • listen to music with lyrics, then think of 1-2 sentences to summarize the song

In your academic life…

  • every time you have to read for another class, read with a pencil in your hand. Practice the close reading technique: underline, highlight, take notes on the main ideas
  • keep a notebook: practice summarizing the readings you do for your classes
  • your ENGL 087 instructor may assign summarizing homework. Remember: regular practice will help you improve


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ENGLISH 087: Academic Advanced Writing Copyright © 2020 by Nancy Hutchison is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

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