Writing Summaries

A summary is intended to highlight objectively the main points of another writer’s work. Although written in your own words, the summary does not include your opinions of the piece you are considering. Since the summary eliminates those details that are not needed to convey the major points, it is naturally shorter than the original. In general, a summary is from one fourth to one half the length of the original.

The problem we all face when attempting to summarize a piece of writing is figuring out what to include and what to leave out. Below are some tips on how to choose material to include in your summary.

  1. Cross out the less important detail
  2. Underline topic sentences and key ideas in each paragraph
  3. Take notes on those key ideas—jot down the information that clarifies a topic sentence, for example.
  4. Model the summary on the structure of the original. Keep the size of your paragraphs in roughly the same proportion as the paragraphs of the original and in the same order. This will help you eliminate details that should not be included.

These steps may also help you write a good summary:

  1. Read the piece for understanding first. Never summarize as you read the article for the first time.
  2. Before you begin to write, check for topic sentences and key words (words that are underlined, italicized, or capitalized). These will clue you in on main ideas.
  3. Jot down the organization of the original and follow that pattern in your summary.
  4. Check your summary to be sure you have been objective. Your opinions are not part of the original!


    1. Identify the title of your article/text* and its author in the beginning of the summary. 
    2. Any words referred to as words should be italicized, e.g., The word affect is frequently confused with effect.
    3. Refer to the source/author of the information your are summarizing often in your summary.  Don't write the summary (or give your presentation) as if you were formulating all the ideas yourself.  Be sure to refer to the source of your information throughout.  e.g., Smith points out that language is a system of signs (15).

*Some of you may actually be referring to two texts and two writers in your presentation and summary:  You may be reporting on 1) Harriet Bleecher Stowe and Uncle Tom's Cabin for example as well as 2). what a critic such as Jane Tompkins has to say about Stowe's work.  Be sure to refer to Stowe as well as Tompkins in your presentation and summary.

3.  Check your summary to be sure that you have properly documented any words or phrases that you have taken from the original/source. Put direct quotations in quotation marks and use the MLA documentation system with in-text citations and a Works Cited Page.  You can find examples of MLA style in your handbook or on the Falvey Web page.