Writing a Good Summary

A summary is a short or abbreviated version of a longer text. To be able to shorten something (to about a quarter of its original length) and still be faithful to its content, you should express only the text’s essential points. This means that you can skip the specifics and just present the central idea and main supporting details. So do you include examples in your summary, if there are any cited in the text? Of course not; what you mention is the point of the examples, and not the examples themselves. 

And because you are cutting short the original, you should not add ideas—your own or someone else’s—to it. Equally important, you should try your best to express these ideas in your own words. Refrain from copying unless the original wording is so precise and beautiful that it will lose these virtues if you used your own words. 

If you must copy a phrase, be sure to enclose it in quotation marks because it’s not yours, otherwise you commit plagiarism. This means that you do not have to look for synonyms for all the important terms in the text; you may use the writer’s key words. Technical and scientific terms, such as ecology, genetics, and biodiversity, should not be changed. However, copying a unique phrase from the original requires the use of quotation marks, after all it’s the author’s phrasing, not yours. This is intellectual honesty.

The critical part of a summary is the first sentence. In it, you have to mention the source material (lest the reader is misled into thinking that he or she is reading your own work) and the main idea of the text. In other words, right from the beginning of the summary, you should make it clear that what you are about to present is not your idea. The statement of the main idea of the entire material in the first sentence also implies that you should have good reading comprehension. What this suggests is a careful reading and rereading of the text before you can do a decent summary of it. 

Granting that you have done the two requirements in the first sentence, then your succeeding sentences should mention the major supporting details that the text uses to develop the thesis. Thus, your summary follows a deductive order. For example:

A variant of the above summary opening is:

In the article ____________________________________________________________ (title of article), _________________________________________ (author) says/asserts that…

Let us work on a longer material now. Please read paragraphs 2-8 of “Why Genes aren’t Destiny” by John Cloud.

If you noticed, paragraphs 2 and 3 are about the interesting episodes of two extremes among the residents of Norrbotten, Sweden: the extreme experience of starvation and later its opposite, gluttony. This is followed by a discussion of interesting results from the study of the extreme experiences in Sweden – interesting because they contradict established “truths” in science about gene changes (paragraphs 4-7). The transitional devices ‘for instance,’ and ‘for example’ warn you that the examples are meant to be evidence of this unexpected finding. Then paragraph 8 proposes a tentative explanation for this finding. 

Now, what’s the main point of the paragraphs? Isn’t it that lifestyle affects the action of epigenetic marks, which effects could be passed on to the next generations? Hence, a short paragraph like this can be an acceptable summary of paragraphs 2-8.

According to Cloud, lifestyle affects the action of epigenetic marks on genes, causing them to either activate or deactivate certain genes. Thus, an unhealthy lifestyle can trigger the activation of bad genes and the silencing of good ones, resulting in sickness or even early death. Furthermore, epigenetics research has shown that the descendants of those who live unhealthy lifestyles are prone to the same problems.

Summarizing a Longer Text

To help you summarize a longer material, it is important to know the function of each paragraph in it. This will help you see the flow and interrelationship of ideas in the text. For example, the material begins with a definition and the next paragraph presents examples. So ask yourself how the second paragraph is related to the first, what its purpose is. Logic should tell you that the examples probably illustrate the definition. If the third paragraph still presents examples, then consider paragraphs 2 and 3 to serve the same function: to illustrate the definition. 

The other possible purposes or functions of paragraphs are to explain, to compare and contrast, to concede a point, to debate or question a point, to re-state, to provide proof or evidence, to transition to another point, to assert a position, to introduce an idea, and to conclude. The number of paragraphs that the writer devotes to a certain function indicates the importance of the idea in the material. This should suggest probable inclusion of the idea in your summary. If several paragraphs serve the same function, one sentence can summarize this part of the article. All in all, you will probably come up with several sentences. Now to write a good summary, connect these sentences by using appropriate linkers (similarly and on the contrary), conjunctions, and transitional devices (moving on to the next point, and still another factor is). 

Let’s have some practice. Go back to the article on texting found on page 22 of Unit I. This excerpt from a book contains six paragraphs. Analyze the function of each paragraph in order to see the idea development in the material.