How to Write a Good Summary

A summary is a reduced form of a text that is expressed in one’s own words and should contain all of the essential information from the original text.

Writing a summary is one of the most important key study techniques because it can be useful for memorising and reviewing information. It also helps to practice test taking skills because one can improve their vocabulary and writing skills. It increases reading comprehension because it requires one to identify the main ideas of a text and it also helps to better organise information both written and orally when making presentations.

A summary requires a person to fully understand the text and therefore it can only be made by first identifying, selecting and then structuring the most important information. The following are some useful steps to writing a good summary:

  1. First, read through all of the content to be summarised. This helps to get an idea of the main ideas of the text which commonly answer the following questions: What is the text trying to say? What parts does it include? What does each part say?Then, read the text a second time so that you can highlight and underline the main and supporting ideas of the text. It is important to differentiate that in this phase you are just highlighting the main ideas and not trying to study the text so words or phrases should be highlighted and it may help to use one colour for main ideas and another for secondary.If it is not possible to highlight or underline the original, make a list of ideas on a piece of paper or sketch an outline.

    It is generally recommended to highlight no more than eight words in a paragraph and those words should mostly be nouns.

  2. Use the highlighted or underlined words as a base to write a brief summary of the text making sure to use your own words. Using complete sentences from the original document is an extract, not a summary and that is considered plagiarism if you use sentences from the original text as your own.A summary should start with the general idea of the original text, then the main ideas and finally the secondary ideas.

    It is important to establish a relationship between all of the ideas so that it can be read coherently. As it is a summary of a different text, it is possible to follow a different order as long as it can still be read coherently.

    Remember that this should reflect the original ideas of the text, so the summary should not include new and different information from what the original text is trying to convey. If the person writing the summary would like to add their own opinion on a point, they should consider that this is a specific type of commentary and should be done as objectively as possible in addition to making it clear where they have stated their opinion.

  1. A summary is a shortened version of a text so it should not be more than a third of the original.Some useful advice for writing a summary successfully:
  • Use paraphrasing language instead of “in”: This refers to using verbs like (the author/test) goes on to say that…, further states that…, maintains/argues/believes that…, concludes…, etc. instead of saying “in this article…”
  • Follow some form of order: from more general to more specific.
  • Avoid using verbs in the past tense: A summary is less about narrating the content and more about explaining; therefore a summary requires verbs in the present tense, no matter how many past events are discussed.
  • Avoid using first person singular: First person singular is good for expressing opinions but a good summary involves explaining information without giving opinions on it. It is better to use the third person singular.
  • Try to simplify the information as much as possible: Many times there are words in sentences that can be eliminated or phrases can be shortened, for example, “The medical treatments are explained to the patient who are diagnosed with cancer” can be shortened to “The medical treatments are explained to the cancer patients”.
  • Avoid copying literal fragments from the text: To avoid this, it is recommended to write the summary without having the original text in front of you but just the main and secondary ideas in an outline or a list of key words. Once the summary has been made it can be compared to the original.

If the original text has quotes from other writers, they should not be quoted. It is important to get the essence of what they mean to say and re-write it using your own words.

  • Avoid listing things: Substitute lists for only one term that covers everything, for example, “The effects of screens were explained” instead of writing “The effects of television, mobile phones and tablets were explained”.  
  • Use linking words: This refers to all words or groups of words that link sentences or paragraphs and help create a cohesive text. The most common types of linking words for summaries are:
  • Generally explaining: In order to, in other words, that is to say…
  • Contrast: Although, despite, even though, while, whereas…
  • Adding Information: Additionally, also, besides, moreover…
  • Sequence: Next, later, as soon as, firstly, secondly…

We hope that these suggestions appear useful and that you can apply them to make great summaries. If you would like to learn more about effective study techniques, check out our blog post on using concept maps.

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