As Susan Doyle notes (reference below), one of the most highly valued skills in any workplace that generates a lot of words – whether written or spoken – is the ability to effectively summarize that information into a more concise and readable form.
She says that summaries always have two important features:
- they are shorter than the source
- they capture the same message as the original but without the same words
and aim to convey the essential message (or information) accurately and succinctly, in one’s own words.
The following two sections are excerpted verbatim from the Doyle references below.
Susan Doyle’s characteristics of an effective summary
- An effective summary captures the most important information. The important information usually includes controlling ideas (purpose statements and topic sentences), major findings, and conclusions or recommendations. It usually doesn’t include any of the following: non-essential background information; the author’s personal comments or conjectures; introductions; long explanations, examples, or definitions; visuals; or data of questionable accuracy.
- An effective summary is highly readable. People read summaries to get the information they need as efficiently as possible. In a large document, the summary may be the only part a reader actually reads. Make sure to write in a readable, clear style. Translate specific details into general statements (e.g., instead of “47.3% of respondents polled said they agreed or strongly agreed that food labels should include information about the percentage of transfats the food item contained,” summarize to “Almost half of respondents want food labels to include transfats”).
- An effective summary can stand on its own. Think of your summary as a highly condensed version of the source document. All the extras have been squeezed out, but the essential meaning should still be there. A reader should be able to read, understand and find the essential meaning by reading your summary. Readers should have to turn to the source document only if they need more detail – not to get the main ideas.
- An effective summary is faithful to the original. As a rule, add nothing to the original. Avoid adding comments or modifiers that add meaning that was not in the original (e.g. “The authors correctly point out,” “The report seems to suggest,” “This important recommendation”).
- An effective summary is as concise as possible. Use the fewest words possible that still preserve all the essential meaning. Whatever you do, don’t sacrifice clarity for economy.
Susan Doyle’s guidelines for writing a summary
- Read the entire original once (or twice if necessary) without making notes. You cannot write a summary of a text you don’t fully understand. If some parts of the original are still not clear, go back and read them again. Some writers find it helpful to try to describe the key points in what they’ve just read. You can then check your understanding as you go through step 2.
- Reread the original, underlining essential information as you go. Focus on the purpose statement (if there is one) and the topic sentences in each paragraph. Try to summarize each paragraph in a sentence.
- Go through the original again, this time crossing out any underlined material that you realize is not essential.
- Draft your summary in your own words. Include everything you’re left with after step 3, even if you know there is too much. You can revise it later.
- Now edit your own version for conciseness. Cross out any words that aren’t doing any work. Wherever possible, merge related ideas into single, concise sentences.
- Go back to the original and check that you have preserved the essential information without adding any new content.
- Copyedit your summary. Check the clarity of your sentences and paragraphs. Use transitions (“as a result,” “next,” “however,” etc.) as needed to make sure the ideas flow logically.
Sources and resources
Susan Doyle (2013), Course Notes and Tips, Engl302 Writing for Government, at http://web.uvic.ca/~sdoyle/E302/Notes/SummaryNotes.html, and How to Write a Good Summary, http://web.uvic.ca/~sdoyle/E302/Notes/HowtoWriteSummary.html, accessed 10 April 2016.
Smrt English, How to Write a Summary, 3-minute video at https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=eGWO1ldEhtQ, accessed 10 April 2016.
Odegaard Writing & Research Center, How to Write a Summary, University of Washington, at https://depts.washington.edu/owrc/Handouts/How%20to%20Write%20a%20Summary.pdf, accessed 10 April 2016.
Atlas topic and subject
Page created by: Ian Clark, last modified 11 April 2016.
Image: Safeguarde.com at http://safeguarde.com/wp-content/uploads/2015/06/keep-calm-and-write-the-summary.png, accessed, 10 April 2016.