The Moves of Writing Summaries

Ho'omana Nathan Horton and Paul Sims

Now that we have discussed the two basic types of summary (descriptive and evaluative) and some possible reasons you might use either one, we will give a few practical tips for writing summaries, including how to organize your summary, which details you should include from the original text, and a few grammar points that can be tricky.

5.1 Organization

The organization of a summary will almost always follow the overall organization of the original text. Remember that in a descriptive summary, your goal is to convey the same information as the original text in a more concise manner. However, there may be some exceptions to this, especially when writing evaluative summaries. While it is still essential to express the main points of the text, you may want to highlight some strengths or flaws in the text through your organization.

5.2 Including details

One of the most common difficulties students have when writing summaries is deciding which details and information to include. A summary, whether descriptive or evaluative, should portray the overall meaning of the text (remember our metaphor about shrinking a t-shirt), but it can be difficult to balance showing the full picture with providing unnecessary details. Here are a few tips for deciding which details to include:

  • Include one or two examples at most for each main idea presented in the body of your summary. Remember that in a descriptive summary especially, your objective is to give a general idea of what the text was about, so avoid including too many details. When writing an evaluative summary, it may be appropriate to give more details or examples when examining one particular idea in the text.
  • When writing, and especially when revising, consider whether the examples or details that you include are necessary to explain or support the main ideas of the text. Will your reader be able to understand the thesis and main points of the text without the detail or example?
  • Unless you are providing specific details (numbers, important quotes, etc.), express details and examples in your own words by paraphrasing. Many writers fall into the trap of simply copying and pasting information from the original text. Even if the quotation is properly cited (we’ll discuss how to do this more below), too many direct quotations cause the summary to simply be a patchwork of the original text rather than a concise summary in your own words which still shows the overall image and main point of the text.

5.3 Language moves

There are a few important grammatical features that are common to summaries which may seem minor or unimportant, but can actually have a significant effect on the meaning of your writing.

Let’s begin by reading the following very brief summary. Focus especially on the verbs, how and when they are used, and their tense. Take notes of the things you notice.

In the essay “Making the Grade,” Kurt Weisenfeld, a professor of Physics at Georgia Tech University, argues that there has been a discernible decline in his students’ work ethic over the last generation. Based on his own personal interactions with his students, he observed that many of his students failed to see the connection between their final grades and their own personal hard work (or lack thereof). Rather, they seemed to feel they are simply entitled to the grades they want. Weisenfeld theorizes that their indifference towards learning is the result of a society saturated with superficial values and the “erosion of quality control” for grades in the public education system (e.g. giving out grades that were not really earned). Because most of his students are science and engineering majors, he fears that their poor work ethic and “hyperrational thinking” could potentially result in costly or harmful engineering accidents.

There are two prominent features in this summary which are important for any summary:

1. The author uses verbs that indicate they are summarizing. For example, “Kurt Weisenfeld […] argues that,” “Weisenfeld theorizes that,” and “he fears that.” Generally, when you write a summary, your reader (whether a professor, a colleague, or yourself) will know that you are summarizing from another text. However, it is still important to indicate that you are summarizing because it helps you to ensure that you are summarizing the author’s ideas rather than your own. This is essential when writing an evaluative summary because you must keep the author’s ideas and your evaluation of those ideas separate.

2. The author primarily uses present tense (“argues”, “theorizes”, “fears”), but also uses the past tense (“observed”). Why do you think the author selects these tenses? What difference would it make if the author said “Weisenfeld theorized that…” in line 5? The use of tense when talking about someone else’s work or writing is a challenge for almost all academic writers, regardless of how long they have been writing, and unfortunately there are no hard and fast rules as to which tense should be used when. However, there are some general principles which can help you decide which tense to use:

a. Generally, the present tense is used to describe an idea or argument which an author put forth in the text. It helps to think of a text as the author talking to you. Although the author finished writing this idea down at some point in the past, they are still presently making this statement or argument through the text. An exception to this would be if you know for a fact that the author has since renounced their idea, or no longer believes it.

b. Generally, the past tense is used to describe an event or action that occurs in the text. For example, this is commonly used to talk about the methodology or events that the author used to reach their conclusions or support their

c. It is important to note that the use of tense can also indicate the writer’s stance on the idea reported. If the writer uses present tense, he or she is not questioning the idea, but accepting it as still valid. If the writer uses past tense, he or she often will go on to show that the idea is no longer valid or that the writer disagrees with it.



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The Moves of Writing Summaries Copyright © 2020 by Ho'omana Nathan Horton and Paul Sims is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

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