The Purpose of Summaries

Ho'omana Nathan Horton and Paul Sims

When a writer sees “summary” as part of his or her instructions on how to write something, this can fill the writer with dread. The writer’s mind might begin to seem backlogged with questions, such as What is a summary?, Why do I need to do this?, What if I leave out something important?, and What if I plagiarize and don’t even realize it?

With the appropriate level of understanding and preparation, a writer needing to develop a summary can be better able to face such a task with greater confidence and skill.

What are some reasons why someone might want to summarize something?

  • Improve understanding (current self). When you summarize something, you are engaging a thought process which grants you the opportunity to internalize the subject undergoing summary and produce a work which helps you put the concepts into a shape which you can more readily comprehend because you did the work to make sense of it.
  • Create a concise version for future reference (future self). Especially when conducting research on a topic, you might not be able to keep every resource you need on hand at all times. An example of something like this is an annotated bibliography. Also, you may want to keep a record of sorts of the kinds of resources you’ll need for different research topics and directions. A summary for future reference can help you at some future point when you need to analyze a source for usefulness.
  • Show someone or some number of other people that you understand (others). There are times when you will need to demonstrate your ability to comprehend and communicate others’ ideas, such as in a complex research paper or when showing an instructor what you learned from different readings. How will each of these audiences affect the way that you write your summary? Audience is a paramount consideration in how one chooses to approach the development of a piece of writing. So, how do you go about dealing with the different audiences within these reasons we’ve mentioned: current self, future self, and others?


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The Purpose of 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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