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Writing a Summary

TIP Sheet
WRITING A SUMMARY

When you tell your roommates what you remember of a particularly good talk in class, you summarize. When you give a brief oral report on a current magazine article, you summarize. And occasionally an instructor asks you to summarize in writing something you have read.

Summarizing is about extracting main ideas, main points, and major support, and omitting the rest. When you summarize, you do not draw any original conclusions, but report facts as they are presented by the author, so that a reader unacquainted with the original gets from your summary the essential facts and point of view of the original selection.

The question is this: how much detail do you include, and what do you omit? Although a well-written non-fiction work reads like a seamless whole, it is really a cascade of main points, major and minor support for those points, and examples and illustrations. And summarizing fiction presents its own challenges. That great scene at the lakeshore, the one that made you weep-is it a major or really just a minor element in the story?

This TIP sheet offers a four-step plan of attack for summarizing fiction or non-fiction books. It also offers tips for adapting this method for shorter selections.

1. Got math?
You've read the book. It had twenty-eight chapters and covered a thirty-year span in the life of the main character on two continents. There was tragedy; there was triumph over tragedy. You have to write a summary in six to eight pages. You know where to start, all right, but you are at a loss where to go from there.

Start by doing the math. Here is the math for the example above:

28 (chapters) ÷ 7 (pages) = 4 (chapters per page)

This tells you roughly how much to write about each chapter: a fourth of a page.

For shorter selections the math is different. In general, a good summary of a chapter, poem, or passage might be about a third to a fourth as long as the original; your instructor will probably suggest a length.

2. Define "main"
The main idea of a non-fiction chapter may be stated for you in an overview, chapter summary, or near the beginning of the chapter. When you look for the main ideas in fiction, you must look for events that move the story forward, or that reveal or develop character. (Although some fiction books include overviews of the events of a chapter as a kind of chapter subtitle, apply judgment in using these, as the author may have had purposes other than mere summarization in mind when he or she wrote them.)

Review the chapter briefly. Imagine yourself telling your roommate what the chapter was about. Now write a single sentence containing this main idea. This will become the topic sentence for a paragraph one-fourth of a page long.

As his friends watched Danny sink deeper into depression and apathy, they determined among themselves that a surprise party would cheer him up and began making elaborate plans for one.

Avoid wordy phrases like, "Chapter one was about..." or "In the first chapter..." Your topic sentences must be lean and mean and contain no fillers. And even though your method is a chapter-by-chapter attack, you do not want to give this away in your writing. Especially for shorter works, avoid borrowing from the original selection a phrase here and half a sentence there. The resulting patchwork will almost certainly be inadequate.

Continue reviewing each chapter the same way, constructing one sentence for each.

Finding the main idea of a short work might require a closer line-by-line reading. In a short work, the meaning of individual words is magnified, so this is no time to depend on guessing the meaning of unfamiliar words; look them up.

Some writing styles, especially archaic ones, lend themselves admirably to condensation:

If we would know what a University is, considered in its elementary ideas, we must betake ourselves to the first and most celebrated home of European literature and source of European civilization, to the bright and beautiful Athens-Athens whose schools drew to her bosom, and then sent back again to the business of life, the youth of the Western World for a long thousand years.
--John Cardinal Newman: "Site of a University"

Other styles are so abbreviated or full of information that it is more difficult to condense them. The following excerpt from Scientific American magazine, for example, although of approximately the same line length as the previous example, might be ore difficult to "boil down" further:

The outward signs on which most definitions of race are based-such as skin color and hair texture-are dictated by a handful of genes. But the other genes of two people of the same "race" can by very different. Conversely, two people of different "races" can share more genetic similarity than two individuals of the same race.
Michael J. Bamshad and Steve E. Olson: "Does Race Exist?"

3. Fill the framework
You now have a rough framework, in the form of a series of topic sentences, for your entire paper. Now write a paragraph for each. Use what you know about paragraphs (that they are only about one thing, for example) to determine what to include and what to omit. If that great scene at the lakeside changed the course of events or unexpectedly revealed that one of the characters was a deceiving cad, then you should probably include it. If it changed nothing and told you nothing new or important about the characters, but only reminded you of your own summer at Lake Tahoe, you should probably omit it. In general, also omit examples, illustrations, and figures of speech. Mention examples briefly, if at all, and translate the figures of speech into literal language.

If you find, at this point, that you have misunderstood or misstated the main idea of a chapter, rewrite the topic sentence to reflect what you now understand to be the main idea.

Each paragraph should contain only enough pertinent detail to fill up (for this example) one-fourth of a page. Some will be longer, and some will be shorter. This is okay; remember that your finished paper needs to fall in a range of six to eight pages.

 

4. Put ‘em together
When you have finished writing a paragraph for each chapter, you will have-a bunch of paragraphs. To make them hang together, you must add the transitional words, phrases, and sentences that help readers make sense of the ideas and events. Words like even though, meanwhile, besides, and because signal important relationships between ideas and events.

To do this, start by re-reading your paragraphs in pairs: Read paragraph one with paragraph two. Then read paragraph two with paragraph three. Add whatever you think would help a reader understand better. Remember that a topic sentence need not be the first sentence in a paragraph; you may want to add a transitional sentence to prepare the reader for a shift in ideas:

Until they arrived in California's Central Valley, Dust Bowl refugees clung to their expectations of land ownership and high wages; however, they found the realities of migrant worker camps to be very different.

For a summary of a shorter work, chose transitional words and phrases that accurately reflect the meaning of the original. Finally, re-read to make sure that you have made no statements not warranted by the original.

Frequently you will be asked to both summarize and evaluate, or summarize and compare with another work, or summarize and explain. Make sure you understand what length of summary your instructor wants–three pages of summary and three of evaluation? One page of summary and two of comparison? Regardless, the summary, at least, will no longer be an intimidating task, for even the lengthiest summary can be made manageable by this method.

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