Summary Skills


Learning Objectives

  • identify annotation strategies
  • identify strategies to paraphrase a text’s thesis statement
  • identify strategies to identify and quote significant passages from a text
  • identify strategies to distinguish a text’s major claims from minor ones
  • identify strategies to convey the essential features of a text to someone who hasn’t read it

Being able to accurately summarize a reading to someone else is the ultimate demonstration that you understand the reading’s contents.

Consider this fun example of a summary from the “30-Second Bunny Theater” series: Star Wars in 30 Seconds and Re-enacted by Bunnies.

This recap of the well-known movie Star Wars is a blend of major plot points and fan-favorite scenes. In other words, it conveys all the major points of the film. It also adds a couple of supporting details to capture the flavor of the entire movie. Plus bunny ears.


As we’ve learned in earlier sections, active reading involves multiple steps. Even experts in a field expect to read a new piece of writing several times before they feel they understand it fully. Following the same steps that advanced readers do will help you become an advanced reader yourself.

The Secret is In the Pen

One of the ways experienced readers read is with a pen in hand. They know their purpose is to keep their attention on the material by:

  • predicting what the material will be about
  • questioning the material to further understanding
  • determining what’s important
  • identifying key vocabulary
  • summarizing the material in their own words, and
  • monitoring their comprehension (understanding) during and after engaging with the material

Strategies for Annotation

You remember from the SQ3R approach to reading, that there are five general steps to reading: Surveying, Questioning, Reading, Reciting, and Reviewing.

The process of annotation will be especially useful for the Questioning and Reading steps of the SQ3R process. This video provides a demonstration of annotation in action.

As you annotate, focus on some or all of the following:

  • Definitions. Look up and write down definitions of unfamiliar words.
  • Concepts. Underline what you think are the most important, interesting, or difficult concepts.
  • Tone. Note the writer’s tone–sarcastic, sincere, witty, shrill.
  • Biases. Look out for the writer’s biases and unstated assumptions (and your own).
  • Responses. Ask questions and note your own reactions and insights.
  • Connections. Make connections with other texts you have read or your own experiences.

Paraphrasing a Text’s Thesis Statement

We’ve discussed the fact that every piece of writing has a thesis statement, a sentence that captures the main idea of the text. Some are explicit–stated directly in the text itself. Others are implicit–implied by the content but not written in one distinct sentence.

You’ll remember that the “How to Identify a Thesis Statement” video offered advice for locating a text’s thesis statement. Remember when it asks you to write 1 or 2 sentences that summarize the text? When you write that summary, without looking at the text itself, you’ve actually paraphrased the thesis statement.

Review this process by re-watching the video here.

Paraphrasing is a skill that asks you to capture the idea of a text, without using any of the same words. This is harder to do than it might first appear. Like advanced reading skills, it takes practice to do well.

As you paraphrase, keep the following tips in mind:

  • Paraphrases are roughly the same length as the original text. If the thesis sentence is a medium-length sentence, your paraphrase will also be a medium-length sentence (though it doesn’t have to have exactly the same number of words).
  • Paraphrases use entirely distinct wording from the original text. Common small words like “the” and “and” are perfectly acceptable, of course, but try to use completely different nouns and verbs. If needed, you can quote short snippets, 1-2 words, if you feel the precise words are necessary.
  • Paraphrases keep the same meaning and tone as the original text. Make sure that anyone reading your paraphrase would understand the same thing, as if they had read the original text you paraphrased.

Major vs. Minor Ideas

The following presentation offers advice about distinguishing major ideas in a text from minor ones. When you’re asked to write a summary of something you read, you’ll want to focus only on the major ideas, since minor ideas aren’t generally included in summaries.

On slide 6, can you identify which are the major ideas of the paragraph, and which are the minor ones?

Choosing Appropriate Quotes

Pretty much every piece of writing you do for college, whether it’s an informal post or a formal essay, will be in response to something you’ve read—and that means you have to quote. Sometimes you’ll rely on outside sources to introduce an idea, define a technical term, or provide supporting evidence for your own argument. Sometimes you’ll use a quote to illustrate different positions on an issue, or as an example of an argument you’ll go on to disagree with in your paper. But no matter why you’re using a quote, remember: what YOU have to say is more important than what the quote has to say.

Clip art of quotation marks

How to Pick Appropriate Quotes

1. Return to the annotations you made during the reading process. These should point to quotes & passages that you found compelling as you read.

2. For each quote, ask yourself:

  • Does the quotation say something in an original or unusually vivid and powerful way that is hard to paraphrase?
  • Does the quotation come from someone with first-hand experience with the issues?
  • Does the quotation come from an expert whose authority is particularly important?

3. If the answer to any of these questions is yes, make a note of it next to the quote and hold onto it. If the answer to all of these questions is no, you don’t need the quote—set it aside.


Once you’ve identified a text’s thesis statement, major ideas, and quotations that are valuable, you’ll be prepared to draft a summary of that text.

Remember, the goal of a summary is to convey the overall meaning of the text to someone who has not read it. You are the expert about this text, and you’re sharing your expertise with others through your summary.