Summarizing is an important academic and everyday life skill. A summary is a condensed restatement, in your own words, of another piece of writing (typically, though it could be a speech, presentation, video, or other medium). Writing a summary will help you understand another piece of writing. When you restate an essay’s or article’s main ideas in your own words, it helps you internalize those main ideas, clarify them, and better understand them.
The Process of Writing a Summary
1. Read. Before you create a summary/response, complete a careful reading of the text. To do this, use a pen, pencil, or highlighter and mark the reading as you go. You may want to put stars next to information that feels important, circle new words that you are unfamiliar with, draw question marks next to passages that are unclear, write questions you have and connections you make in the margins that occur as you read, and use any other symbols that help you find meaning in the text. This will improve your comprehension of the reading and help you with the rest of the process. When you are done reading and marking (writing notes on what you are reading as you read it), answer the following questions:
• What is the topic of the reading? (This is a word or phrase that answers the question: “What is the text about?”)
• What is the main idea/thesis of the entire essay/article? (This is the most important thing being said about the topic. It is a general statement that all of the information in the reading supports. It can be a lesson or important point that is made. This statement reflects and unifies the entire meaning of the reading.)
• What evidence is used to support the thesis or main idea you wrote down? (Identify the big ideas in the reading that explain and support the main idea/thesis.)
• What is in the reading that made you draw the conclusion as to what the main idea/thesis is?)
Keep in mind that to effectively write a summary/response, you must completely understand the text you read. Marking helps you do just that. If, after reading and marking the text, you are still unclear as to what it means, revisit it again and again until you are comfortable with the information in it.
2. Summarize. A summary is a reflection of the author’s ideas, not your ideas about what you read. Summaries capture the writer’s main idea and the most important evidence that supports it. Keep in mind that a summary is a condensed version of what you read. When writing a summary, do not write your own opinions or judgments about what you read. Capture the most important ideas from the text and shorten and paraphrase them. The summary should be a concise-but-thorough, fair, objective restatement of the original text. It should reflect the author’s viewpoint, not your own. Consider starting your summary paragraph by typing the title of the reading, followed by the author’s name, and the main idea. For example, an opening line of a summary/response might look like this: In “Son of Saddam,” Don Yaeger states* that Uday Saddam used his position of authority to abuse and scare athletes instead of motivating them. (*Pick an appropriate present tense verb: claims, explains, defends, insists, asserts, compares, warns, observes, condemns, suggests, refutes, shows, etc.) Note: After the first mention of the author’s full name, refer to him or her only by the last name: Smith argues . . . instead of John argues . . .
Follow this by explaining the textual support for your statement. Write it in your own words. In fact, as you write your summary, it is best to put away the reading after having read, marked, and fully understood it. Why? Because if you have the reading right in front of you as you write, you may be more likely to “borrow” exact language from the reading by copying it down verbatim (word-for-word) from the direct source. When you put away the reading and complete writing a summary from your memory, you verify that you understood what you read and are more likely to use your own words instead of the exact ones of the author. You may want to think of it this way: What would you say if a friend asked you what that movie was about that you saw last weekend? Chances are you could rattle off a good summary of the movie without much effort. You have forgotten the details, but you remember the highlights. The same is true here: What was that essay about that you read yesterday?
Once your summary feels complete, take out the text you read and your summary and compare the two for accuracy. After having written a summary, the next step is to check it for a main idea/ thesis, appropriate and adequate evidence that backs the main idea/thesis, a summary statement (restatement of the main idea/thesis), and transitions throughout that move the reader from one idea to the next. Some transitions typically used for summaries include the following: in short, in summary, furthermore, and in addition. One last tip is to avoid writing statements such as the following in a summary: This essay is about….Statements like this feel vague and general. They are considered novice techniques. Use language that is more concrete for your summary.
A response is a commentary on another piece of writing. Developing a response will help you make personal connections with the ideas in the essay. Instructors might use question prompts to help guide you in creating a focused response on a particular aspect of an assigned reading. Using a focusing question may help you stay on track and prevent the potentially frustrating and superficial task of trying to respond to everything in the essay in just one or two pages.
The summary captures only the author’s ideas; however, the response includes your own. The response is the place for your opinions, interpretations, and evaluations. The most important aspect of writing a response is to create a main idea/statement (it may be your nutshell answer to an assigned focusing question) and back it up with specific evidence. Depending on the focus of the response, it might include observations about the writer’s technique, commentary on tone or literary strategy, views as to effectiveness of the writing, relationships between the author’s ideas and your own, an analysis of content, or any number of items. If a focusing question is required, make sure the entire response directly connects to (somehow serves to answer/support the answer) the focusing question. Note: If you use verbatim (word-for-word) material from the essay or article, be sure it is accurate and enclose it with quotation marks. This tells the reader that you are using the author’s exacts words, not your own, and gives credit to the author. However, in this type of writing, use quotations sparingly, and try to keep them short.
The Summary/Response Assignment
Throughout this course and other courses, you may be asked to write one or more summary/responses to an assigned reading such as an essay or article. This assignment combines the skills of summarizing and responding to a text. Pay close attention to the assignment guidelines provided by the instructor as length requirements may vary, and sometimes a prompt or choice of prompts will be provided while other times the student may be expected to provide his or her own focus for the response. Following is an example of a Summary/Response:
In his essay, “How to Make It in College, Now That You’re Here,” author Brian O’Keeney offers a process readers can follow to be successful in college. The author’s first tip addresses grades. He says that if students want good grades, they will need to apply themselves. This means finding a quiet place to study, completing all homework on time, and rewarding themselves when finished. O’Keeney says to glance over the textbook and get a basic idea of assignments before beginning. Then, take notes on key-terms and important subjects. Students need to look over notes frequently and study from them, so they really absorb the material. He stresses to ask instructors for help if needed, take a college skills course, or get a tutor. The second step in O’Keeney’s process involves managing responsibilities. He offers three tips: mark down all assignments and tests in a planner or calendar, block out times to study, and brainstorm weekly task lists. The author acknowledges that personal problems often get in the way of success. If the problems are serious, seek support from friends and a professional if needed. Also, be sure to utilize services offered at the school. O’Keeney ends his essay by analyzing why some students never succeed in college. He thinks it comes down to attitude. Students with good attitudes tend to succeed in school. He urges students to participate, be active listeners, be mature, and focus on their goals.
“What obstacles to success have you encountered in school (college or high school)? How have you attempted to overcome these obstacles?”
The biggest obstacle to success I have encountered was during my first semester at Bay. In high school, I earned pretty good grades, A’s and B’s, without having to work too hard. I handed in my homework on time and attended class regularly, but I didn’t spend too much time studying for tests, and I usually did the minimum required. I was able to complete most of my work during class, so I didn’t really have too much homework. When I started Bay last fall, I had a rude awakening. It was not as easy as high school. I didn’t get as much time during my classes to finish homework. Often times, especially in math class, the assignment was given the last few minutes of class, so I couldn’t even get a start on it. Being the procrastinator I am, I usually wouldn’t even start the homework until a few hours before class. Often times, I had to skip several questions because I just didn’t know how to do them. In class, I just handed in what I had. I didn’t ask questions or get a tutor. I figured I would still earn a decent grade. I was wrong. I failed the first test. I guess that was my awakening. After that, I got a tutor who helped me with the homework and helped me study for the next test. I got a B on the second test. My obstacle was definitely that I just wasn’t used to studying. I didn’t know how to do it effectively. I think I’ve overcome that obstacle pretty well.
Another obstacle I encountered my first semester at Bay was a lack of responsibility on my part. In high school, I relied on my teachers and my parents to remind me of assignments, of where I put my books, of what I should do if I missed school. In college, it’s all on me. About two weeks into the semester, I overslept and missed my psychology class. The class didn’t meet until 10 a.m., so my parents and brother had already left for school. When I finally made it the college, I asked my psychology teacher what I missed, and he told me that there had been a quiz that I couldn’t make up and that I’d have to get notes from another student. I was surprised. In high school, the teacher usually handed me a packet of papers and told me to stay after school to make up a test if I had missed one. My psychology teacher told me that this policy was outlined in the syllabus. I must admit, I didn’t even keep that huge ream of stapled paper he handed out the first day of class. I guess I should have. I learned quickly that college was different and that I needed to get my act together and pay more attention to how college works. I was being treated as an adult, which was something I wasn’t used to. As for that obstacle—taking responsibility for my own success (or failure)—I’m still working on it. I’ve gotten better, but I still struggle. I’ve thought about hiring a secretary, but then I’d have to get a job, another responsibility that I’m just not ready for yet.