6.1 Writing a Summary

Knowing how to summarize is the first step in being able to use research information in your document ethically. A summary provides an objective, condensed (shortened) description of the content of a piece of writing or presentation. Unlike a review, it does NOT analyze, evaluate, or critique; your opinion of the work is not typically part of the summary (unless you have been asked to add your thoughts afterward). Since summaries usually occur within a context (e.g., part of your report), your thoughts about what you have summarized will probably be relevant to your subsequent analysis. But when writing the actual summary of someone else’s ideas, you must neutrally and accurately describe what you take to be the important ideas in the author’s or presenter’s work in as few words as possible. Occasionally, if the work you are summarizing has an unusual form, style, or tone that affects the content, your summary might describe HOW the author presents those ideas.

What is the purpose of a summary?

(How to Write a Summary, 2012)

A summary is meant to inform your reader—who has not read the text or seen the presentation—of what the text or speech is about. It describes its purpose or main idea, and summarizes the supporting arguments that develop that idea. The summary often forms the foundation upon which a critique or new ideas rely. Following a good summary, a reader will then know if he or she will find the information useful and if reading or viewing the original is worthwhile.

In technical contexts, you will find the following types of summaries, which serve different purposes:

  • A technical summary of someone else’s ideas, in the context of a report, helps you to support and develop your ideas. You may summarize someone’s ideas because they support your own, or because they differ from yours and allow you to introduce the idea you want to argue. Someone else’s theory may provide a framework for your analysis, so you might summarize the theory before beginning your argument. A summary can act as a springboard to launch your ideas
  • An executive summary of a long or formal report that you have created informs the reader of the key points of the report. In this case, you will summarize all the main ideas, including the conclusion (and recommendations), of your report. Executive summaries are written by the report authors, and thus do not use signal phrases.
  • An abstract, written by the author(s) of a technical paper, describes the content and purpose of the report and is included at the beginning of the document. An abstract is pretty formulaic and consists of the following types of statements: problem, purpose, methods, findings, next steps or implications. Abstracts are written by the authors, and thus do not use signal phrases.
  • Conclusions: Appears at the end of a report; reiterates key ideas discussed and draws inferences based on the discussion or findings.
  • Briefing notes are often written by government workers to give the busy minister a summary of important information needed for a meeting or for a decision.

Being able to write a clear and useful summary is a valuable skill both in academic and professional contexts.

Knowledge Check

How do you write an effective academic summary?

Before you can summarize anything, you must understand the original text and do some pre-writing. Some of the most common flaws in summaries come from not completing these pre-writing steps. For example, some summary writers get bogged down in the small details and neglect to present the main idea; or they present a series of unconnected thoughts that come directly from the source, but do not coherently indicate what that source was about or how ideas were developed; occasionally, a writer may summarize the structure of a text instead of the ideas in that text. These errors occur because the pre-writing work was done poorly.

A Note About Online Paraphrasing Tools: Online paraphrasing tools are being used by many students to switch up the language of an original text in order to avoid plagiarism. It is highly ill-advised to use such a tool. The text that the machine creates is often nonsensical due to a haphazard use of vocabulary that is devoid of context. You are strongly advised not to use such tools.

Pre-writing Stage

  1. Actively read the article or pay attention to the presentation. Make notes. Make sure you understand what you are summarizing: What is its main purpose? What is the “thesis”? What are the main points that support the thesis? Explain it verbally to someone else or in free writing. Use your own words to make sure you really understand what you have read or seen.
  2. Reread the article (or your notes on the presentation, or the slides if they have been provided) and break it up into sections or “stages of thought.” Briefly summarize each section and indicate how it relates to the main idea. Again, paraphrase. Omit the finer details.
  3. Keep your purpose and intended audience in mind when you design your summary; remember, your intended reader has not read the article or seen the presentation. Why are you summarizing it? Why is your audience reading your summary?

Writing Stage

Now you are ready to begin writing your summary. Follow these steps:

  1. Provide the author’s name and title of the text being summarized. If you are summarizing a speaker’s presentation, give the presenter’s name, the title or topic of the presentation. If the context is important to your summary, give some details about the intended audience, etc.
    • In “Can Ethics be Technologized?” Peter Dombrowski (1995) critiques the idea that …
  2. Paraphrase (write in YOUR OWN WORDS) the author’s THESIS or main idea:
    • … the idea that ethics can be reduced to an objective formula or algorithm that can be implemented in any given situation. 
  3. Describe, in a neutral and objective manner, how the author supports and develops the main idea. Do not editorialize (evaluate, critique, analyze, etc.); simply describe. Keep the following in mind:
    • Summarize the key points used to develop the main idea.
    • Leave out details and examples that are not important to the main idea.
    • Do not quote from the article, or limit quotations to a single keyword or important phrase. Padding your summary with quotations is not an accepted method for summarizing.
    • Use signal phrases, such as “Dombrowski explains” and “Dombrowski asserts” to show that the ideas are not yours, but that they come from the article you are summarizing. Do not accidentally plagiarize. Do not inadvertently present the author’s ideas as your own.
    • Cite and document your source using the APA method; e.g., (Dombrowski, 1995).
    • Keep your summary at about 1/3 the length of the original.
  4. Pay attention to verb tense: summaries of ideas are generally given in the present tense, while results and findings are often given in the past tense.
    • Dombrowski explains …  (present tense)
    • Hollander’s study found that …  (past tense)

Summaries of presentations are generally given in the past tense since the presentation happened only once in the past, while a text can be read and reread several times, making it more “present.” However, a video presentation, such as a TED Talk, would likely be summarized in the present tense, much like an article, because it can be reviewed over and over again. The verb tense you should use is not subject to absolute rules; you will have to use some judgment to determine what sounds best (and what sounds awkward).

Example Reference

Dombrowski, P. M. (1995, September). Can Ethics be Technologized? Lessons from Challenger, Philosophy, and Rhetoric.  In IEEE Transactions of Professional Communication, 38.3, pp. 146-50 . DOI:  10.1109/47.406727

Rewriting Stage

Review and revise your draft using the following steps:

  1. Revise content and organization: Is it complete? Should you add any key ideas? Is it well organized? Is the content accurate? Does it follow the order of ideas of the original text?  Can you get rid of any unnecessary content? Have you used your own words and phrasing?
  2. Edit for flow:  Do ideas flow smoothly together? Are sentences clear, concise, correct and coherent? Or do they require effort to decode? Do transitions effectively indicate the relationships between ideas? Have you effectively introduced, developed and concluded?
  3. Proofread: Look for mechanical errors (typos, spelling, punctuation), and for grammar and usage errors that may have crept in during revision and editing.

Knowledge Check

Signal Phrases

Signal phrases allow you to clearly indicate when words, phrases and ideas you include in your writing come from someone else. These include verbs that introduce summaries, paraphrases, and quotations. In general, it is best to avoid verbs like

  • says (too vague)
  • writes  (too vague)
  • talks about (too informal)

Instead, use a verb that more precisely and accurately describes the author’s rhetorical intention — describe what the author is DOING in this quotation, or what rhetorical purpose the author is trying to achieve. Chapter 6.2 contains a useful table of Signal Verbs for various purposes.

 “I Can’t See the Forest for the Trees”

A summary should move from a statement of the general purpose to the specific ideas used to develop that purpose; it should be neither too vague nor too specific. There is an expression: “you can’t see the forest for the trees.” It means you get too focused on the details so you miss the “big picture.” You don’t want to be too general or too detailed. You want to give an accurate description of the forest as a whole, and quickly go over the main characteristics of the types of trees that comprise it (the key examples used to illustrate the main idea). Don’t let your summary get bogged down in the details, specific examples, and precise data (the species of fungus on the leaves of the trees).

See examples of paraphrases and summaries on the website for the Online Writing Lab at the University of Purdue.

Knowledge Check


Online Writing Lab (OWL). Paraphrase and summary exercises. University of Purdue. https://owl.purdue.edu/owl_exercises/esl_exercises/paraphrase_and_summary_exercises/index.html

Smrt English. (2012). How to write a summary [Video]. Youtube. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=eGWO1ldEhtQ


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Technical Writing Essentials Copyright © 2019 by Suzan Last is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

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