Relax--you already know how to summarize!

A, Summarizing is extremely easy for humans, and even a small child almost instinctively knows how to summarize. (Any time a child “tattles” on another, she or he is probably summarizing.)

B. It is easier to summarize if you read the complete text first, and then go back over it and summarize it paragraph by paragraph. The meaning will often become clearer by this method. For summarizing difficult texts, find and underline or highlight whatever you think is the main idea or topic sentence of each paragraph, then paraphrase each main idea , and finally, build your summary around these paraphrases, adding specific names, dates and facts as given in the text. 

C. Why do a summary?  Summarizing is a powerful learning-tool.  Summarizing, like translating, forces you to “get in bed with the text,” to become intimate with it.

D. Summaries are specific, not hazy and lazy.  To describe September 11 as “a time when some terrorists took over a bunch of airplanes and rammed them into buildings” is not a fat-free summary, it already starved to death.  The only thing to do with a summary like that is to give it a decent burial in the wastebasket and start over from scratch. In college-level work, the more specific names, dates and facts (who, what, when, where, why, how) that you include, the better the summary is. 

E. Never include any information or conclusions, no matter how obvious, that were not openly stated in the original text.  If it looks like a duck, walks like a duck and quacks like a duck but your original text failed to call it a duck, you cannot call it a duck in your summary either, as clear as it may be to you and to your readers that it is a duck. 

F. A summary should not be just a quilt of quotes sewn together with joining words (that's an abstract)!.  Important: A summary should never have more than one short quote in every two or three paragraphs of your own words. 

G. A very challenging but very useful form of summarizing is to read the text, put it aside, and then summarize it without looking at the original (or wait an hour, or a day, to summarize it). Summarizing without the text in front of you is a workout for your working memory. It is a useful study technique to prepare for university courses where you will need to read, understand, learn and give back a large amount of information or complex ideas and involved reasoning on closed-book essay exams. It will also be useful in the “real world,” where you will have to put all your book-learning to work.

H. If you really know a subject, you will be able to summarize it. If you cannot summarize a subject, even if you have memorized all the facts about it, you can be absolutely sure that you have not learned it. And, if you truly learn the subject, you will still be able to summarize it months or years from now—if you cannot, we have failed. (“Cramming” for an exam is a bad joke—it is not and never was learning!)

I. Summaries can have several purposes: At the high school level they are a good way for teachers to check whether you actually read the assigned text or not. At the college level, we automatically assume you have done the assignment, but we often ask for a summary to see if you correctly understood the text you read. In the “real world” all of us use summaries all the time, to make long, complex text faster and easier to understand. In college, always be aware of the reason why you are doing any specific reading or writing assignment, such as a summary—if you do not know, ask your professor or instructor.  The purpose will usually determine what type of summary to write.

J. Some things cannot be successfully summarized, either because they consist entirely of key information, they are already summarized, or their main purpose is not to convey information at all.  A math book, a dictionary, a grocery list, a beautiful poem, the phone directory or the Ten Commandments probably cannot be summarized.

 Engl 0310 (rev 9/2006)  OW

For educational purposes only.


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