Streamlining the Summary

Good summarizing skills are essential to success in college and in the real world. You will use them to condense different reading assignments in a course and to integrate these with each other and with class notes; you will also use summarizing skills to prepare to write research papers. Summarizing is efficient – it saves you time — and it helps you distinguish between more and less important material. Your professors require you to write summaries because they know that you cannot summarize material until you understand it fully.

The Definition

A summary is a statement, in your own words, of the main idea(s) and significant details of something you have read, heard, or seen. It is brief, unlike a paraphrase, which is about as long as the original material and restates the whole thing in your own words. However, it is also complete; it should cover, briefly, all the important points. Finally, unlike a critique, which judges the material by some criteria, a summary is objective.

The Process

The process of summarizing an article begins with reading it through once, paying particular attention to the kind of article it is. For example, what is the writer's purpose? What research methods has the writer used? Does the writer relate the research to previous work? Does the writer reach generally applicable conclusions? Does the writer support statements and conclusions? What types of evidence does the author cite? If you finish your first reading with the answers to these questions, you are ready to re-read!

Take notes on your second reading. Write a one-sentence summary of each subdivision of the article. Start by trying to summarize (preferably in one sentence) sections that have their own headings; if a section goes on for more than a page, decide where to subdivide it yourself. When you have finished reading the article this second time, you should have a kind of outline of it in complete sentences. This is also an outline of your paper, if you have been assigned a detailed summary; it is the body of your summary if you are supposed to be very concise.

At this point, you are ready to write the summary (sometimes called a précis). First, write your thesis sentence, in which you restate the main point of the article; in a research article, your thesis will usually be the results of the study. Write an introduction that identifies the article's topic, title, author, source, and includes the thesis. Use the sentences you wrote during your second reading as topic sentences or paragraphs in the body or group them into one or two paragraphs, depending upon the length of your assignment. Restate your thesis and list any recommendations made by the author in a concluding paragraph.

The Review

When you have finished your first draft, check it against the assignment, the article, and the criteria for a good summary, making any necessary revisions. Check this draft for its clarity, coherence, and correctness. Then, read it aloud and revise as needed. If you have understood your article completely and followed these instructions, then you should have a competent summary.

A content summary provides an objective, concise summary of the key points of an article, book, essay, or lecture. A summary should succinctly identify the article's topic, title, author, source, and thesis. The following is a standard (unembellished) format for a content summary; do note, however, that different disciplines may have their own conventions. In particular, some disciplines prefer a more developed introductory paragraph—one that provides a more interesting opening and that puts the text under discussion into a broader context. Additionally, some disciplines use the past tense in a summary, while others prefer the present tense. If in doubt, ask your instructor for a sample.


In [name of article], published in [date, source], the author [name and major descriptors for author] defines, describes, claims [active verb describing the author's purpose in writing the article] that [statement of the author's thesis]. [Name of author] offers [active verb], the following arguments: ---, ---, and --- [list of major ideas covered in the article].

Body Paragraphs

Highlight key points that the author makes, delineating the major sections of the work. Include supporting evidence only if needed to convey what the author did and how he or she developed the major ideas. Avoid analysis and personal statements; instead, put into your words the author's main points.


Restate the author's thesis; avoid personal statements about the work.

Sample Introductions for a Summary

Sample One

In “Nature Cannot be Fooled,” originally published in the St. Louis Post-Dispatch, Washington University Professor Jonathan Katz asserts that American society denies reality, and, instead, lives as if its “wished-for fictions” were “true.” Katz further contends that this distorted view of reality manifests itself in many negative ways—from public heath policy to education.

Sample Two

In his influential 1936 essay, “Beowulf: The Monsters and the Critics,” J.R.R. Tolkien takes Beowulf scholars to task for mining the poem solely for historic evidence about the Anglo-Saxon period, rather than reading it as a great and inspiring work of literature. Although he agrees that its historical value is high, he argues that Beowulfis so powerful as a poem that its literary qualities far outshine its historical value. He acknowledges that some critics do read the poem as a poem, but even they miss its most important qualities….

Teresa Sweeney & Fran Hooker
Webster University Writing Center, 2005