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In academic writing you often have to summarise part of a book or journal article. It is one of three ways of using another writer's work in your own (the other two being quotation and paraphrase). Your summary may be just one or two sentences, to explain the main idea of the article or compare it with another text, or it might be much longer, up to 50% of the original. This section explains the steps in writing a summary, as well as giving some useful language for summary writing. There is also a checklist to help you check your summary.
You cannot just read a text and produce a summary. You will likely miss many of the main points, and include unnecessary detail. You may also fail to paraphrase appropriately, leading to a charge of plagiarism. In order to write an effective summary, you need to follow certain steps. This begins with skimming the text to get an overall idea. After this, you should read more carefully and highlight the main points and supporting points (but ignore supporting examples and details). After this you will take notes, in your own words. You are then ready to write the summary itself. When this is done your task is not, as you should check the summary to make sure you have included all the main points and have a reference to the source.
The following flowchart outlines the steps in writing a summary.
Although most of the language in the summary will depend on the content, there are some formulaic phrases which can be used in a summary to help to make it clearer. These can be divided into three types: the frame, which begins the summary; reminder phrases, which are used throughout the summary; and transition signals, which are used in certain parts of the summary.
The frame is the main idea of the article. This is usually included in the first sentence, with a reference to the author and the main idea or argument of the text. You will also need to use a reporting verb. Some examples of frames are shown below, for an article titled "The Global Warming Crisis" by F. Brown, published in 2014. These use the Harvard stye of referencing, but can be adapted to other styles.
It is useful to remind the reader, especially in a longer summary, that you are summarising another text. This is done by using reminder phrases such as the ones shown below. Using these also helps to avoid plagiarism, as these phrases include a reference to the source, thus making clear that the ideas are not your own (a mistake many beginning academic writers make is to just include a reference at the beginning, but if the summary is long, this is not enough).
Note: In the last two examples, it is enough to include the author's name without the year (if using the Harvard style of referencing, which requires a year) as you have already given the year earlier in the summary, in the frame.
Pay attention to the organisation of the original text, and use appropriate transition signals when organising the ideas in your summary. For example, you may need comparison and contrast signals, cause and effect signals, classification signals, and so on.
Below is a checklist for summarising. Use it to check your own summary, or get a peer (another student) to help you.
|Summarising skills||All the main ideas and supporting points from the text have been included in the summary.|
|Supporting examples and details have not been included.|
|The text has been paraphrased enough to avoid plagiarism (no copied chunks).|
|Summary language||The summary includes a frame which states the main idea or argument of the summary.|
|If the summary is long, it includes reminder phrases.|
|Referencing skills||The paraphrase includes an in-text citation for the source text.|
|Meaning||The meaning of the text is the same as the original. The writer has not added their own opinion or comments in the summary.|
|Length||The length of the text is much shorter than the original.|
Bailey, S. (2000) Academic Writing. Abingdon: RoutledgeFalmer
Bauer-Ramazani, C. (2006) Guidelines for writing a SUMMARY with IN-TEXT CITATIONS. Available at http://academics.smcvt.edu/cbauer-ramazani/AEP/EN104/summary.htm (Access Date 31 December, 2015).
Odegaard Writing & Research Center (nd) How to Write a Summary. Available at http://depts.washington.edu/owrc/Handouts/How to Write a Summary.pdf (Access Date 31 December, 2015).