What is an effective summary?

A summary provides the reader with all of the essential information, ideas, or arguments from the original source. A summary is written in your own words but it is still exclusively an explanation of another author’s ideas. It is not an evaluation, commentary, or analysis. Nothing should appear in your summary that was not included in the original text. The tone of your writing should also be neutral, never reflecting personal opinion or biases. 

A summary should be accurate, clear, and concise. 

  • Accurate – A summary must always accurately represent the original text.
  • Clear – A summary should be easy for readers to understand. This means breaking down long or complex texts into short and (relatively) simple writing. Someone with no knowledge of the original text should be able to read your summary and know what that text is about.
  • Concise – A summary is an overview. It must provide the reader with the key points from the original text in as few words as possible.

To Include or Not to Include…

A summary will not include everything from the original text. You need to select only the major points or essential information to include in your summary. Details, such as supporting evidence or examples, should not be included.

How long should it be?

There is no standard length for a summary. How long it is will depend on how much material is being summarized and how much space you have for the summary. A book might require a multi-paragraph summary or just a single paragraph. An article might need a single paragraph or just a few sentences. A general rule is that shorter is better, so condense the material as much as possible while still getting the main points across.

How to write a summary

  1. Read through the text at least twice: once to get a general idea of what is being said, and a second time while taking notes and thinking carefully about the content and organization of the text.
    • Divide the text into distinct sections. This could be by chapter, by subheadings, or even by paragraphs. Doing so will make it easier to make notes and identify key points later.
    • Consider the objective of your summary. The original text (especially longer ones) may contain multiple topics/arguments/ideas, not all of which will be relevant for your purposes.
    • Decide what is important about the original text that you want to summarize.
  2. Annotate the original text, either directly on a printed/digital copy or using separate notes. Use whatever visual style works best for you.
    • Record the source of the original text, making note of the author, publication information, and anything else you’ll need to cite this source.
    • Identify the overall thesis of the text (or section of a larger text) that you are summarizing. Write it in the margins or at the top of a separate sheet.
    • Select the main points of each section and write them out (in your own words) in the margins or on a separate sheet.
    • Organize your selected points into an outline for your summary. Feel free to reorder or arrange them in different ways from how they appear in the original text if that will ensure they make more sense. For example, you might want to group similar ideas together in your summary that didn’t appear together in the original.
  3. Write a summary that provides a clear, concise overview of the original text. Remember that you will cover only the most important points. Also remember that your summary has to make sense on its own, as a completely separate piece of writing.
    • Introduce the author and/or title of the original work when you begin your summary. You can do this by including the author’s name and using appropriate reporting verbs.
    • Compose your summary by turning the selected main points from your outline into sentences and combining them into paragraphs.
    • Review what you’ve written and compare it to the original text. Is there any essential information missing? Is your summary easily comprehensible and above all useful to a reader with no knowledge of the source material?

Sample summary

From: Introduction to the Principles of Morals and Legislation

"Other animals, which, on account of their interests having been neglected by the insensibility of the ancient jurists, stand degraded into the class of things. ... The day has been, I grieve it to say in many places it is not yet past, in which the greater part of the species, under the denomination of slaves, have been treated ... upon the same footing as ... animals are still. The day may come, when the rest of the animal creation may acquire those rights which never could have been withholden from them but by the hand of tyranny. The French have already discovered that the blackness of skin is no reason why a human being should be abandoned without redress to the caprice of a tormentor. It may come one day to be recognized, that the number of legs, the villosity of the skin, or the termination of the os sacrum, are reasons equally insufficient for abandoning a sensitive being to the same fate. What else is it that should trace the insuperable line? Is it the faculty of reason, or perhaps, the faculty for discourse?...the question is not, Can they reason? nor, Can they talk? but, Can they suffer? Why should the law refuse its protection to any sensitive being?... The time will come when humanity will extend its mantle over everything which breathes...” (283).

Jeremy Bentham (1748-1832)

There are just two main points in this passage:

1. Animals aren’t protected by the law because they are considered “things” rather than moral subjects.

2. Animals should be protected by the law because they have the capacity to suffer.

Everything else is either supporting rhetoric or specific examples of the broader points Bentham is making. Therefore they don’t need to be included.

A summary of this passage might look like this:

In Introduction to the Principles of Morals and Legislation, Bentham challenges the traditional justifications for why non-human animals are denied moral consideration under the law. Instead, he argues that the law should serve to project any individual who has the capacity to suffer (283).