summary (composition)

Glossary of Grammatical and Rhetorical Terms

Brenda Spatt, Writing From Sources, 8th ed. (Bedford/St. Martin's, 2011).


A summary is a shortened version of a text that highlights its key points.

The primary purpose of a summary is to "give an accurate, objective representation of what the work says." As a general rule, "you should not include your own ideas or interpretations" (Paul Clee and Violeta Clee, American Dreams, 1999).

See Examples and Observations below. Also see:

From the Latin, "sum"

Examples and Observations

  • "Summarizing condenses in your own words the main points in a passage. . . .
    1. Reread the passage, jotting down a few keywords.
    2. State the main point in your own words. . . . Be objective: Don't mix your reactions with the summary.
    3. Check your summary against the original, making sure that you use quotation marks around any exact phrases that you borrow."
    (Randall VanderMey, et al., The College Writer, Houghton, 2007)
  • A Summary of the Short Story "Miss Brill" by Katherine Mansfield
    "'Miss Brill is the story of an old woman told brilliantly and realistically, balancing thoughts and emotions that sustain her late solitary life amidst all the bustle of modern life. Miss Brill is a regular visitor on Sundays to the Jardins Publiques (the Public Gardens) of a small French suburb where she sits and watches all sorts of people come and go. She listens to the band playing, loves to watch people and guess what keeps them going and enjoys contemplating the world as a great stage upon which actors perform. She finds herself to be another actor among the so many she sees, or at least herself as 'part of the performance after all.'

    "One Sunday Miss Brill puts on her fur and goes to the Public Gardens as usual. The evening ends with her sudden realization that she is old and lonely, a realization brought to her by a conversation she overhears between a boy and a girl presumably lovers, who comment on her unwelcome presence in their vicinity. Miss Brill is sad and depressed as she returns home, not stopping by as usual to buy her Sunday delicacy, a slice of honey-cake. She retires to her dark room, puts the fur back into the box and imagines that she has heard something cry."
    (K. Narayana Chandran, Texts and Their Worlds II. Foundation Books, 2005)
  • A Summary of Shakespeare's Hamlet
    "One way of discovering the overall pattern of a piece of writing is to summarize it in your own words. The act of summarizing is much like stating the plot of a play. For instance, if you were asked to summarize the story of Shakespeare's Hamlet, you might say:
    It's the story of a young prince of Denmark who discovers that his uncle and his mother have killed his father, the former king. He plots to get revenge, but in his obsession with revenge he drives his sweetheart to madness and suicide, kills her innocent father, and in the final scene poisons and is poisoned by her brother in a duel, causes his mother's death, and kills the guilty king, his uncle.
    This summary contains a number of dramatic elements: a cast of characters (the prince; his uncle, mother, and father; his sweetheart; her father, and so on), a scene (Elsinore Castle in Denmark), instruments (poisons, swords), and actions (discovery, dueling, killing)."
    (Richard E. Young, Alton L. Becker, and Kenneth L. Pike, Rhetoric: Discovery and Change. Harcourt, 1970)
  • Steps in Composing a Summary
    "Here . . . is a general procedure you can use [for composing a summary]:
    Step 1: Read the text for its main points.
    Step 2: Reread carefully and make a descriptive outline.
    Step 3: Write out the text's thesis or main point. . . .
    Step 4: Identify the text's major divisions or chunks. Each division develops one of the stages needed to make the whole main point. . . .
    Step 5: Try summarizing each part in one or two sentences.
    Step 6: Now combine your summaries of the parts into a coherent whole, creating a condensed version of the text's main ideas in your own words."
    (John C. Bean, Virginia Chappell, and Alice M. Gillam, Reading Rhetorically. Pearson Education, 2004)
  • Characteristics of a Summary
    "The purpose of a summary is to give a reader a condensed and objective account of the main ideas and features of a text. Usually, a summary has between one and three paragraphs or one hundred to three hundred words, depending on the length and complexity of the original essay and the intended audience and purpose. Typically, a summary will do the following:
    • Cite the author and title of the text. In some cases, the place of publication or the context for the essay may also be included.
    • Indicate the main ideas of the text. Accurately representing the main ideas (while omitting the less important details) is the major goal of the summary.
    • Use direct quotations of key words, phrases, or sentences. Quote the text directly for a few key ideas; paraphrase the other important ideas (that is, express the ideas in your own words.)
    • Include author tags. ("According to Ehrenreich" or "as Ehrenreich explains") to remind the reader that you are summarizing the author and the text, not giving your own ideas. . . .
    • Avoid summarizing specific examples or data unless they help illustrate the thesis or main idea of the text.
    • Report the main ideas as objectively as possible. . . . Do not include your reactions; save them for your response.
    (Stephen Reid, The Prentice Hall Guide for Writers, 2003)
  • A Checklist for Evaluating Summaries
    "Good summaries must be fair, balanced, accurate, and complete. This checklist of questions will help you evaluate drafts of a summary.
    - Is the summary economical and precise?
    - Is the summary neutral in its representation of the original author's ideas, omitting the writer's own opinions?
    - Does the summary reflect the proportionate coverage given various points in the original text?
    - Are the original author's ideas expressed in the summary writer's own words?
    - Does the summary use attributive tags (such as 'Weston argues') to remind readers whose ideas are being presented?
    - Does the summary quote sparingly (usually only key ideas or phrases that cannot be said precisely except in the original author's own words)?
    - Will the summary stand alone as a unified and coherent piece of writing?
    - Is the original source cited so that readers can locate it?"
    (John C. Bean, Virginia Chappell, and Alice M. Gillam, Reading Rhetorically. Pearson Education, 2004)
  • The Summary App: Summly
    "Upon hearing, in March of [2013], reports that a 17-year-old schoolboy had sold a piece of software to Yahoo! for $30 million, you might well have entertained a few preconceived notions about what sort of child this must be. . . .

    "The app [that then 15-year-old Nick] D'Aloisio designed, Summly, compresses long pieces of text into a few representative sentences. When he released an early iteration, tech observers realized that an app that could deliver brief, accurate summaries would be hugely valuable in a world where we read everything--from news stories to corporate reports--on our phones, on the go. . . .

    "'There are two ways of doing natural language processing: statistical or semantic,' D'Aloisio explains. A semantic system attempts to figure out the actual meaning of a text and translate it succinctly. A statistical system--the type D'Aloisio used for Summly--doesn't bother with that; it keeps phrases and sentences intact and figures out how to pick a few that best encapsulate the entire work. 'It ranks and classifies each sentence, or phrase, as a candidate for inclusion in the summary. It's very mathematical. It looks at frequencies and distributions, but not at what the words mean."
    (Seth Stevenson, "How Teen Nick D'Aloisio Has Changed the Way We Read." Wall Street Journal Magazine, November 6, 2013)
  • The Lighter Side of Summaries
    Dave Barry's Summaries of Famous Works of Literature
    "Here are some . . . famous works of literature that could easily have been summarized in a few words:
    - Moby-Dick--Don't mess around with large whales, because they symbolize nature and will kill you.
    - A Tale of Two Cities--French people are crazy.
    - Every poem ever written--Poets are extremely sensitive.
    Think of all the valuable hours we would save if authors got right to the point this way. We'd all have more time for more important activities, such as reading newspaper columns."
    (Dave Barry, Bad Habits: A 100% Fact-Free Book. Doubleday, 1985)

    A Summary of the Major Problem With Governing People
    "To summarize: it is a well-known fact that those people who must want to rule people are, ipso facto, those least suited to do it. To summarize the summary: anyone who is capable of getting themselves made President should on no account be allowed to do the job. To summarize the summary of the summary: people are a problem."
    (Douglas Adams, The Restaurant at the End of the Universe. Pan Books, 1980)

    Also Known As: abstract, precis, synopsis