New College Writing Program

Giving Your Readers the Gist: Summarizing

We build on own research and on own thinking on the research and thinking of others. When we write, we often have to share that work, so that audiences understand the scope of our ideas and to acknowledge the work of our peers. From an academic perspective, this acknowledgement (citation) is a strict matter of fairness and of information sharing.

Because readers don’t have time to read all the articles and books that our work draws on, we need to present the work of others in brief. In other words, we need to summarize.

We’ve talked about annotation as an active, engaging critical interaction with text. Now doubt you can see already how critical reading and careful annotation could prepare you to write a strong response to what you read. Before we offer a response, however, it is crucial to be sure we understand the text and are able to convey its overall content to our readers. In short, we need to become skillful at summarizing what we read.

The move from careful annotation to summarizing texts takes us more fully from reading into writing. If annotations are our reading notes, summarizing is an important way we gather those notes and craft them for readers. Summarizing the texts you read, or just portions of those texts, is among the most important kinds of writing you will do as a researcher. Summarizing requires us to capture “the gist” of what we’ve read with economy, that is, in far fewer words than the original, without distorting or reducing meaning. It’s a tough balance, but much rides on it. Summarizing is one of the ways we integrate our ideas with those of others.

There are nuances to consider in constructing a successful summary. For instance, many writers inadvertently supplement summaries with their own opinions and thoughts about the text or topic. Opinions and thoughts are fine if one is writing a response a text or topic that has already been well established for readers.. A summary, however, must remain true to the original piece. It simply and plainly reiterates the main points of something you have read. To put in what you think about that piece – whether it was good, bad, short, silly, boring, etc. – is not acceptable. No editorializing!

Another element often overlooked when writing summaries is the importance of including attributive tags, which we cover in the next section. You, as the writer of the summary, need to include these tags so that your readers understand that the information presented is not coming from you but from another source.  

The following is a list of characteristics of a strong summary. Remember, however, that how you are using the summary in your own writing should determine some of its features. Sometimes a very brief summary will be most appropriate, but if you need your readers to have a deeper understanding of what you have read, a more detailed summary may be in order. Generally speaking:

1. A summary is brief, written to a length appropriate for a particular writing situation.
2. It is written with sensitivity to the needs and expectations of the audience.
3. It presents the information in the same order and in the same proportion as the original.
4. It provides that information clearly and objectively.
5. It does not include statistics, numbers, quotations, or includes them only  if they are central to the overall meaning of the text.
6. It is written economically and precisely.
7. It uses attributive tags to acknowledge ideas belonging to the author (“Murphy notes. . .”).
8. It doesn’t offer opinion, comment, praise or criticism.

The length of your summary depends on how you are working it into your own writing. Maybe you only have time for a quick summary, just one or two sentences. Maybe you want to give your readers a fuller sense of the text you are introducing. Below, we have summarized Douglass’s chapter three times in three different degrees of detail.

One-sentence summary:

In Chapter Seven of Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, an American Slave, Douglass recounts the difficult process of learning to read, which would be crucial for his escape.

Three sentence summary:

In Chapter Seven of Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, an American Slave, Douglass recounts the difficult process of learning to read and write despite the opposition of his owners and anti-literacy slave laws. Through a series of clever deceptions, he defies the restrictions of his situation to gain literacy and in the process gains a stronger sense of self and political purpose. This confrontation with sanctions against slave literacy teaches Douglass about the power of language as a political tool, and ultimately, as a means of escape.

Paragraph-length summary:

In Chapter Seven of Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, an American Slave, Douglass recounts the difficult process of learning to read and write despite the opposition of his owners and anti-literacy slave laws. The process begins with his arrival in Baltimore at “Master Hugh’s” and takes years to accomplish. Through a series of clever deceptions, he defies the restrictions of his situation to gain literacy and in the process gains a stronger sense of self and political purpose. For example learning to read allows Douglass to learn about the abolitionist and thus to conceive of life beyond slavery. It is his good fortune to obtain a copy of The Columbian Orator, which contained well-known speeches touching on the subjects of slavery and freedom. Douglass recalls the often-painful experience of self-awareness, which accompanied the acquisition of literacy and greater knowledge by which he learned to understand more deeply the degradation of slavery. He even claims to have envied the relative ignorance of his fellow slaves who were still mired in illiteracy and so did not understand the full cruelty of their captivity. Nonetheless, Douglass’s growing knowledge is accompanied by a strong sense of his right to freedom, and he resolves to use his writing skills to forge a written pass from his owner as a means of escape.

Practice summarizing text by working through this Exercise.

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