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How to Write a Summary (Examples Included)

Ashley Shaw

Ashley Shaw

How to write a summary

Have you ever recommended a book to someone and given them a quick overview? Then you’ve created a summary before!

Summarizing is a common part of everyday communication. It feels easy when you’re recounting what happened on your favorite show, but what do you do when the information gets a little more complex?

Written summaries come with their own set of challenges. You might ask yourself:

  • What details are unnecessary?
  • How do you put this in your own words without changing the meaning?
  • How close can you get to the original without plagiarizing it?
  • How long should it be?

The answers to these questions depend on the type of summary you are doing and why you are doing it.

A summary in an academic setting is different to a professional summary—and both of those are very different to summarizing a funny story you want to tell your friends.

One thing they all have in common is that you need to relay information in the clearest way possible to help your reader understand. We’ll look at some different forms of summary, and give you some tips on each.

Let’s get started!

What Is a Summary?

How do you write a summary, how do you write an academic summary, what are the four types of academic summaries, how do i write a professional summary, writing or telling a summary in personal situations, summarizing summaries.

A summary is a shorter version of a larger work. Summaries are used at some level in almost every writing task, from formal documents to personal messages.

When you write a summary, you have an audience that doesn’t know every single thing you know.

When you want them to understand your argument, topic, or stance, you may need to explain some things to catch them up.

Instead of having them read the article or hear every single detail of the story or event, you instead give them a brief overview of what they need to know.

Academic, professional, and personal summaries each require you to consider different things, but there are some key rules they all have in common.

Let’s go over a few general guides to writing a summary first.

A summary should be shorter than the original

1. A summary should always be shorter than the original work, usually considerably.

Even if your summary is the length of a full paper, you are likely summarizing a book or other significantly longer work.

2. A summary should tell the reader the highlights of what they need to know without giving them unnecessary details.

3. It should also include enough details to give a clear and honest picture.

For example, if you summarize an article that says “ The Office is the greatest television show of all time,” but don’t mention that they are specifically referring to sitcoms, then you changed the meaning of the article. That’s a problem! Similarly, if you write a summary of your job history and say you volunteered at a hospital for the last three years, but you don’t add that you only went twice in that time, it becomes a little dishonest.

4. Summaries shouldn’t contain personal opinion.

While in the longer work you are creating you might use opinion, within the summary itself, you should avoid all personal opinion. A summary is different than a review. In this moment, you aren’t saying what you think of the work you are summarizing, you are just giving your audience enough information to know what the work says or did.

Include enough detail

Now that we have a good idea of what summaries are in general, let’s talk about some specific types of summary you will likely have to do at some point in your writing life.

An academic summary is one you will create for a class or in other academic writing. The exact elements you will need to include depend on the assignment itself.

However, when you’re asked for an academic summary, this usually this means one of five things, all of which are pretty similar:

  • You need to do a presentation in which you talk about an article, book, or report.
  • You write a summary paper in which the entire paper is a summary of a specific work.
  • You summarize a class discussion, lesson, or reading in the form of personal notes or a discussion board post.
  • You do something like an annotated bibliography where you write short summaries of multiple works in preparation of a longer assignment.
  • You write quick summaries within the body of another assignment . For example, in an argumentative essay, you will likely need to have short summaries of the sources you use to explain their argument before getting into how the source helps you prove your point.

Places to find academic summaries

Regardless of what type of summary you are doing, though, there are a few steps you should always follow:

  • Skim the work you are summarizing before you read it. Notice what stands out to you.
  • Next, read it in depth . Do the same things stand out?
  • Put the full text away and write in a few sentences what the main idea or point was.
  • Go back and compare to make sure you didn’t forget anything.
  • Expand on this to write and then edit your summary.

Each type of academic summary requires slightly different things. Let’s get down to details.

How Do I Write a Summary Paper?

Sometimes teachers assign something called a summary paper . In this, the entire thing is a summary of one article, book, story, or report.

To understand how to write this paper, let’s talk a little bit about the purpose of such an assignment.

A summary paper is usually given to help a teacher see how well a student understands a reading assignment, but also to help the student digest the reading. Sometimes, it can be difficult to understand things we read right away.

However, a good way to process the information is to put it in our own words. That is the point of a summary paper.

What a summary paper is

A summary paper is:

  • A way to explain in our own words what happened in a paper, book, etc.
  • A time to think about what was important in the paper, etc.
  • A time to think about the meaning and purpose behind the paper, etc.

Here are some things that a summary paper is not:

  • A review. Your thoughts and opinions on the thing you are summarizing don’t need to be here unless otherwise specified.
  • A comparison. A comparison paper has a lot of summary in it, but it is different than a summary paper. In this, you are just saying what happened, but you aren’t saying places it could have been done differently.
  • A paraphrase (though you might have a little paraphrasing in there). In the section on using summary in longer papers, I talk more about the difference between summaries, paraphrases, and quotes.

What a summary paper is not

Because a summary paper is usually longer than other forms of summary, you will be able to chose more detail. However, it still needs to focus on the important events. Summary papers are usually shorter papers.

Let’s say you are writing a 3–4 page summary. You are likely summarizing a full book or an article or short story, which will be much longer than 3–4 pages.

Imagine that you are the author of the work, and your editor comes to you and says they love what you wrote, but they need it to be 3–4 pages instead.

How would you tell that story (argument, idea, etc.) in that length without losing the heart or intent behind it? That is what belongs in a summary paper.

How Do I Write Useful Academic Notes?

Sometimes, you need to write a summary for yourself in the form of notes or for your classmates in the form of a discussion post.

You might not think you need a specific approach for this. After all, only you are going to see it.

However, summarizing for yourself can sometimes be the most difficult type of summary. If you try to write down everything your teacher says, your hand will cramp and you’ll likely miss a lot.

Yet, transcribing doesn’t work because studies show that writing things down (not typing them) actually helps you remember them better.

So how do you find the balance between summarizing the lessons without leaving out important points?

There are some tips for this:

  • If your professor writes it on the board, it is probably important.
  • What points do your textbooks include when summarizing information? Use these as a guide.
  • Write the highlight of every X amount of time, with X being the time you can go without missing anything or getting tired. This could be one point per minute, or three per five minutes, etc.

How Do I Create an Annotated Biography?

An annotated bibliography requires a very specific style of writing. Often, you will write these before a longer research paper . They will ask you to find a certain amount of articles and write a short annotation for each of them.

While an annotation is more than just a summary, it usually starts with a summary of the work. This will be about 2–3 sentences long. Because you don’t have a lot of room, you really have to think about what the most important thing the work says is.

This will basically ask you to explain the point of the article in these couple of sentences, so you should focus on the main point when expressing it.

Here is an example of a summary section within an annotation about this post:

“In this post, the author explains how to write a summary in different types of settings. She walks through academic, professional, and personal summaries. Ultimately, she claims that summaries should be short explanations that get the audience caught up on the topic without leaving out details that would change the meaning.”

What are annotation summaries?

Can I Write a Summary Within an Essay?

Perhaps the most common type of summary you will ever do is a short summary within a longer paper.

For example, if you have to write an argumentative essay, you will likely need to use sources to help support your argument.

However, there is a good chance that your readers won’t have read those same sources.

So, you need to give them enough detail to understand your topic without spending too much time explaining and not enough making your argument.

While this depends on exactly how you are using summary in your paper, often, a good amount of summary is the same amount you would put in an annotation.

Just a few sentences will allow the reader to get an idea of the work before moving on to specific parts of it that might help your argument.

What’s the Difference Between Summarizing, Paraphrasing, and Using Quotes?

One important thing to recognize when using summaries in academic settings is that summaries are different than paraphrases or quotes.

A summary is broader and more general. A paraphrase, on the other hand, puts specific parts into your own words. A quote uses the exact words of the original. All of them, however, need to be cited.

Let’s look at an example:

Take these words by Thomas J. Watson:

”Would you like me to give you a formula for success? It’s quite simple, really. Double your rate of failure. You are thinking of failure as the enemy of success. But it isn’t as all. You can be discouraged by failure—or you can learn from it. So go ahead and make mistakes. Make all you can. Because, remember, that’s where you will find success.”

Let’s say I was told to write a summary, a paraphrase, and a quote about this statement. This is what it might look like:

Summary: Thomas J. Watson said that the key to success is actually to fail more often. (This is broad and doesn’t go into details about what he says, but it still gives him credit.)

Paraphrase: Thomas J. Watson, on asking if people would like his formula for success, said that the secret was to fail twice as much. He claimed that when you decide to learn from your mistakes instead of being disappointed by them, and when you start making a lot of them, you will actually find more success. (This includes most of the details, but it is in my own words, while still crediting the source.)

Quote: Thomas J. Watson said, ”Would you like me to give you a formula for success? It’s quite simple, really. Double your rate of failure. You are thinking of failure as the enemy of success. But it isn’t at all. You can be discouraged by failure—or you can learn from it. So go ahead and make mistakes. Make all you can. Because, remember, that’s where you will find success.” (This is the exact words of the original with quotation marks and credit given.)

A summary versus a paraphrase versus a quote

Avoiding Plagiarism

One of the hardest parts about summarizing someone else’s writing is avoiding plagiarism .

A tip to avoid plagiarism

That’s why I have a few rules/tips for you when summarizing anything:

1. Always cite.

If you are talking about someone else’s work in any means, cite your source. If you are summarizing the entire work, all you probably need to do (depending on style guidelines) is say the author’s name. However, if you are summarizing a specific chapter or section, you should state that specifically. Finally, you should make sure to include it in your Work Cited or Reference page.

2. Change the wording.

Sometimes when people are summarizing or paraphrasing a work, they get too close to the original, and actually use the exact words. Unless you use quotation marks, this is plagiarism. However, a good way to avoid this is to hide the article while you are summarizing it. If you don’t have it in front of you, you are less likely to accidentally use the exact words. (However, after you are done, double check that you didn’t miss anything important or give wrong details.)

3. Use a plagiarism checker.

Of course, when you are writing any summary, especially academic summaries, it can be easy to cross the line into plagiarism. If this is a place where you struggle, then ProWritingAid can help.

ProWritingAid's Plagiarism Report

Just use our Plagiarism Report . It’ll highlight any unoriginal text in your document so you can make sure you are citing everything correctly and summarizing in your own words.

Find out more about ProWritingAid plagiarism bundles.

Along with academic summaries, you might sometimes need to write professional summaries. Often, this means writing a summary about yourself that shows why you are qualified for a position or organization.

In this section, let’s talk about two types of professional summaries: a LinkedIn summary and a summary section within a resume.

How Do I Write My LinkedIn Bio?

LinkedIn is all about professional networking. It offers you a chance to share a brief glimpse of your professional qualifications in a paragraph or two.

This can then be sent to professional connections, or even found by them without you having to reach out. This can help you get a job or build your network.

Your summary is one of the first things a future employer might see about you, and how you write yours can make you stand out from the competition.

Your resume's summary

Here are some tips on writing a LinkedIn summary :

  • Before you write it, think about what you want it to do . If you are looking for a job, what kind of job? What have you done in your past that would stand out to someone hiring for that position? That is what you will want to focus on in your summary.
  • Be professional . Unlike many social media platforms, LinkedIn has a reputation for being more formal. Your summary should reflect that to some extent.
  • Use keywords . Your summary is searchable, so using keywords that a recruiter might be searching for can help them find you.
  • Focus on the start . LinkedIn shows the first 300 characters automatically, and then offers the viewer a chance to read more. Make that start so good that everyone wants to keep reading.
  • Focus on accomplishments . Think of your life like a series of albums, and this is your speciality “Greatest Hits” album. What “songs” are you putting on it?

Tips for writing a linkedin summary

How Do I Summarize My Experience on a Resume?

Writing a professional summary for a resume is different than any other type of summary that you may have to do.

Recruiters go through a lot of resumes every day. They don’t have time to spend ages reading yours, which means you have to wow them quickly.

To do that, you might include a section at the top of your resume that acts almost as an elevator pitch: That one thing you might say to a recruiter to get them to want to talk to you if you only had a 30-second elevator ride.

Treat your resume summary as an elevator pitch

If you don’t have a lot of experience, though, you might want to skip this section entirely and focus on playing up the experience you do have.

Outside of academic and personal summaries, you use summary a lot in your day-to-day life.

Whether it is telling a good piece of trivia you just learned or a funny story that happened to you, or even setting the stage in creative writing, you summarize all the time.

How you use summary can be an important consideration in whether people want to read your work (or listen to you talk).

Here are some things to think about when telling a story:

  • Pick interesting details . Too many and your point will be lost. Not enough, and you didn’t paint the scene or give them a complete idea about what happened.
  • Play into the emotions . When telling a story, you want more information than the bare minimum. You want your reader to get the emotion of the story. That requires a little bit more work to accomplish.
  • Focus. A summary of one story can lead to another can lead to another. Think about storytellers that you know that go off on a tangent. They never seem to finish one story without telling 100 others!

Summarize a spoken story

To wrap up (and to demonstrate everything I just talked about), let’s summarize this post into its most essential parts:

A summary is a great way to quickly give your audience the information they need to understand the topic you are discussing without having to know every detail.

How you write a summary is different depending on what type of summary you are doing:

  • An academic summary usually gets to the heart of an article, book, or journal, and it should highlight the main points in your own words. How long it should be depends on the type of assignment it is.
  • A professional summary highlights you and your professional, academic, and volunteer history. It shows people in your professional network who you are and why they should hire you, work with you, use your talents, etc.

Being able to tell a good story is another form of summary. You want to tell engaging anecdotes and facts without boring your listeners. This is a skill that is developed over time.

Take your writing to the next level:

20 Editing Tips From Professional Writers

20 Editing Tips from Professional Writers

Whether you are writing a novel, essay, article, or email, good writing is an essential part of communicating your ideas., this guide contains the 20 most important writing tips and techniques from a wide range of professional writers..

how to summarize a short essay

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Ashley Shaw is a former editor and marketer/current PhD student and teacher. When she isn't studying con artists for her dissertation, she's thinking of new ways to help college students better understand and love the writing process. You can follow her on Twitter, or, if you prefer animal accounts, follow her rabbits, Audrey Hopbun and Fredra StaHare, on Instagram.

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The Writing Center • University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill

Summary: Using it Wisely

What this handout is about.

Knowing how to summarize something you have read, seen, or heard is a valuable skill, one you have probably used in many writing assignments. It is important, though, to recognize when you must go beyond describing, explaining, and restating texts and offer a more complex analysis. This handout will help you distinguish between summary and analysis and avoid inappropriate summary in your academic writing.

Is summary a bad thing?

Not necessarily. But it’s important that your keep your assignment and your audience in mind as you write. If your assignment requires an argument with a thesis statement and supporting evidence—as many academic writing assignments do—then you should limit the amount of summary in your paper. You might use summary to provide background, set the stage, or illustrate supporting evidence, but keep it very brief: a few sentences should do the trick. Most of your paper should focus on your argument. (Our handout on argument will help you construct a good one.)

Writing a summary of what you know about your topic before you start drafting your actual paper can sometimes be helpful. If you are unfamiliar with the material you’re analyzing, you may need to summarize what you’ve read in order to understand your reading and get your thoughts in order. Once you figure out what you know about a subject, it’s easier to decide what you want to argue.

You may also want to try some other pre-writing activities that can help you develop your own analysis. Outlining, freewriting, and mapping make it easier to get your thoughts on the page. (Check out our handout on brainstorming for some suggested techniques.)

Why is it so tempting to stick with summary and skip analysis?

Many writers rely too heavily on summary because it is what they can most easily write. If you’re stalled by a difficult writing prompt, summarizing the plot of The Great Gatsby may be more appealing than staring at the computer for three hours and wondering what to say about F. Scott Fitzgerald’s use of color symbolism. After all, the plot is usually the easiest part of a work to understand. Something similar can happen even when what you are writing about has no plot: if you don’t really understand an author’s argument, it might seem easiest to just repeat what he or she said.

To write a more analytical paper, you may need to review the text or film you are writing about, with a focus on the elements that are relevant to your thesis. If possible, carefully consider your writing assignment before reading, viewing, or listening to the material about which you’ll be writing so that your encounter with the material will be more purposeful. (We offer a handout on reading towards writing .)

How do I know if I’m summarizing?

As you read through your essay, ask yourself the following questions:

  • Am I stating something that would be obvious to a reader or viewer?
  • Does my essay move through the plot, history, or author’s argument in chronological order, or in the exact same order the author used?
  • Am I simply describing what happens, where it happens, or whom it happens to?

A “yes” to any of these questions may be a sign that you are summarizing. If you answer yes to the questions below, though, it is a sign that your paper may have more analysis (which is usually a good thing):

  • Am I making an original argument about the text?
  • Have I arranged my evidence around my own points, rather than just following the author’s or plot’s order?
  • Am I explaining why or how an aspect of the text is significant?

Certain phrases are warning signs of summary. Keep an eye out for these:

  • “[This essay] is about…”
  • “[This book] is the story of…”
  • “[This author] writes about…”
  • “[This movie] is set in…”

Here’s an example of an introductory paragraph containing unnecessary summary. Sentences that summarize are in italics:

The Great Gatsby is the story of a mysterious millionaire, Jay Gatsby, who lives alone on an island in New York. F. Scott Fitzgerald wrote the book, but the narrator is Nick Carraway. Nick is Gatsby’s neighbor, and he chronicles the story of Gatsby and his circle of friends, beginning with his introduction to the strange man and ending with Gatsby’s tragic death. In the story, Nick describes his environment through various colors, including green, white, and grey. Whereas white and grey symbolize false purity and decay respectively, the color green offers a symbol of hope.

Here’s how you might change the paragraph to make it a more effective introduction:

In The Great Gatsby, F. Scott Fitzgerald provides readers with detailed descriptions of the area surrounding East Egg, New York. In fact, Nick Carraway’s narration describes the setting with as much detail as the characters in the book. Nick’s description of the colors in his environment presents the book’s themes, symbolizing significant aspects of the post-World War I era. Whereas white and grey symbolize the false purity and decay of the 1920s, the color green offers a symbol of hope.

This version of the paragraph mentions the book’s title, author, setting, and narrator so that the reader is reminded of the text. And that sounds a lot like summary—but the paragraph quickly moves on to the writer’s own main topic: the setting and its relationship to the main themes of the book. The paragraph then closes with the writer’s specific thesis about the symbolism of white, grey, and green.

How do I write more analytically?

Analysis requires breaking something—like a story, poem, play, theory, or argument—into parts so you can understand how those parts work together to make the whole. Ideally, you should begin to analyze a work as you read or view it instead of waiting until after you’re done—it may help you to jot down some notes as you read. Your notes can be about major themes or ideas you notice, as well as anything that intrigues, puzzles, excites, or irritates you. Remember, analytic writing goes beyond the obvious to discuss questions of how and why—so ask yourself those questions as you read.

The St. Martin’s Handbook (the bulleted material below is quoted from p. 38 of the fifth edition) encourages readers to take the following steps in order to analyze a text:

  • Identify evidence that supports or illustrates the main point or theme as well as anything that seems to contradict it.
  • Consider the relationship between the words and the visuals in the work. Are they well integrated, or are they sometimes at odds with one another? What functions do the visuals serve? To capture attention? To provide more detailed information or illustration? To appeal to readers’ emotions?
  • Decide whether the sources used are trustworthy.
  • Identify the work’s underlying assumptions about the subject, as well as any biases it reveals.

Once you have written a draft, some questions you might want to ask yourself about your writing are “What’s my point?” or “What am I arguing in this paper?” If you can’t answer these questions, then you haven’t gone beyond summarizing. You may also want to think about how much of your writing comes from your own ideas or arguments. If you’re only reporting someone else’s ideas, you probably aren’t offering an analysis.

What strategies can help me avoid excessive summary?

  • Read the assignment (the prompt) as soon as you get it. Make sure to reread it before you start writing. Go back to your assignment often while you write. (Check out our handout on reading assignments ).
  • Formulate an argument (including a good thesis) and be sure that your final draft is structured around it, including aspects of the plot, story, history, background, etc. only as evidence for your argument. (You can refer to our handout on constructing thesis statements ).
  • Read critically—imagine having a dialogue with the work you are discussing. What parts do you agree with? What parts do you disagree with? What questions do you have about the work? Does it remind you of other works you’ve seen?
  • Make sure you have clear topic sentences that make arguments in support of your thesis statement. (Read our handout on paragraph development if you want to work on writing strong paragraphs).
  • Use two different highlighters to mark your paper. With one color, highlight areas of summary or description. With the other, highlight areas of analysis. For many college papers, it’s a good idea to have lots of analysis and minimal summary/description.
  • Ask yourself: What part of the essay would be obvious to a reader/viewer of the work being discussed? What parts (words, sentences, paragraphs) of the essay could be deleted without loss? In most cases, your paper should focus on points that are essential and that will be interesting to people who have already read or seen the work you are writing about.

But I’m writing a review! Don’t I have to summarize?

That depends. If you’re writing a critique of a piece of literature, a film, or a dramatic performance, you don’t necessarily need to give away much of the plot. The point is to let readers decide whether they want to enjoy it for themselves. If you do summarize, keep your summary brief and to the point.

Instead of telling your readers that the play, book, or film was “boring,” “interesting,” or “really good,” tell them specifically what parts of the work you’re talking about. It’s also important that you go beyond adjectives and explain how the work achieved its effect (how was it interesting?) and why you think the author/director wanted the audience to react a certain way. (We have a special handout on writing reviews that offers more tips.)

If you’re writing a review of an academic book or article, it may be important for you to summarize the main ideas and give an overview of the organization so your readers can decide whether it is relevant to their specific research interests.

If you are unsure how much (if any) summary a particular assignment requires, ask your instructor for guidance.

Works consulted

We consulted these works while writing this handout. This is not a comprehensive list of resources on the handout’s topic, and we encourage you to do your own research to find additional publications. Please do not use this list as a model for the format of your own reference list, as it may not match the citation style you are using. For guidance on formatting citations, please see the UNC Libraries citation tutorial . We revise these tips periodically and welcome feedback.

Barnet, Sylvan. 2015. A Short Guide to Writing about Art , 11th ed. Upper Saddle River, NJ: Prentice Hall.

Corrigan, Timothy. 2014. A Short Guide to Writing About Film , 9th ed. New York: Pearson.

Lunsford, Andrea A. 2015. The St. Martin’s Handbook , 8th ed. Boston: Bedford/St Martin’s.

Zinsser, William. 2001. On Writing Well: The Classic Guide to Writing Nonfiction , 6th ed. New York: Quill.

You may reproduce it for non-commercial use if you use the entire handout and attribute the source: The Writing Center, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill

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how to summarize a short essay


by jleemcga | Aug 18, 2023 | Resources for Students , Writing Resources

What is summarizing?

A summary of a text is a short overview of the main ideas written in your own words. While paraphrasing involves expressing specific ideas or details from a larger text in your own words, we generally summarize whole texts (whether it is an essay, article, chapter, book, et cetera). So, in order to ensure our summaries are not too wordy or confusing, we only cover the main ideas or argument presented within a whole text.

Hands writing on a piece of paper.

It’s best to summarize when you’re contextualizing a topic by letting your readers know about the current, ongoing conversation. By summarizing relevant sources, you’re providing your audience with an overview of what has already been said about this topic to help them understand how you’ll be adding to it. Summarizing material within your paper allows you to:

  • Condense key ideas or arguments relevant to your paper
  • Simplify the connection between a source and your own writing

How do I summarize?

To approach summarizing a source, try the following steps:

  • First make sure you carefully read the original source material to understand it. Like paraphrasing, summarizing effectively requires an accurate understanding of the source material
  • Identify all the main ideas from the text. It helps to look for the thesis or overall claim the author is presenting, as well as any important reasons they give to back their claim. Basically, you’re looking for why their argument is what it is
  • When you begin your summary, you might use a TAG line. This stands for Title, Author, Genre and allows you to formally introduce the text before you summarize its ideas. An example of a TAG line is: In the article “Stuck on the Streets of San Francisco in a Driverless Car”, Cade Metz reports … TAG lines add a helpful framework for the summary
  • Be sure not to include any specific examples, details, or evidence from the text. In summaries, we don’t describe the author’s examples (this would be like rewriting the entire text). Instead, we offer a map of the main idea and major points
  • Once you finish writing your summary, check to make sure your summary concisely and accurately captures the author’s main ideas
  • Remember to cite!

Examples of summarizing

Here is an example of a writer summarizing a main idea from the source Social Death: Racialized Rightlessness and the Criminalization of the Unprotected by Lisa Marie Cacho in their essay about a Salvadoran poet and her poetry’s relationship to reclaiming identity:

The ambiguity that is scored onto the bodies of Salvadoran migrants creates an impoverished sense of time and freedom by keeping these individuals indefinitely “temporary,” an ephemera that imposes a constant threat against safety and belonging for Salvadorans in the US. This weaponization of time also contributes to the condition of social death that Cacho describes as being prevalent for people of color, and particularly immigrants, in the US. According to Cacho, part of the criminalization of people of color within the US— not based on one’s behavior, but by their appearance— is heightened further by the notion of documentation. The rhetoric surrounding immigration in the US ultimately aims to invalidate those without documentation by using slurs like “illegal” (Cacho).

Note: The writer quotes some key terms, like “temporary” or “illegal” that the author emphasizes in the original source but describes the main ideas of the source in their own words. Note, too, that the summary focuses on the big-picture ideas of the source without mentioning examples that are too specific.

Things to keep in mind when summarizing

Some important things to remain mindful of while summarizing in your assignments are:

  • There is no specified length for writing summaries; they may be a few sentences or a few paragraphs depending on your writing project. For most academic essays, a summary of a few sentences to a short paragraph is appropriate. Concision is key
  • Do not include your opinions on the topic or the author’s ideas in your summary; your ideas are important, but summary is a genre of writing that requires objectivity
  • Do not include specific details or examples from the text—just focus on the big picture ideas

A grey and white cat sleeping on top of a book with a book covering it like a blanket.

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  • How to Write a Summary

Proficient students understand that  summarizing , identifying what is most important and restating the text (or other media) in your own words, is an important tool for college success.

After all, if you really know a subject, you will be able to summarize it. If you cannot summarize a subject, even if you have memorized all the facts about it, you can be absolutely sure that you have not learned it. And, if you truly learn the subject, you will still be able to summarize it months or years from now.

Proficient students may monitor their understanding of a text by summarizing as they read. They understand that if they can write a one- or two-sentence summary of each paragraph after reading it, then that is a good sign that they have correctly understood it. If they can not summarize the main idea of the paragraph, they know that comprehension has broken down and they need to use fix-up strategies to repair understanding.

Summary Writing Format

  • When writing a summary, remember that it should be in the form of a paragraph.
  • A summary begins with an introductory sentence that states the text’s title, author and main point of the text as you see it.
  • A summary is written in your own words.
  • A summary contains only the ideas of the original text. Do not insert any of your own opinions, interpretations, deductions or comments into a summary.
  • Identify in order the significant sub-claims the author uses to defend the main point.
  • Copy word-for-word three separate passages from the essay that you think support and/or defend the main point of the essay as you see it.
  • Cite each passage by first signaling the work and the author, put “quotation marks” around the passage you chose, and put the number of the paragraph where the passages can be found immediately after the passage.
  • Using source material from the essay is important. Why? Because defending claims with source material is what you will be asked to do when writing papers for your college professors.
  • Write a last sentence that “wraps” up your summary; often a simple rephrasing of the main point.

Example Summary Writing Format

In the essay Santa Ana , author Joan Didion’s main point is ( state main point ). According to Didion “… passage 1 …” (para.3). Didion also writes “… passage 2 …” (para.8). Finally, she states “… passage 3 …” (para. 12) Write a last sentence that “wraps” up your summary; often a simple rephrasing of the main point.

  • Provided by : Lumen Learning. Located at : http://lumenlearning.com/ . License : CC BY: Attribution
  • Authored by : Paul Powell. Provided by : Central Community College. Project : Kaleidoscope Open Course Initiative. License : CC BY: Attribution
  • Authored by : Elisabeth Ellington and Ronda Dorsey Neugebauer. Provided by : Chadron State College. Project : Kaleidoscope Open Course Initiative. License : CC BY: Attribution
  • Table of Contents

Instructor Resources (Access Requires Login)

  • Overview of Instructor Resources

An Overview of the Writing Process

  • Introduction to the Writing Process
  • Introduction to Writing
  • Your Role as a Learner
  • What is an Essay?
  • Reading to Write
  • Defining the Writing Process
  • Videos: Prewriting Techniques
  • Thesis Statements
  • Organizing an Essay
  • Creating Paragraphs
  • Conclusions
  • Editing and Proofreading
  • Matters of Grammar, Mechanics, and Style
  • Peer Review Checklist
  • Comparative Chart of Writing Strategies

Using Sources

  • Quoting, Paraphrasing, and Avoiding Plagiarism
  • Formatting the Works Cited Page (MLA)
  • Citing Paraphrases and Summaries (APA)
  • APA Citation Style, 6th edition: General Style Guidelines

Definition Essay

  • Definitional Argument Essay
  • How to Write a Definition Essay
  • Critical Thinking
  • Video: Thesis Explained
  • Effective Thesis Statements
  • Student Sample: Definition Essay

Narrative Essay

  • Introduction to Narrative Essay
  • Student Sample: Narrative Essay
  • "Shooting an Elephant" by George Orwell
  • "Sixty-nine Cents" by Gary Shteyngart
  • Video: The Danger of a Single Story
  • How to Write an Annotation
  • Writing for Success: Narration

Illustration/Example Essay

  • Introduction to Illustration/Example Essay
  • "She's Your Basic L.O.L. in N.A.D" by Perri Klass
  • "April & Paris" by David Sedaris
  • Writing for Success: Illustration/Example
  • Student Sample: Illustration/Example Essay

Compare/Contrast Essay

  • Introduction to Compare/Contrast Essay
  • "Disability" by Nancy Mairs
  • "Friending, Ancient or Otherwise" by Alex Wright
  • "A South African Storm" by Allison Howard
  • Writing for Success: Compare/Contrast
  • Student Sample: Compare/Contrast Essay

Cause-and-Effect Essay

  • Introduction to Cause-and-Effect Essay
  • "Cultural Baggage" by Barbara Ehrenreich
  • "Women in Science" by K.C. Cole
  • Writing for Success: Cause and Effect
  • Student Sample: Cause-and-Effect Essay

Argument Essay

  • Introduction to Argument Essay
  • Rogerian Argument
  • "The Case Against Torture," by Alisa Soloman
  • "The Case for Torture" by Michael Levin
  • How to Write a Summary by Paraphrasing Source Material
  • Writing for Success: Argument
  • Student Sample: Argument Essay
  • Grammar/Mechanics Mini-lessons
  • Mini-lesson: Subjects and Verbs, Irregular Verbs, Subject Verb Agreement
  • Mini-lesson: Sentence Types
  • Mini-lesson: Fragments I
  • Mini-lesson: Run-ons and Comma Splices I
  • Mini-lesson: Comma Usage
  • Mini-lesson: Parallelism
  • Mini-lesson: The Apostrophe
  • Mini-lesson: Capital Letters
  • Grammar Practice - Interactive Quizzes
  • De Copia - Demonstration of the Variety of Language
  • Style Exercise: Voice

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How to Summarize a Story

Last Updated: April 18, 2023 Fact Checked

This article was co-authored by Richard Perkins . Richard Perkins is a Writing Coach, Academic English Coordinator, and the Founder of PLC Learning Center. With over 24 years of education experience, he gives teachers tools to teach writing to students and works with elementary to university level students to become proficient, confident writers. Richard is a fellow at the National Writing Project. As a teacher leader and consultant at California State University Long Beach's Global Education Project, Mr. Perkins creates and presents teacher workshops that integrate the U.N.'s 17 Sustainable Development Goals in the K-12 curriculum. He holds a BA in Communications and TV from The University of Southern California and an MEd from California State University Dominguez Hills. There are 13 references cited in this article, which can be found at the bottom of the page. This article has been fact-checked, ensuring the accuracy of any cited facts and confirming the authority of its sources. This article has been viewed 416,869 times.

When you're writing a summary of a story it needs to be short, sweet, and to the point. Fortunately, this isn't hard if you follow certain guidelines.

Sample Summaries

how to summarize a short essay

As You're Reading

Step 1 Read the story.

  • Concentrate fully on the book. Don't get distracted by anything, not even music.

Step 2 Take notes.

  • For example: for Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone you would write down Harry Potter, Ron Weasley, Hermione Granger, because they are the main characters. You might even note down Hagrid, Dumbledore, Snape, Quirrell, and Voldemort because they figure importantly in the story.
  • You wouldn't need to write down Peeves the poltergeist, or Norbert the dragon, because while they are important in their places in the story, they don't influence the main storyline enough to be part of the summary.
  • A shorter story like "Little Red Riding Hood" is easy because you only have to note down Red Riding Hood, her grandmother, the wolf, and the woodcutter (depending on the version).

Step 4 Note down the setting.

  • Continuing the Harry Potter example: the main action takes place at Hogwarts, so you could write down something like 'the magical school Hogwarts in the United Kingdoms.'
  • Now for a story like Lord of the Rings, which takes place over a large amount of territory, you can mention that it's Middle-Earth, and note some places of important like the Shire, Mordor, and Gondor. You don't have to go too specific (like mentioning the forest Fangorn, or the tower Minas Morgul).

Step 5 Note the story's conflict.

  • For Harry Potter, the main conflict is Voldemort's attempt to steal the Sorcerer's Stone and return to menace the Wizard World (and kill Harry).
  • For example, if you're summarizing The Odyssey, the main conflict is Odysseus trying to get home to Ithaca. Everything about the story is driven by his desire to get home and all the obstacles standing in his way.

Step 6 Note the main events.

  • For Harry Potter, some main events would be Harry finding out he's a wizard, or Harry meeting the three-headed dog and, of course, Harry, Ron, and Hermione defeating Voldemort.
  • It might seem easier for a shorter story like 'Little Red Riding Hood,' but you should only note down the most important moments like Riding Hood meeting the wolf, getting eaten after she mistakes the wolf for her grandmother, and the appearance of the woodcutter.

Step 7 Note the conclusion.

  • For Harry Potter the conclusion is defeating Voldemort. The story after that isn't important to the summary, even if it is important to the overall story. You won't need to go into the conversation between Dumbledore and Harry at the end, or even the Gryffindor House winning points, because it isn't really part of the main Voldemort storyline.
  • For Red Riding Hood, the conclusion is the appearance of the woodcutter to save her and her grandmother.
  • For something like Lord of the Rings, the conclusion is complicated for a summary, because you may want to stop off at the destruction of the Ring, but (especially if the central idea of the story is the importance of the the deeds of one insignificant person) you will want to mention the Scouring of the Shire, and Frodo's departure from the Grey Havens.

Writing Your Summary

Step 1 Organize your notes.

  • To continue with the Harry Potter example, you'll need to look at how Harry went from learning he was a wizard to defeating Voldemort.
  • For something like The Odyssey you'll need to look at how Odysseus gets from his losing all his men and washing up on Calypso's island to defeating the suitors and convincing Penelope of his identity.
  • A short story like Red Riding Hood, you'll need to look at why Riding Hood was going into the woods, how she was fooled into being eaten and how she was saved.

Step 2 Write the summary.

  • Make sure that you only focus on the main plot of the story. Don't get side tracked into Harry's Quidditch playing, or his feud with Malfoy.
  • Likewise, don't quote from the story itself. You don't need to replicate conversations from the story in the summary. You might need to briefly mention the key point from a conversation (like 'When Harry and his friends discover from Hagrid that the Sorcerer's Stone might no longer be safe, they go to stop the thief themselves.')

Step 3 Look at examples of plot summaries.

  • 'J.K. Rowling's "Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone" tells the story of eleven-year-old orphan Harry Potter, who discovers that he is a wizard and goes to study magic at the British school for wizards, Hogwarts. While there he discovers that his parents were killed by the evil wizard, Voldemort, who was destroyed by Harry when he was a baby. With his friends, Ron Weasley, who comes from a large family of wizards, and Hermione Granger, the smartest witch in their year, Harry figures out that the Sorcerer's Stone, which gives eternal life, is hidden on the off-limits third floor. When Harry and his friends discover from Hagrid that the Sorcerer's Stone is no longer be safe, they go to stop the thief themselves, who they think is Professor Snape, who hates Harry. When Harry finds the Stone, he discovers that the thief is Professor Quirrell, who is possessed by Voldemort. Because of a spell cast by Harry's mother, he is able to defeat Quirrell and Voldemort is forced back into hiding.'
  • 'Homer's epic poem "The Odyssey" tells the story of the Greek hero, Odysseus, and ten-year voyage to get home to the island of Ithaca where his wife, Penelope, and his son, Telemachus waited. It begins with Odysseus imprisoned by the nymph Calypso until the Greek Gods force her to free him. The god Poseidon, who harbors a grudge against Odysseus for blinding his son the Cyclops Polyphemus previously in his travels, attempts to wreck his ship, but is stopped by the goddess Athena. Odysseus makes it to Scheria, home of the Phaeacians, where he is given safe passage and asked about his journeys to this point. Odysseus tells them of the variety of adventures he suffered through with his crew, the trip to the Land of the Lotus Eaters, his blinding of Polyphemus, his love affair with the witch-goddess Circe, the deadly Sirens, the journey into Hades, and his fight with the sea monster Scylla among them. The Phaeacians take him safely to Ithaca, where he enters the hall disguised as a beggar. In Ithaca, supposing Odysseus to be dead, suitors have taken over his hall, tried to kill his son and tried to convince Penelope to choose one of them. Penelope, believing Odysseus to be alive, has refused. She arranges a contest with Odysseus's bow, that only he can string. Once he's strung it, he shoots all the suitors and is reunited with his family.'
  • These summaries cover the main plots of the stories that they're summarizing. They use sentences like "When Harry finds the Stone..." instead of explaining exactly what it took to find the stone, which is not the point of a summary. They are brief and they focus only on the most important main characters, like Odysseus, Penelope, the gods, etc.

Step 4 Revise your summary.

Community Q&A

Community Answer

  • Make sure you keep your summary short. It shouldn't be longer than the original story! [16] X Research source Thanks Helpful 1 Not Helpful 0

how to summarize a short essay

  • If you're writing an essay, you shouldn't only summarize the text. Thanks Helpful 11 Not Helpful 1
  • Don't include your opinions when writing a summary unless you are explicitly prompted to by your teacher. Thanks Helpful 10 Not Helpful 3

You Might Also Like

Write in Third Person

  • ↑ https://penandthepad.com/correctly-summarize-short-story-5031.html
  • ↑ Richard Perkins. Writing Coach & Academic English Coordinator. Expert Interview. 1 September 2021.
  • ↑ https://writingcenter.unc.edu/tips-and-tools/summary-using-it-wisely/
  • ↑ https://learningcenter.unc.edu/tips-and-tools/taking-notes-while-reading/
  • ↑ https://fs.blog/2013/11/taking-notes-while-reading/
  • ↑ https://penandthepad.com/parts-story-introduction-body-conclusion-6472733.html
  • ↑ https://penandthepad.com/major-conflict-story-8483658.html
  • ↑ https://writershelpingwriters.net/2017/04/the-efficient-writer-using-timelines-to-organize-story-details/
  • ↑ https://www.kellogg.edu/upload/eng151/chapter/how-to-write-a-summary/index.html
  • ↑ https://www.eecis.udel.edu/~carberry/Papers/Mani-revision-99.pdf
  • ↑ https://study.com/learn/lesson/what-is-a-summary.html
  • https://public.wsu.edu/~mejia/Summary.htm
  • https://www.lbcc.edu/sites/main/files/file-attachments/summarizingparagraph.pdf

About This Article

Richard Perkins

To summarize a story as you read, take notes about the characters, plot, and setting. When you’ve finished the story, organize your notes chronologically so you can see how the story develops from beginning to end. Then, write a paragraph describing the characters, followed by one dealing with the basic plot points. Next, note the time period, the setting, and the main takeaways from the story. When you’ve touched on all these elements, go back and revise your summary so there are no errors. For sample summaries and ways to use them when you’re writing your own, keep reading. Did this summary help you? Yes No

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Identify the important ideas and facts

To help you summarize and analyze your argumentative texts , your articles, your scientific texts, your history texts as well as your well-structured analyses work of art, Resoomer provides you with a "Summary text tool" : an educational tool that identifies and summarizes the important ideas and facts of your documents. Summarize in 1-Click, go to the main idea or skim through so that you can then interpret your texts quickly and develop your syntheses .

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