How to write a summary
Summarizing means giving a concise overview of a text’s main points in your own words. A summary is always much shorter than the original text.
Writing a summary does not involve critiquing or analyzing the source—you should simply provide a clear, objective, accurate account of the most important information and ideas, without copying any text from the original and without missing any of the key points.
When to summarize
There are many situations in which you might have to summarize an article or other source:
- As a stand-alone assignment to show you’ve understood the material.
- To keep notes that will help you remember what you’ve read.
- To give an overview of other researchers’ work in a literature review.
When you’re writing an academic text like an essay, research paper, or dissertation, you’ll engage with other researchers’ work in a variety of ways. Sometimes you might use a brief quote to support your point; sometimes you might paraphrase a few sentences or paragraphs.
But it’s often appropriate to summarize a whole article or chapter if it is especially relevant to your own research, or to provide an overview of a source before you analyze or critique it.
In any case, the goal of summarizing is to give your reader a clear understanding of the original source. Follow the 4 steps outline below to write a good summary.
Step 1: Read the text
You should read the article more than once to make sure you’ve thoroughly understood it. It’s often effective to read in three stages:
- Scan the article quickly to get a sense of its topic and overall shape.
- Read the article carefully, highlighting important points and taking notes as you read.
- Skim the article again to confirm you’ve understood the key points, and re-read any particularly important or difficult passages.
There are some easy tricks you can use to identify the key points as you read:
- Start by reading the abstract—this already contains the author’s own summary of their work, and it tells you what to expect from the article.
- Pay attention to headings and subheadings—these should give you a good sense of what each part is about.
- Read the introduction and the conclusion together and compare them: what did the author set out to do, and what was the outcome?
Step 2: Break the text down into sections
To make the text more manageable and understand its sub-points, break it down into smaller parts.
If the text is a scientific paper that follows a standard empirical structure, it is probably already organized into clearly marked sections, usually including an introduction, methods, results, and discussion.
Other types of articles may not be explicitly divided into sections. But most articles and essays will be structured around a series of sub-points or themes.
Try writing a word or phrase in the margin next to each paragraph that describes the paragraph’s content. Then you can see at a glance what each part of the article focuses on. If several paragraphs cover similar or related topics, you may group them together in sections.
Step 3: Identify the key points in each section
Now it’s time go through each part and pick out its most important points. What does your reader need to know to understand the overall argument or conclusion of the article?
Keep in mind that a summary does not involve paraphrasing every single paragraph of the article. Your goal is to extract the essential points, leaving out anything that can be considered background information or supplementary detail.
In a scientific article, there are some easy questions you can ask to identify the key points in each part:
If the article takes a different form, you might have to think more carefully about what points are most important for the reader to understand its argument.
In this case, pay particular attention to the thesis statement—the central claim that the author wants us to accept, which usually appears in the introduction—and the topic sentences that signal the main idea of each paragraph.
Step 4: Write the summary
Now that you know the key points that the article aims to communicate, you need to put them in your own words.
The best way to do this is to put the article aside and write out your own understanding of the author’s key points.
Let’s take a look at an example. Below, we summarize this article, which scientifically investigates the old saying “an apple a day keeps the doctor away.”
An article summary like the above would be appropriate for a stand-alone summary assignment. However, oftentimes, you’ll want to give an even more concise summary of an article.
For example, in a literature review or research paper, you may want to briefly summarize this study as part of a wider discussion of various sources. In this case, we can boil our summary down even further to include only the most relevant information.
When summarizing as part of a larger text, it’s essential to properly cite the source of the summary. The exact format for citing depends on your citation style, but it usually includes an in-text citation and a full reference at the end of your paper.
You can easily create your citations and references in APA or MLA using our free Citation Generators.
Step 5: Check the summary against the article
Finally, read through the article once more to ensure that:
- You’ve accurately represented the author’s work
- You haven’t missed any essential information
- The phrasing is not too similar to any sentences in the original.
If you’re summarizing lots of articles as part of your own work, it’s often a good idea to use a plagiarism checker to double-check that your text is completely original and properly cited. Just be sure to use one that’s safe and reliable.
Frequently asked questions about summarizing
- What is a summary?
A summary is a short overview of the main points of an article or other source, written entirely in your own words.
- How long is a summary?
A summary is always much shorter than the original text. The length of a summary can range from just a few sentences to several paragraphs; it depends on the length of the article you’re summarizing, and on the purpose of the summary.
- How can I summarize a source without plagiarizing?