If you’ve been given the task to summarise a book or article, or part of an article, you may have considered some of the following questions. What should it contain; what do you leave out? What is important? How can you avoid plagiarism without having to cite every sentence? Students seem to find summaries challenging for a number of different reasons. Here, we are going to highlight some of the major obstacles to writing an effective summary along with tips about how you can avoid these pitfalls on your path to success.

First, let’s look at the summary from a more complete perspective (rather than summarising an article within a paragraph). If you are asked to summarise an entire book or article, you must consider both what is important to include and how this information is going to be presented. Too often, we see students who have simply taken the topic sentence from each paragraph, revised it to be in their own words and stuck it together in a paragraph with other rewritten topic sentences. This isn’t an effective strategy. Not only does it make the paragraph chunky and confusing, but it does not really indicate to the reader that the student has any idea about what is going on in the paper. So our first tip of summarising is to really understand what you are reading.

Reading skills are essential when creating a summary

The first step is to read through the entire work that you will be summarising. An even better strategy would be to read it twice (or more!). Once you have read the article, put it away and then brainstorm all the things that you can remember from the original article. These stand-out features could be important to you as you begin to write. Once you have these pieces of information, make sure you go back and find the details about how the argument the original author was trying to make was constructed. If you are summarising a journal article, this is going to include the methodology – how many participants, what is the context, what was the aim, etc. Once you have the details and the main points, you are ready to begin your summary.

The necessary elements

When writing a summary of an entire book or journal article, there are always going to be certain elements that you are going to need to include. For example, you will need to include the title of the work, the name of the author, the date and an appropriately referenced citation. Much of this needs to happen in the first paragraph. You, as the writer, want the reader to know enough background so that when you start to present the main points, the reader is able to follow along. One common mistake that is evident in these types of summaries is the stating of claims with only minimal background information provided. For example, if the student writes, “Smith (2017) concluded that an organised daily study plan led to better retention of textbook material by university students”, then as a reader, we would want to know how Smith came to this conclusion. How many participants were in the study? What kind of assessment did Smith use to determine retention? How long after the daily study plan were the students assessed? (i.e. if Smith asked them to study on day 1 and write the retention test on day 2, the outcome might be different than if them to write the test on day 32).

If you are still stuck with thinking that everything within the article is important, try looking to the author’s own conclusion. It is in this section that the author has identified for you what they think is important. If you can build on these points with evidence from the body of the article, you are likely to be in a strong academic position.

Whatever strategy you take, make sure your paragraphs are organised logically with only one main idea per paragraph. You want your essay to be fluid and clear, rather than chunky and fragmented.

In addition to writing an article summary, there are also going to be instances in your academic career where you are going to have to embed a summary within a larger piece of essay writing. In this case, the essay question might ask you to “support your argument with evidence.” Using a summary can be a particularly useful way to offer this type of support. Here, the main mistakes that students tend to make are that the summary goes off track, or that it is too long/detailed (or contrary to this, it is too short/vague). To avoid these mistakes, there are some useful strategies that you might consider.

First, consider what the reader needs to know. You, as the writer, have made an initial argument, which hopefully appears as your topic sentence within the paragraph. From there, the summary allows the reader to see that your point is justified based on the past claims/research of others. You still want to include details like sample size and author name, but in this case you might avoid certain other elements, such as the title of the article. Remember that a paragraph is only around 6-10 sentences, so choose your words wisely as you decide what to include.

The task to summarise can be notoriously difficult because the balance between what is necessary and what is too much information is a fine line. Remember that the first essential element to a good summary is to understand what you have read. Look for clues in the conclusion of the original work to get an idea about what the original author feels is important. Finally, put yourself in the position of the reader as you work through a summary. If you think that the reader has enough information to make an informed decision about your claim, then you have appropriately summarised and are on the road to success.

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