Drew University On-Line Resources for Writers
WARNING: Good summaries are harder to write than you may think -- bad summaries are easy!
|Summary skills in college|
The ability to write an effective summary might be the most important writing skill a college student can possess. You need to be able to summarize before you can be successful at most of the other kinds of writing that will be demanded of you in college, and it is an important part of note taking, too. The links below will help you master the various kinds of summary writing that you may be called upon to complete in college.
|Summary skills in daily life|
To answer questions such as “what was the movie about?” “how did the game go?” and “what did I miss in class today?” you must be able to summarize. Your questioner doesn't want to know every line and action in the movie, every play in the game, or every word from class; the question asks you to select the important details and summarize them. Similarly, when you summarize a reading you need to be able to find the important data and then present it as clearly and concisely as possible.
|Summary skills after college|
Politicians and corporations employ people to read every newspaper and newsmagazine and summarize relevant stories and articles. The more concise the summary the better, yet if any major details are omitted the purpose of the summary is lost--its readers will be uninformed on key aspects of the news and may make embarrassing errors as a result. The summaries that you write in college are as important to your academic career as these summaries are to these politicians and business people, and accuracy and concision are just as important, too.
|The key features of a summary|
(1) it is shorter than the source,
(2) it repeats the ideas of the source in different phrases and sentences.
|The Reader's Summary|
Obviously, you cannot write a good summary of a source that you do not understand. There are reading strategies that will help you comprehend a source text as fully as possible. One of those techniques is the reader’s summary, which you write for yourself, as a way of understanding the text you are reading. Read a section of the book or article, or the whole thing if it is short, and then close the text and write a summary of the key points. When you've finished, skim the text again to make sure you didn't omit anything. This use of summary helps you learn and helps you check what you've learned.
Summary-outline notes are a form of note-taking using a divided page. Take a notebook page and divide it down the middle. Write the main points in the left hand column leaving a few lines between each. In the right hand column, summarize the point in the left column in a few sentences. This will help you get an overall picture of the argument through the outline, and a more detailed reminder of the content via the summaries.
|Summaries as part of essays|
Most summary occurs as part of other essays--indeed, few essays use only one kind of writing. Summary is often a part of synthesis because readers need to know a little about the ideas you are pulling together. Similarly, you have to summarize ideas or texts before you can compare them, classify them, or divide them into their component parts. You will find that almost any texts you read in college and outside contain at least a little summary.
In college you may also be asked to write another type of summary, the summary essay, which is written for an audience other than yourself. The purpose of the summary essay is to convey to others an understanding of a text you have read, without their having to read it themselves. Thus for your readers, your summary essay functions as a substitute for the source that you are summarizing. You don't want to misrepresent your source or mislead your audience. Certainly an important feature of the summary essay, then, is its fidelity to the source; you must represent your source accurately and comprehensively, with as little of your own interpretation as possible. (Anytime you read and repeat a source, of course, you are interpreting it; but the summary essay asks you to minimize your interpretation as much as possible. You should not add your own examples and explanations, for instance.)
An alternative purpose of the summary essay, one that is very commonplace in college, is a demonstration of comprehension: teachers sometimes assign summary essays when they want to make sure that students fully understand an assigned source. In this case, your essay does not substitute for the source, for the teacher has read the source, too. Yet your essay will be written in the same way, with fidelity to the source.
|Writing the Summary Essay|
A summary essay should be organized so that others can understand the source or evaluate
your comprehension of it. The following format works well:
a. The introduction (usually one paragraph)--
1. Contains a one-sentence thesis statement that sums up the main point of the source.
This thesis statement is not your main point; it is the main point of your source.
Usually, though, you have to write this statement rather than quote it from the source
text. It is a one-sentence summary of the entire text that your essay summarizes.
2. Also introduces the text to be summarized:
(i) Gives the title of the source (following the citation guidelines of whatever style
sheet you are using);
(ii) Provides the name of the author of the source;
(ii) Sometimes also provides pertinent background information about the author of
the source or about the text to be summarized.
The introduction should not offer your own opinions or evaluation of the text you are summarizing.
b. The body of a summary essay (one or more paragraphs):
This paraphrases and condenses the original piece. In your summary, be sure that you--
1. Include important data but omit minor points;
2. Include one or more of the author’s examples or illustrations (these will bring your
summary to life);
3. Do not include your own ideas, illustrations, metaphors, or interpretations. Look
upon yourself as a summarizing machine; you are simply repeating what the source
text says, in fewer words and in your own words. But the fact that you are using
your own words does not mean that you are including your own ideas.
c. There is customarily no conclusion to a summary essay.
When you have summarized the source text, your summary essay is finished. Do not add your own concluding paragraph unless your teacher specifically tells you to.
|Checking your own writing or that of your peers|
Read the summary carefully and answer the following questions:
- What do you like best about your peer's summary? (Why? How might he or she do more of it?)
- Is it clear what is being summarized? (i.e.: Did your peer list the source, and cite it correctly?)
- Is the thesis of the original essay clear in the summary? (Write out what you think that thesis is.)
- If you have read the original source, did you identify the same thesis? (If not, how does it differ?)
- Did your peer miss any key points from his or her summary? (If so, what are they?)
- Did your peer include any of his own opinions in his or her summary? (If so, what are they?)
- Did your peer include any unimportant details in his or her summary? (If so, what are they?)
- Where there any points in the summary where you were lost because a transition was missing? (If so, where and how might it be fixed?)
- Where there any points where you were lost because some information seems to have been omitted? (If so, where, and what seems to be missing? Why do you think it might be important?)
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General Essay Writing Tips
Despite the fact that, as Shakespeare said, "the pen is mightier than the sword," the pen itself is not enough to make an effective writer. In fact, though we may all like to think of ourselves as the next Shakespeare, inspiration alone is not the key to effective essay writing. You see, the conventions of English essays are more formulaic than you might think – and, in many ways, it can be as simple as counting to five.
The Five Paragraph Essay
Though more advanced academic papers are a category all their own, the basic high school or college essay has the following standardized, five paragraph structure:
Paragraph 1: Introduction
Paragraph 2: Body 1
Paragraph 3: Body 2
Paragraph 4: Body 3
Paragraph 5: Conclusion
Though it may seem formulaic – and, well, it is - the idea behind this structure is to make it easier for the reader to navigate the ideas put forth in an essay. You see, if your essay has the same structure as every other one, any reader should be able to quickly and easily find the information most relevant to them.
Want to see sample essays?
Check out our Sample Essay section where you can see scholarship essays, admissions essays, and more!
The principle purpose of the introduction is to present your position (this is also known as the "thesis" or "argument") on the issue at hand but effective introductory paragraphs are so much more than that. Before you even get to this thesis statement, for example, the essay should begin with a "hook" that grabs the reader’s attention and makes them want to read on. Examples of effective hooks include relevant quotations ("no man is an island") or surprising statistics ("three out of four doctors report that…").
Only then, with the reader’s attention "hooked," should you move on to the thesis. The thesis should be a clear, one-sentence explanation of your position that leaves no doubt in the reader’s mind about which side you are on from the beginning of your essay.
Following the thesis, you should provide a mini-outline which previews the examples you will use to support your thesis in the rest of the essay. Not only does this tell the reader what to expect in the paragraphs to come but it also gives them a clearer understanding of what the essay is about.
Finally, designing the last sentence in this way has the added benefit of seamlessly moving the reader to the first paragraph of the body of the paper. In this way we can see that the basic introduction does not need to be much more than three or four sentences in length. If yours is much longer you might want to consider editing it down a bit!
Here, by way of example, is an introductory paragraph to an essay in response to the following question:
"Do we learn more from finding out that we have made mistakes or from our successful actions?"
"No man is an island" and, as such, he is constantly shaped and influenced by his experiences. People learn by doing and, accordingly, learn considerably more from their mistakes than their success. For proof of this, consider examples from both science and everyday experience.
DO – Pay Attention to Your Introductory Paragraph
Because this is the first paragraph of your essay it is your opportunity to give the reader the best first impression possible. The introductory paragraph not only gives the reader an idea of what you will talk about but also shows them how you will talk about it. Put a disproportionate amount of effort into this – more than the 20% a simple calculation would suggest – and you will be rewarded accordingly.
DO NOT – Use Passive Voice or I/My
Active voice, wherein the subjects direct actions rather than let the actions "happen to" them – "he scored a 97%" instead of "he was given a 97%" – is a much more powerful and attention-grabbing way to write. At the same time, unless it is a personal narrative, avoid personal pronouns like I, My, or Me. Try instead to be more general and you will have your reader hooked.
The Body Paragraphs
The middle paragraphs of the essay are collectively known as the body paragraphs and, as alluded to above, the main purpose of a body paragraph is to spell out in detail the examples that support your thesis.
For the first body paragraph you should use your strongest argument or most significant example unless some other more obvious beginning point (as in the case of chronological explanations) is required. The first sentence of this paragraph should be the topic sentence of the paragraph that directly relates to the examples listed in the mini-outline of introductory paragraph.
A one sentence body paragraph that simply cites the example of "George Washington" or "LeBron James" is not enough, however. No, following this an effective essay will follow up on this topic sentence by explaining to the reader, in detail, who or what an example is and, more importantly, why that example is relevant.
Even the most famous examples need context. For example, George Washington’s life was extremely complex – by using him as an example, do you intend to refer to his honesty, bravery, or maybe even his wooden teeth? The reader needs to know this and it is your job as the writer to paint the appropriate picture for them. To do this, it is a good idea to provide the reader with five or six relevant facts about the life (in general) or event (in particular) you believe most clearly illustrates your point.
Having done that, you then need to explain exactly why this example proves your thesis. The importance of this step cannot be understated (although it clearly can be underlined); this is, after all, the whole reason you are providing the example in the first place. Seal the deal by directly stating why this example is relevant.
Here is an example of a body paragraph to continue the essay begun above:
Take, by way of example, Thomas Edison. The famed American inventor rose to prominence in the late 19th century because of his successes, yes, but even he felt that these successes were the result of his many failures. He did not succeed in his work on one of his most famous inventions, the lightbulb, on his first try nor even on his hundred and first try. In fact, it took him more than 1,000 attempts to make the first incandescent bulb but, along the way, he learned quite a deal. As he himself said, "I did not fail a thousand times but instead succeeded in finding a thousand ways it would not work." Thus Edison demonstrated both in thought and action how instructive mistakes can be.
DO – Tie Things Together
The first sentence – the topic sentence - of your body paragraphs needs to have a lot individual pieces to be truly effective. Not only should it open with a transition that signals the change from one idea to the next but also it should (ideally) also have a common thread which ties all of the body paragraphs together. For example, if you used "first" in the first body paragraph then you should used "secondly" in the second or "on the one hand" and "on the other hand" accordingly.
DO NOT – Be Too General
Examples should be relevant to the thesis and so should the explanatory details you provide for them. It can be hard to summarize the full richness of a given example in just a few lines so make them count. If you are trying to explain why George Washington is a great example of a strong leader, for instance, his childhood adventure with the cherry tree (though interesting in another essay) should probably be skipped over.
A Word on Transitions
You may have noticed that, though the above paragraph aligns pretty closely with the provided outline, there is one large exception: the first few words. These words are example of a transitional phrase – others include "furthermore," "moreover," but also "by contrast" and "on the other hand" – and are the hallmark of good writing.
Transitional phrases are useful for showing the reader where one section ends and another begins. It may be helpful to see them as the written equivalent of the kinds of spoken cues used in formal speeches that signal the end of one set of ideas and the beginning of another. In essence, they lead the reader from one section of the paragraph of another.
To further illustrate this, consider the second body paragraph of our example essay:
In a similar way, we are all like Edison in our own way. Whenever we learn a new skill - be it riding a bike, driving a car, or cooking a cake - we learn from our mistakes. Few, if any, are ready to go from training wheels to a marathon in a single day but these early experiences (these so-called mistakes) can help us improve our performance over time. You cannot make a cake without breaking a few eggs and, likewise, we learn by doing and doing inevitably means making mistakes.
Hopefully this example not only provides another example of an effective body paragraph but also illustrates how transitional phrases can be used to distinguish between them.
Although the conclusion paragraph comes at the end of your essay it should not be seen as an afterthought. As the final paragraph is represents your last chance to make your case and, as such, should follow an extremely rigid format.
One way to think of the conclusion is, paradoxically, as a second introduction because it does in fact contain many of the same features. While it does not need to be too long – four well-crafted sentence should be enough – it can make or break and essay.
Effective conclusions open with a concluding transition ("in conclusion," "in the end," etc.) and an allusion to the "hook" used in the introductory paragraph. After that you should immediately provide a restatement of your thesis statement.
This should be the fourth or fifth time you have repeated your thesis so while you should use a variety of word choice in the body paragraphs it is a acceptable idea to use some (but not all) of the original language you used in the introduction. This echoing effect not only reinforces your argument but also ties it nicely to the second key element of the conclusion: a brief (two or three words is enough) review of the three main points from the body of the paper.
Having done all of that, the final element – and final sentence in your essay – should be a "global statement" or "call to action" that gives the reader signals that the discussion has come to an end.
In the end, then, one thing is clear: mistakes do far more to help us learn and improve than successes. As examples from both science and everyday experience can attest, if we treat each mistake not as a misstep but as a learning experience the possibilities for self-improvement are limitless.
DO – Be Powerful
The conclusion paragraph can be a difficult paragraph to write effectively but, as it is your last chance to convince or otherwise impress the reader, it is worth investing some time in. Take this opportunity to restate your thesis with confidence; if you present your argument as "obvious" then the reader might just do the same.
DO NOT – Copy the First Paragraph
Although you can reuse the same key words in the conclusion as you did in the introduction, try not to copy whole phrases word for word. Instead, try to use this last paragraph to really show your skills as a writer by being as artful in your rephrasing as possible.
Taken together, then, the overall structure of a five paragraph essay should look something like this:
- An attention-grabbing "hook"
- A thesis statement
- A preview of the three subtopics you will discuss in the body paragraphs.
First Body Paragraph
- Topic sentence which states the first subtopic and opens with a transition
- Supporting details or examples
- An explanation of how this example proves your thesis
Second Body Paragraph
- Topic sentence which states the second subtopic and opens with a transition
- Supporting details or examples
- An explanation of how this example proves your thesis
Third Body Paragraph
- Topic sentence which states the third subtopic and opens with a transition
- Supporting details or examples
- An explanation of how this example proves your thesis
- Concluding Transition, Reverse "hook," and restatement of thesis.
- Rephrasing main topic and subtopics.
- Global statement or call to action.
More tips to make your essay shine
Although it may seem like a waste of time – especially during exams where time is tight – it is almost always better to brainstorm a bit before beginning your essay. This should enable you to find the best supporting ideas – rather than simply the first ones that come to mind – and position them in your essay accordingly.
Your best supporting idea – the one that most strongly makes your case and, simultaneously, about which you have the most knowledge – should go first. Even the best-written essays can fail because of ineffectively placed arguments.
Aim for Variety
Sentences and vocabulary of varying complexity are one of the hallmarks of effective writing. When you are writing, try to avoid using the same words and phrases over and over again. You don’t have to be a walking thesaurus but a little variance can make the same idea sparkle.
If you are asked about "money," you could try "wealth" or "riches." At the same time, avoid beginning sentences the dull pattern of "subject + verb + direct object." Although examples of this are harder to give, consider our writing throughout this article as one big example of sentence structure variety.
Practice! Practice! Practice!
In the end, though, remember that good writing does not happen by accident. Although we have endeavored to explain everything that goes into effective essay writing in as clear and concise a way as possible, it is much easier in theory than it is in practice.
As a result, we recommend that you practice writing sample essays on various topics. Even if they are not masterpieces at first, a bit of regular practice will soon change that – and make you better prepared when it comes to the real thing.
Now that you’ve learned how to write an effective essay, check out our Sample Essays so you can see how they are done in practice.
Essay Writing Center