Summarizing often gets confused with paraphrasing. They are similar, but not the same. Length is one difference. Level of detail is another. Paraphrases rephrase. Summaries reduce.

Definition: A summary is a broad overview of an entire work stating only the essentials from the original piece. Length depends on the complexity of the source material and what your reader needs to know in relation to your core message.

When Are Summaries Used? A summary is a minimalistic approach that focuses on limited pieces of information. It eliminates distracting details, background information, or examples that may be related, but not really relevant to your core message.

  • Condensing a larger work to keep it from overshadowing your content and purpose. As such, it may be a few sentences, or a few paragraphs even if the original is book-length.
  • To provide background or foundational information setting the stage for your perspective.
  • When compiling same or similar key ideas presented by several sources.
  • To preserve statistics that have value in support of your analysis or argument.
  • To note an interesting position of a source (i.e. in agreement or in opposition to the position you are advocating for).
  • To share the main idea(s) of a single source.

How To Summarize: A good summary is part outline, part paraphrase.

  1. Read, re-read, deep-read the original piece to ensure you understand its full meaning.
  2. Reverse outline the content to pick out the purpose and key ideas or main claims.
    1. Pay close attention to section titles and paragraph topic sentences.
    2. Ignore all supporting details, information, evidence, examples, etc. that fill out the rest of those paragraphs.
  3. Reduce your reverse outline to just the pieces most relevant to your project.
  4. Paraphrase just those key ideas keeping them in the order they occur in the original.
  5. Use transitional language to connect your paraphrased sentences.
  6. Option: For long summaries, consider including a short yet memorable quote within it. Think soundbite short.

Summaries relay essential information and keep you from appearing to copycat someone else’s work. They are short and hopefully simpler versions of the original. A good summary is part outline, part paraphrase so practicing those skills will improve your summarizing skills as well.


This is Part 4 of the series: Better Quoting, Paraphrasing, and Summarizing.

Part 1: Write With Respect
Part 2: How to Choose (Not Abuse) Quotes
Part 3: Paraphrase to Perfection