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.
When should I summarize?

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:

  1. 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
  2. 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
  3. 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
  4. 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
  5. Once you finish writing your summary, check to make sure your summary concisely and accurately captures the author’s main ideas
  6. 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.