Ivory Tower Writing #15: The art of summarizing

This post covers a simple how-to in writing summaries.

So, it seems you’ve been asked to summarize a specific book or article, either at the request of your professor or (gasp!) own initiative. Being able to summarize effectively is an important skill you need to learn early on, especially if in your field of study, you deal with a lot of text and reading.

Why summarize?

Before going on to the actual tips of writing an effective summary, first, we need to understand the reason why your professor asked you to even write one in the first place.

Summaries actually benefit you, the writer, more than they do the professor. All the professor does is grade them and it is often assumed that they have already read the articles beforehand. Submitting them has little to no effect on your professor (excluding the time wasted on actually grading them, which is what a teaching assistant is for).

The main reason why professors assign you the task of writing a summary is to assess how far you understand the materials. Courses often involve lots of reading, and to make sure you understand what you’re reading, the professor asks you to write a summary of the reading material. Additionally, being able to summarize well will help you in other aspects of writing, especially when conducting a literature review.

Another reason could be because your professor is writing a research paper, but is unwilling to pay research assistants to do a literature review.

Furthermore, if one were to continue mounting the utilitarian argument for such a mundane task, the ability to summarize also trains other essential research skills, such as skimming, analyzing, and surveying. The utility of these skills are not confined to academia—they translate even into the corporate world, especially if your job is to trudge through dozens of company reports and present an executive summary to your boss.

What’s a good summary?

There are no fixed rules in writing summaries, though there are some rules of thumbs that you may want to keep in mind.

First, a good summary always maintains the original structure and ideas of the original article. Unlike a review, a summary is simply you re-writing the original text in a simpler (though not simplistic) manner while keeping the author’s original ideas intact. If the author used 1 page to describe Huntington’s theory of civil-military relations, you could use 1 paragraph to rephrase the author’s explanation of Huntington using your own words. Note that while it is acceptable to directly copy several phrases (especially technical terms) from the original article, you should always be aware of unconsciously mimicking the original author’s tone and style. Remember that a summary is not just changing a few words here and there and calling it day!

Second, a good summary is always shorter than the original text. This should be common sense, but it’s amazing how many people tend to forget this. As a rule of thumb, summaries should ideally be one-third of the original text. This rule, however, does not necessarily scale: a 1,000-page book would not warrant a 300-page summary (even a 10-page summary is excessive). However, at a smaller scale—in pages, for example—the rule should hold, e.g. for a 10-page article, a 3-page summary is acceptable.

Writing a summary

First of all, before writing a summary, you would need to know some basic skimming techniques so you don’t end up wasting a lot of time reading unnecessary text.

Journal articles usually come equipped with an abstract, which is essentially a summary of the entire article. If, while you’re reading, you suddenly become lost, the abstract serves as a nifty map to get you back on track. This will especially help if you’re doing a literature review.

Books, on the other hand, require a little more work. If you’re summarizing a book, the first thing you would want to read is the Table of Contents. From it, you will be able to grasp the general outline of the book and perhaps estimate what it will be about. Then, you would want to read the first chapter (or introduction, or both in some cases) because this is where the author will usually lay out the structure of the book. At this point, you should be done; if you want to read additional parts of the book to understand more, you could do so.

A technique that I like to use when writing a summary is to first read the text, close it, and then start writing. If I feel I misunderstood some of the author’s points, I then re-open the text and go to the problematic part and read it again. Then, I close it again, and start writing again.

It may seem tedious, but it’s a rewarding process. By doing so, you are actually actively reading, which according to science, helps you retain information longer and comprehend the author’s main arguments better.

In terms of actually writing a summary, I always think to myself “How can I explain this in a way I understand?” A summary is ultimately a personal thing, so it’s pointless to write one if you yourself end up even more confused after writing. Always think about how you can make the author’s ideas understandable to you. If the author explains a complicated theoretical framework, how would you simplify it (but not oversimplify) for your own understanding? If you end up using a lot of the author’s original words, you may end up being more confused yourself. This is partially inspired from the Feynman method, named after the physicist Richard Feynman, which iterated in a single maxim would be like: if you want to understand better, try to explain it simply.

Let’s test that out

To illustrate this point, let us try to summarize the following excerpt I took from the MIT Academic Integrity page:

America has changed dramatically during recent years. Not only has the number of graduates in traditional engineering disciplines such as mechanical, civil, electrical, chemical, and aeronautical engineering declined, but in most of the premier American universities engineering curricula now concentrate on and encourage largely the study of engineering science.  As a result, there are declining offerings in engineering subjects dealing with infrastructure, the environment, and related issues, and greater concentration on high technology subjects, largely supporting increasingly complex scientific developments. While the latter is important, it should not be at the expense of more traditional engineering.

Rapidly developing economies such as China and India, as well as other industrial countries in Europe and Asia, continue to encourage and advance the teaching of engineering. Both China and India, respectively, graduate six and eight times as many traditional engineers as does the United States. Other industrial countries at minimum maintain their output, while America suffers an increasingly serious decline in the number of engineering graduates and a lack of well-educated engineers.

(Source:  Excerpted from Frankel, E.G. (2008, May/June) Change in education: The cost of sacrificing fundamentals. MIT Faculty Newsletter, XX, 5, 13)

The original text is exactly 167 words in length. Let’s try to get that down to one-third without changing the meaning of the original text:

Traditional engineering fields in the United States, according to Frankel (2008), are facing a decline in graduates compared to high-technology engineering fields. While acknowledging the importance of high-technology engineering fields, Frankel points out that in other industrial countries, the amount of traditional engineering graduates are either increasing or stagnant. Frankel shows concern that the United States may face a deficiency in educated engineers.

My summary is 63 words, which is roughly one-third of the original text. I won’t say it’s a good summary, but it does capture Frankel’s main points.

Then, note how I rephrased and condensed Frankel’s main points. I still maintained Frankel’s original structure, however, I made it easier for me to understand.

Now, notice the words which I bolded. When you are writing summaries, these—what I call “reporter phrases”—help to show that you are “reporting” the author’s main points expressed in the original text. These phrases are helpful especially when you’re doing a literature review, because this will aid you in classifying ideas to put in the metaphorical Idea Baskets. Note that you should always try to use neutral “reporter phrases” (such as “points out”, “according to…”) and use interpretative phrases sparingly (such as “criticises”, “argues against”) unless you are doing a literature review.

Conclusion

Writing summaries is a basic art form that students need to perfect as it serves as the basis for most of academic writing. From reading summaries to dissertations, all will inevitably involve some degree of summarizing. Here, I’ve shown you some tips on what makes a good summary and how to write one. Hopefully, you will find these tips useful in your own writing.

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