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How to Write a Summary

Learning how to write a summary is a valuable skill. California even includes the summary as a writing application on its CST writing exam. Learning how to teach what is and what is not a summary may be even more valuable. A summary is the one writing application that focuses equally on what should be included and what should not be included.

Definition: A summary condenses (shortens) an expository text to its main ideas and major details.

A summary is not…

  • A re-tell of a story. There are no main ideas in the narrative genre. The structure of a narrative work is completely different than that of an expository work.
  • An abstract. A research abstract has a different structure and purpose than say an essay.
  • A review. A review is designed to report on the good and the bad. Its purpose is to opine.
  • An analysis. Summaries list and explain, but do not analyze.

A summary is…

  • Usually no more than one-third of the expository text length and is often much less. The length depends upon the text itself and the purpose of the summary.
  • A useful, brief version that faithfully reflects the main idea(s) and major details of the expository text. Yes, there can be more than one main idea in a summary.
  • Designed to inform or explain such that the readers will be able to decide whether they need or want to read the full expository text.
  • Used to check the readers’ comprehension of an expository text.
  • Used to reinforce the main ideas and major details of an expository text.
  • A stand-alone application. It can be understood on its own and is not dependent upon the expository work from which it is developed.
  • Flexible enough to condense all manner of expository text: definition, analysis, description, persuasion, classification, comparison, and more, and is found in textbooks, encyclopedias, scientific books/journals, atlases, directions, guides, biographies, newspapers, essays, manuals, directions, and more.

Prerequisite Skills to Scaffold

Don’ts

  • Don’t include what is not in the expository text. A summary should be like an umbrella, designed to cover the subject and nothing beyond the subject.
  • Don’t comment on, analyze, or offer opinion.
  • Don’t compare to another subject beyond the information provided in the expository text.
  • Don’t write in first or second person.
  • Don’t ask questions.
  • Don’t use bullets or any form of outline. A summary is not simply a list of ideas.
  • Don’t refer to the summary itself. For example, “This summary is about…”

Dos

  • Maintain a consistent author’s voice that is clear, concise, yet impersonal.
  • Write in third person.
  • Include passive voice, if needed to emphasize objectivity.
  • Mimic the organizational pattern of the expository work. If cause-effect, chronological, reasons-based, reflect that presentation in your summary. Structure often communicates meaning.
  • Write in your own words, but when the original author’s words are the most concise presentation of the main ideas or details you should quote and properly cite.
  • Use sentence variety. An effective summary is never boring.

Find essay strategy worksheets, on-demand writing fluencies, sentence revision and rhetorical stance “openers,” remedial writing lessons, posters, and editing resources to differentiate essay writing instruction in the comprehensive writing curriculum,Teaching Essay Strategies, at www.penningtonpublishing.com.

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