Summary – Learn How To Summarize Sources in Academic & Professional Writing

Learn how to ethically condense content while ensuring your summary accurately reflects the essence of the original source. Summary also refers to a genre of discourse--such as an Abstract or Executive Summary. Learn how to succinctly and ethically summarize the works of others.

What is Summary?

Summary refers to the act of providing a condensed version of a text, idea or event. An effective summary captures the essence of the original text without conveying every detail.

Writers in academic and professional settings often summarize

  • to define a concept
  • to explain an event or process
  • to describe what other people have said, written, or created
  • to describe their purpose for writing or to describe how they have organized a text
  • to support a claim they’ve made in their writing

Writers, when summarizing, grapple with the delicate task of distilling the essence of an event, idea, or text, aiming to encapsulate its fundamental themes and arguments. This endeavor, by its very nature, treads a fine line between interpretation and representation.

In academic and professional contexts, writers are expected to adopt professional standards of ethics when they summarize the works of others. Professional codes of conduct call for writers to provide accurate summaries and to show respect for intellectual property, copyright laws, and academic integrity by correctly citing summaries.


Summarizing is distinct from producing Executive Summaries or Abstracts — i.e., genres that specifically provide overviews of longer pieces. However, in everyday discourse, the term “summary” may also be referred to as an

  1. Abstract: A concise version of a text or research article highlighting its main points.
  2. Outline: A structured breakdown of the primary ideas of a text.
  3. Synopsis: A brief overview of the main events or plot, especially in narratives.
  4. Digest: A shortened version that provides the essence of the longer content.
  5. Recap: A quick review or reminder of main points or events.
  6. Brief: A condensed statement or representation.

Key Concepts: Abstract; Brevity; Copyright; Critical Literacy; Executive SummaryIntellectual PropertyPlagiarism; Scholarship as a Conversation

Types of Summaries

  1. Descriptive (Informative) Summaries:
    • Offer condensed, objective versions of an original text.
    • Highlight the main ideas or thesis and the organizational structure of the original.
    • Remain neutral, focusing solely on the perspective of the original author without adding personal views.
  2. Evaluative Summaries:
    • Go beyond simply recounting an original source.
    • Provide critical perspectives, enabling readers to assess the relevance and credibility of the source. For instance, they may offer a critique based on criteria such as:
  3. Synthetic (Power) Summaries:
    • Combine information from multiple sources or texts.
    • Highlight similarities, differences, and overarching themes of multple texts.
    • Useful in literature reviews, meta-analyses, and comparative studies.
  4. Subjective Summaries:
    • Capture the essence of the original source but may include personal interpretations, feelings, or biases of the author.
    • Can be influenced by the writer’s personal context, beliefs, or opinions.
  5. False, Inaccurate, or Misleading Summaries:
    • Distort the tone, meaning, or message of the original source.
    • Can be:
      • Intentional: Deliberate misrepresentation.
      • Unintentional: Due to skimming, emotional bias, lack of comprehension, etc.
    • Not acceptable in workplace or academic contexts.
  6. Objective Summaries:
    • Faithfully represent the tone, meaning, and essence of the original source.

Guide to Writing an Effective Summary

  1. Objective of Summarizing: Understand your goal isn’t merely to reduce word count, but to emphasize the source’s primary ideas and incorporate them into your own arguments or discussion.
  2. Engage in Rhetorical Analysis of the Source:
    • Authorship: Research the source’s author. Their background can offer insights into biases and perspectives.
    • Intended Audience: Recognize which group the source is addressing to maintain the essence of its message in your summary.
    • Purpose of the Source: Identify if the source aims to inform, persuade, etc., ensuring your summary captures its primary intent.
  3. Identify the Source’s Main Ideas:
  4. Apply the CRAAP Test: This ensure source’s credibility and relevance to your work.
    • Currency: Is the research or information recent? How does it compare to prior research?
    • Relevance: Does the information directly bolster your argument?
    • Authority: Consider the author’s credentials and expertise.
    • Accuracy: Verify the information’s reliability. Can it be cross-referenced?
    • Purpose: Identify any biases that might slant the information, be it political, ideological, or cultural.
  5. Relate the Summary to Your Paper’s Objective:
    • Ensure your summary directly bolsters and complements your own thesis or main points. If not, refine it.
  6. Procedure for Summarizing Lengthier Texts:
    • Read each section, highlighting central ideas.
    • Collate these points to draft an encompassing summary.
  7. Method for Summarizing Short Texts:
    • Read for understanding.
    • Draft your summary without revisiting the source, then refine it for accuracy.
  8. Integrate and Review: After drafting your summary, ensure it enhances and complements your paper’s central ideas. Adjust as needed.

Let’s look at an example:

The following excerpt is from Martin Luther King, Jr.’s “Letter from Birmingham Jail”:

In any nonviolent campaign there are four basic steps: collection of the facts to determine whether injustices are alive, negotiation, self-purification, and direct action. We have gone through all of these steps in Birmingham. There can be no gainsaying of the fact that racial injustice engulfs this community. Birmingham is probably the most thoroughly segregated city in the United States. Its ugly record of police brutality is known in every section of this country. Its unjust treatment of Negroes in the courts is a notorious reality. There have been more unsolved bombings of Negro homes and churches in Birmingham than in any other city in this nation. These are the hard, brutal, and unbelievable facts. On the basis of them, Negro leaders sought to negotiate with the city fathers. But the political leaders consistently refused to engage in good-faith negotiation. (King)

The original paragraph contains 140 words, but the following summary captures the main ideas of this part of King’s letter in just 26 words:

King explains that despite nonviolent attempts to achieve peace and racial equality in Birmingham, the city remains a hotbed of unparalleled racial segregation and related violence.



What are Some Examples of Summaries in Academic and Professional Writing?

  1. Literary Contexts: In the literary sphere, reviewers often summarize a book or narrative, distilling lengthy texts into succinct reviews. This involves capturing the main events, themes, and characters in a manner that gives readers a sense of the whole without divulging every detail.
  2. Research Contexts: In both scientific and academic papers, summaries, often termed “abstracts,” are prevalent. An abstract provides a snapshot of the entire article, from the problem identified to the methodologies used, the results obtained, and the interpretations and conclusions drawn.
  3. Business Communications: In the corporate domain, the “executive summary” holds prominence, especially when appended to formal proposals or reports. This succinct section encapsulates vital elements like the problem, stakeholders, existing solutions, and recommendations.
  4. Summary as a Tool for Flow: In prolonged writings, summaries often serve as bridges between sections. As one section concludes and another begins, a brief summary helps tie ideas together, ensuring a seamless transition and aiding the reader in understanding the relationship between segments.

How Do Writers Know When They Should Summarize as Opposed to Quoting or Paraphrasing?

Writers may choose to summarize a text instead of quoting or paraphrasing it for several reasons:

  1. Brevity: Summaries allow writers to condense a lot of information into a more manageable and concise form, making it easier for readers to quickly grasp the main points.
  2. Integration: Summaries can be integrated seamlessly into the flow of a piece of writing, maintaining a consistent voice and avoiding abrupt shifts that direct quotations might introduce.
  3. Avoid Over-reliance on Original Text: Summaries demonstrate a writer’s comprehension of the source material. Overusing quotations can make a piece seem like a patchwork of other people’s ideas, rather than a coherent piece of original writing.
  4. General Overview: When the specific details or exact wording of the original are not critical, but the overarching idea is, a summary is appropriate.
  5. Avoid Plagiarism: By summarizing and putting information in their own words, writers reduce the risk of unintentional plagiarism that might occur from misquoting or incorrectly paraphrasing.
  6. Adaptation for Audience: Summaries allow writers to tailor information for their specific audience, especially if the original text is technical or contains jargon. The writer can present the main points in a way that’s accessible and relevant to their readers.
  7. Combine Multiple Ideas: Summaries can be used to synthesize ideas from multiple sources or parts of a single source, providing a holistic view of a topic or theme.

While quotations provide exact, verbatim extracts from a source and paraphrasing rephrases a particular passage, summaries give an overarching view of a source’s main points or themes. The choice among these depends on the writer’s purpose and the needs of their audience.


King, M.L.K. (1997). “Letter from Birmingham Jail.” In H.L. Gates & N.Y. McKay, eds. The Norton Anthology of African American Literature. Norton.

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