Summary refers to a genre of discourse--such as an Abstract or Executive Summary--as well as the act of restating something more concisely than an original version. Learn how to succinctly and ethically summarize the works of others.

What is Summary?

Summary refers to

  1. the act of providing a condensed version of a text or event
    1. Writers may summarize the works of others in a few sentences. For instance,
      • a book reviewer might summarize a lengthy book in a page or two
      • a scientist might summarize the literature on the topic, reviewing relevant scholarly conversations
    2. Writers may summarize parts of their own writing. For instance,
      • a business writer might provide an executive summary before a proposal.
      • an academic writer may provide an abstract before a scientific study
        • An abstract may reference the knowledge gap, the research question, research methods, results, interpretations, and conclusions of a study.
  2. a genre of communication.

What is Summarizing?

Summarizing refers to

  • the act of concisely explaining the gist of a text—its essence.

Key Concepts: Abstract; Critical Literacy; Executive Summary; Reasoning – Guide to Reasoning with Evidence

Summary Definition

Summary refers to a genre of discourse–such as an Abstract or Executive Summary–as well as the act of restating something more concisely than an original version. For instance, a writer may restate the main points of one section of discourse before launching into a new section. Or, a writer may summarize someone else’s work–a website, an article, or a book.

Types of Summaries

Descriptive Summaries

Descriptive Summaries are condensed, objective versions of an original text. They outline the main ideas/thesis and organizational schema of the original text. They do not expound on the opinions of the author of the summary. Rather, they focus on the perspective of the original author(s).

Informative Summaries

Informative Summaries are similar to descriptive summaries: they are succinct, factual accounts of the original text.

Evaluative Summaries

Evaluative Summaries go beyond concisely restating an original source: they critique the source, perhaps drawing on information literacy perspectives, such as

False, Inaccurate, or Misleading Summaries

False Summaries refers to summaries that misrepresent the tone, meaning, and message of the original source.

False Summaries may be

  1. Intentional
    Writers may intentionally misinterpret a source. They may misrepresent what people said at an event or misrepresent what a writer said in a particular text (e.g., an article, a book, a website).
  2. Unintentional
    Writers may unintentionally misrepresent a source.
    • They may skim too quickly and not carefully read the source text.
    • Their emotions may so overwhelm their interpretations that they may not consider the authority, currency, relevance, authority, accuracy, purpose of information.
    • They may not understand limitations of the investigators’ research methods.

In business settings, professional settings, and scholarly publishing, false summaries are unacceptable.

Objective Summaries

Objective summaries refers to summaries that accurately reflect the tone, meaning, and message of the original source.

In professional writing, workplace writing, academic writing, and public discourse, writers aim to provide accurate representations of the texts they summarize. Professional Codes of Conduct, Student Codes of Conduct, state and federal laws, and prevailing ethical standards all call for writers to accurately represent texts and events.

How to Write a Summary

The act of writing a summary involves abstraction. To summarize, you need need to distill the essence of the original text.

  1. Step back from the word-by-word, line-by-line perspective–the local perspective.
  2. Evaluate the big picture–a global, rhetorical perspective
    • Begin with Rhetorical Analysis, especially Audience Analysis. Ask yourself which elements from the original source you need to use in your summary? For instance, you might consider
    • the setting
    • the main idea
    • the problem space
    • the characters
    • key points
    • minor details
    • the exigency, the conflict, the call for communication.

Minor details do not belong in a summary. A good way to think about this is to imagine telling a friend about a movie. If someone had to explain the movie in just one sentence, that one sentence is usually the main idea. The key points of the movie would be the most important events that happened. Minor details would not appear in a movie trailer.

When summarizing a source, imagine you’re creating a “movie trailer” for the article. Your goal is to reveal the main idea and key points. Forget about the minor details.


Who is the author of the text? This person/group’s name alone is an insufficient answer to this question. What do we know about the author? What is their job? Where are they from? What is their age/gender/race? Does research to support this answer (university/book bio, publication bio from the academic’s website).

Audience – Audience Awareness

What group of people is expected to read/view this text? What content, tone, and diction appeal to this group of people?


What is this text trying to do? This is best answered by an infinitive verb (e.g. to persuade, to inform, to teach, etc).


When was this text published? What publication does it come from and what do we know about that publication? What country does this text or publication come from? What’s important about the time period or publication in relation to the content or message of the text?


What is the text about? What argument or point is the text making? What impression does it leave on the reader/viewer?

Additionally, the evaluation of the source must explain how the source relates to the research question. Below is a sample of a source summary and evaluation for an annotated bibliography. Notice how each element of rhetorical situation as well as the connection to the research question is incorporated into the entry.

What steps can be taken to help keep a summary brief and accurate?

Summarizing an article or chapter:

  1. As the piece is being read, look for the main point of each paragraph and take note of key words and short phrases.
  2. After reading the entire piece, break the content up into sections and briefly summarize each major section in a short sentence or phrase.
  3. Combine the ideas from the section summaries into a brief, accurate summary of the entire piece.

Summarizing a short text or paragraph:

  1. Read the text or paragraph closely and carefully to ensure comprehension of the original author’s meaning; make appropriate notes as the text is being read.
  2. Without looking back at the original text, summarize the text or passage in your own words.
  3. Compare your summary with the original passage; your summary should accurately and concisely represent the original author’s ideas.

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.


The act of summarizing sources should be distinguished from Summaries (aka Executive Summaries, Abstracts), which are a genre of discourse.

Works Cited

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.