Summarizing

Knowing strategies and conventions for integrating sources into your texts can help you achieve clarity and persuasiveness.

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

Summaries are concise. Writers, speakers, knowledge workers . . . may summarize an entire book in a few sentences. Writers . . . may summarize multiple sources in a single sentence.

Key Concepts: Critical Literacy; Information Literacy


Summary is an interpretative act. It requires critical literacy, especially empathy and openness. To summarize properly, you need to engage in rhetorical analysis and rhetorical reasoning. You need to check your intended knowledge claim and writing style against the bac drop of your audience, the discourse community you’re addressing.

Summary is a subjective act–an intersubjective. Your interpretive lenses, your rhetorical stances, are both a way of seeing and a way of not seeing. Thus, it’s especially important for you to reflect on your summaries. You are wise to double check that you have summarized sources accurately. You also need to check on whether you have cited sources appropriately according to the documentation style of the discourse community you are addressing.

Summaries tend to be interpretive. They give the author’s critical evaluation of the source. Would your summary differ, for example, from the following summary of The Wizard of Oz? Transported to a surreal landscape, a young girl kills the first woman she meets and then teams up with three complete strangers to kill again.

Like paraphrasing, summarizing involves reporting someone else’s ideas in your own language. Unlike paraphrasing, however, summaries allow you to sort through the information in the secondary source and report only what you consider to be essential. A summary is therefore much shorter than the original, whereas a paraphrase may be the same length. In addition, you do not need to cite particular pages when summarizing a source.

Below is a sample summary of the passage paraphrased in the above example:

Summarized version : In “Crime in the Suites” Mokhiber has noted that we are unsure about the prevalence of corporate crime because the federal government does not compile crime statistics for white-collar crime.

While the above passage overlooks the comparison between corporate crime and street crime, it does not misconstrue the author’s original meaning, so it meets the standards of academic fairness. In contrast, a revised summary such as the following would be considered ineffective because it changes the author’s meaning:

Ineffective summary: In “Crime in the Suites” Mokhiber argues that the federal government does not track corporate crime as thoroughly as it does street crime.

To fall within the purview of academic fairness, a simple change could transform the above into an effective summary:

Effective summary: In “Crime in the Suites,” Mokhiber implies that the federal government does not track corporate crime as thoroughly as it does street crime.

How Summaries Reflect the Absence/Presence of Professionalism

Professionalism is a code of conduct. To be professional in any context, you need to ensure that you are accurately representing the sources you are summarising. You lose ethos when your interpretations are false and the audience you are addressing values conventional Information Literacy Perspectives & Practices.

Here are some general suggestions for integrating sources into your texts.

  1. When summarizing a source, you want to be careful to accurately represent it. Just as you need to accurately represent the ideas of the sources you are referencing when paraphrasing or quoting, you need to be careful to accurately represent the sources you are summarizing. This is a matter of integrity and character.
  2. You also want to be careful that you do not unintentionally plagiarize. Remember that if you use three or more words from a source, you should tag those words with quotation marks.
  3. Use signal phrases so your readers will be able to distinguish your ideas from the sources.
  4. Cite sources according to the citation style your audience expects

During the research process, many writers compose a short summary of each source that they are using to help synthesize information. Summaries help writers to incorporate research information without having to go back and re-read the entire source. While writing research papers, writers also may choose to include a brief summary of a source or section of the source in order to provide evidence for their argument.

In an annotated bibliography, the writer provides a thorough summary of each source listed. A thorough summary should contain the following information:

  • type of source (article, book, website, etc.)
  • name of the author
  • the main claim/main idea/most important part of the article
  • several key points (no more than 3-5) from the source. When taking notes on research sources, it is helpful to record these aspects while reading. The summary of the source should be no longer than 5-7 sentences. This length can help a writer provide adequate information about the source but not include minor details that do not belong in a summary.

When composing a summary, it is important to consider the difference between

  • the main idea,
  • key points, and
  • minor details.

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. Therefore, when summarizing an article, think about it as a “movie trailer” that reveals the main idea and key points but does not focus on minor details.

Example Summary

Below is a summary paragraph on the web article “Who Made That Whoopee Cushion?” The original article is here.

In their web magazine article “Who Made That Whoopee Cushion,” Hilary Greenbaum and Dana Rubinstein inform the reader about the history of the Whoopee Cushion. According to the authors, the whoopee cushion originated in Canada in the 1930s. Soon after its invention, the toy grew in popularity. It appeared in the 1942 movie “Road to Morocco” and 1950s comics. Greenbaum and Rubinstein also describe modern versions of the whoopee cushion, such as the remote-controlled Fart Machine and the iFart app. The article also contains an interview with famous comedian and actor Bob Saget on the impact of the whoopee cushion. The article’s intended audience is the general public, especially readers of the New York Times Magazine and anyone interested in humor and other cultural trends.

Evaluation

When evaluating a source in an assignment such as an annotated bibliography, it is important to evaluate the credibility of that source. There are many elements that work together to make a source reliable or unreliable. In evaluating a source’s credibility, a writer is considering its rhetorical situation. A source evaluation should consider the following questions. While a source evaluation does not need to answer every single one of these questions individually, these questions guide a thorough consideration of the source’s credibility.

Source Evaluation Checklist

Author: 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: What group of people is expected to read/view this text? How well does the content/tone/language appeal to this group of people?

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

Context: 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?

Thesis/message: 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)  [1]

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.

[1] King, Martin Luther, Jr. “Letter from Birmingham Jail.” The Norton Anthology of African American Literature. Ed. Henry Louis Gates, Jr. and Nellie Y. McKay. New York: Norton, 1997. 1854 – 66. Print
 

Related Concepts

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