Monday, October 26, 2015

Summarize This

by Elise Huang

A deceptively simple academic task, writing a summary can be difficult. Let's start with the basics: 

Why summarize?

Sometimes an assignment may ask you to respond to the ideas in an outside source (e.g., a scholarly article) or you may want to use key points from a source to support your own ideas in an essay. Sometimes it’s helpful to summarize key points simply in preparation of writing a paper that requires you to reference outside sources.  It’s important to be able to summarize correctly because you want to know the main points and arguments an author is making before you use them to support or negate an idea in your own work; this ensures that you’re using your sources in the most effective way possible.

Tips on how to summarize effectively:

1) Read closely and look for keywords:

As Gerald Graff and Cathy Birkenstein state in They Say, I Say (a great text on academic writing), a common pitfall for readers is assuming that an author is making a well-known or clich√© argument (33) – to avoid this pitfall, make sure to read each text closely and try to identify some key elements in the writing (such as tone, point of view, the author’s audience).

Think about to whom the author is speaking and why (i.e., why should we care what they’re saying?)  Also think about what information the author did not include in his or her text.  It helps to break the argument down into its main points. 

Let’s look at an example:

My statement: “Smith’s Restaurant makes the best burgers in town! They use locally sourced ingredients and they’re healthy.” 

Some keywords to note here are “the best” and “in town”: the phrase “best burgers” is definitive – I’m not saying the burgers are satisfactory; they’re the best. But note that they’re also the best “in town,” (not in the city or state).  So they’re the best of what’s available locally, which suggests my audience is also local. (This doesn’t mean that my audience is only from this area, though – I could be trying to target visitors to the area who want to know what the best burger in the area is).

Note that I mention “locally sourced ingredients” and “healthy.”  There must be a reason why I think it’s important to mention these two things – why should readers care if Smith’s Restaurant uses locally sourced ingredients? This could indicate that my target audience is people who care about where they’re ingredients come from – by extension, you could argue that this suggests an audience that cares about its environment and wants to make a positive impact through their own choices (and this is one way for them to exercise that choice). 

Note that I do not include information about burgers from other establishments, nor do I define what makes these burgers healthy.  These are two places where you, as a writer analyzing my argument, could punch holes in what I’m saying. 

Possible Summary: Elise argues that Smith’s Restaurant’s burgers are a great option for healthy-minded locals.

2) Situate the author’s argument within your argument:

When introducing a summary, Graff and Birkenstein recommend the use of “signal verbs” (39). These words help you to more precisely describe the author’s approach and objective. Overall, signal verbs should indicate your interpretation of the source’s intentions, purpose, tone, and overall effectiveness.

Graff and Birkenstein have a great list of verbs to use when introducing a summary. Their list includes: argue, assert, claim, emphasize, insist, suggest, support, and verify. 

What happens when you’re summarizing an article, and you don’t agree with everything the author of the text says? Well, you don’t have to! In fact, not agreeing with everything (and addressing this in your paper) can make your argument stronger. 

If you disagree or question an author’s argument, make use of verbs like: complain, complicate, deny, repudiate, question, and qualify (39-40).


My statement: “Smith’s Restaurant makes the best burgers in town! They use locally sourced ingredients, and they’re healthy.” 

Summary: Elise says that Smith’s Restaurant’s burgers are a great option for healthy-minded locals. (This summarizes my statement but doesn’t really tell you why we should care). 

Use the summary to add to your paper, which talks about other great burger establishments: Elise argues that Smith’s Restaurant’s burgers are a great option for healthy-minded locals, but she fails to acknowledge what makes a burger “the best.” This not only summarizes my statement – which is really an argument – but it shows the slant of the my argument and also leads into your next paragraph, which could be about what makes a burger great, why we should care if it’s healthy, etc.

So remember: to create an effective summary, look for key words and information that the author did not include, think about the author’s audience, and answer the question: Why should we care?


Graff, Gerald and Cathy Birkenstein. They Say / I Say: The Moves that Matter in Academic Writing.  2nd ed. New York: W.W. Norton & Co., 2010. Print.

For some great additional resources, check out: - how to paraphrase (with examples) and how to avoid plagiarizing while paraphrasing - understanding rhetorical elements of a text (understand how to further break down a text)


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