Summary is indispensable in preparing for and writing an argumentative essay. When you summarize a text (or describe visual material), you distill the ideas of another source for use in your own essay. Summarizing primary sources allows you to keep track of your observations. It helps make your analysis of these sources convincing, because it is based on careful observation of fact rather than on hazy or inaccurate recollection. Summarizing critical sources is particularly useful during the research and note-taking stages of writing. It gives you a record of what you've read and helps you distinguish your ideas from those of your sources.
Summaries you write to prepare for an essay will generally be longer and more detailed than those you include in the essay itself. (Only when you've established your thesis will you know the elements most important to retain.) It is crucial to remember, though, that the purpose of an analytical essay is only partly to demonstrate that you know and can summarize the work of others. The greater task is to showcase your ideas, your analysis of the source material. Thus all forms of summary (there are several) should be tools in your essay rather than its entirety.
True summary always concisely recaps the main point and key supporting points of an analytical source, the overall arc and most important turns of a narrative, or the main subject and key features of a visual source. True summary neither quotes nor judges the source, concentrating instead on giving a fair picture of it. True summary may also outline past work done in a field; it sums up the history of that work as a narrative. Consider including true summary—often just a few sentences, rarely more than a paragraph—in your essay when you introduce a new source. That way, you inform your readers of an author's argument before you analyze it.
Immediately after his introduction to an essay on Whittaker Chambers, a key player in the start of the Cold War, Bradley Nash included four sentences summarizing the foreword to his main source, Chambers's autobiography. Nash characterizes the genre and tone of the foreword in the first two sentences before swiftly describing, in the next two, the movement of its ideas:
The foreword to Chambers's autobiography is written in the form of "A Letter to My Children." In this introduction, Chambers establishes the spiritual tone that dominates the body of his book. He initially characterizes the Cold War in a more or less standard fashion, invoking the language of politics and describing the conflict as one between "Communism and Freedom." But as the foreword progresses, Chambers introduces a religious element that serves to cast the struggle between communism and capitalism as a kind of holy war.
Every essay also requires snippets of true summary along the way to "orient" readers—to introduce them to characters or critics they haven't yet met, to remind them of items they need to recall to understand your point. (The underlined phrase in the paragraph introducing Nash's summary is an example of orienting information.) True summary is also necessary to establish a context for your claims, the frame of reference you create in your introduction. An essay examining the "usable past" created by the Vietnam Veterans Memorial, for example, might begin by briefly summarizing the history of the idea of a usable past, or by summarizing the view of a leading theorist on the topic.
Sometimes your essays will call for interpretive summary—summary or description that simultaneously informs your reader of the content of your source and makes a point about it. Interpretive summary differs from true summary by putting a "spin" on the materials, giving the reader hints about your assessment of the source. It is thus best suited to descriptions of primary sources that you plan to analyze. (If you put an interpretive spin on a critical source when you initially address it, you risk distorting it in the eyes of your reader: a form of academic dishonesty.)
The interpretive summary below comes from an essay examining a Civil War photograph in light of Lincoln's Gettysburg Address. The essayist, Dara Horn, knew she needed to describe the photo but that simply "walking through" its details would bewilder and bore her readers. So she revealed the point of her description in a pair of topic sentences (solid underline), summarized the details of the photo (double underline), and gave the description some interpretive "spin" (throughout).
As skeptical moderns, we often have trouble accepting drawings or paintings as historical records, but we tend to believe in photographs the way that we believe in mirrors; we simply accept them as the truth. Alexander Gardner's photograph Trossel's House, Battle-Field of Gettysburg, July, 1863 might therefore be viewed as evidence rather than commentary. Unlike some of Gardner's other "sketches," this picture includes no perfectly positioned rifles, no artistically angled river, no well-posed men in uniform—indeed, no people at all. The photograph's composition could barely be more prosaic; the horizon slashes the picture in half, and the subject, a white colonial-style house, sits smack in the center. Yet this straightforward, almost innocent perspective sets the viewer up for the photograph's stealthy horror. At first glance, the photograph appears to be a portrait of a house, perhaps even a poor portrait of a house; in a Òsketch bookÓ of war, one might flip right by it to the gory pictures before and after. But the terror in this photograph lies in its delayed shock, the gut-wrenching surprise when the light on the house leads the eye to the light on the fence and the viewer notices that the backyard fence is broken, and then thatthe backyard is a mess, littered with—what are those?—horses, dead horses, twelve dead horses. What must have happened to topple twelve nine-hundred-pound horses, and where are the people who rode them? Crushed underneath? The viewer doesn't know, because Gardner's picture doesn't tell us. All we see is a house, a broken fence, twelve dead horses, and an empty sky.
Remember that an essay that argues (rather than simply describes) uses summary only sparingly, to remind readers periodically of crucial points. Summary should always help build your argument. When teachers write "too much summary—more analysis needed" in the margin, generally they mean that the essay reports what you've studied rather than argues something about it. Two linked problems give rise to this situation. The first is a thesis that isn't really a thesis but rather a statement of something obvious about your subject—a description. (The obvious cannot be argued.) A statement of the obvious tends to force further description, which leads to the second problem, a structure that either follows the chronology of the source text from beginning to end or simply lists examples from the source. Neither approach builds an argument.
Copyright 2000, Elizabeth Abrams, for the Writing Center at Harvard University
Drew University On-Line Resources for Writers
WARNING: Good summaries are harder to write than you may think -- bad summaries are easy!
|Summary skills in college|
The ability to write an effective summary might be the most important writing skill a college student can possess. You need to be able to summarize before you can be successful at most of the other kinds of writing that will be demanded of you in college, and it is an important part of note taking, too. The links below will help you master the various kinds of summary writing that you may be called upon to complete in college.
|Summary skills in daily life|
To answer questions such as “what was the movie about?” “how did the game go?” and “what did I miss in class today?” you must be able to summarize. Your questioner doesn't want to know every line and action in the movie, every play in the game, or every word from class; the question asks you to select the important details and summarize them. Similarly, when you summarize a reading you need to be able to find the important data and then present it as clearly and concisely as possible.
|Summary skills after college|
Politicians and corporations employ people to read every newspaper and newsmagazine and summarize relevant stories and articles. The more concise the summary the better, yet if any major details are omitted the purpose of the summary is lost--its readers will be uninformed on key aspects of the news and may make embarrassing errors as a result. The summaries that you write in college are as important to your academic career as these summaries are to these politicians and business people, and accuracy and concision are just as important, too.
|The key features of a summary|
(1) it is shorter than the source,
(2) it repeats the ideas of the source in different phrases and sentences.
|The Reader's Summary|
Obviously, you cannot write a good summary of a source that you do not understand. There are reading strategies that will help you comprehend a source text as fully as possible. One of those techniques is the reader’s summary, which you write for yourself, as a way of understanding the text you are reading. Read a section of the book or article, or the whole thing if it is short, and then close the text and write a summary of the key points. When you've finished, skim the text again to make sure you didn't omit anything. This use of summary helps you learn and helps you check what you've learned.
Summary-outline notes are a form of note-taking using a divided page. Take a notebook page and divide it down the middle. Write the main points in the left hand column leaving a few lines between each. In the right hand column, summarize the point in the left column in a few sentences. This will help you get an overall picture of the argument through the outline, and a more detailed reminder of the content via the summaries.
|Summaries as part of essays|
Most summary occurs as part of other essays--indeed, few essays use only one kind of writing. Summary is often a part of synthesis because readers need to know a little about the ideas you are pulling together. Similarly, you have to summarize ideas or texts before you can compare them, classify them, or divide them into their component parts. You will find that almost any texts you read in college and outside contain at least a little summary.
In college you may also be asked to write another type of summary, the summary essay, which is written for an audience other than yourself. The purpose of the summary essay is to convey to others an understanding of a text you have read, without their having to read it themselves. Thus for your readers, your summary essay functions as a substitute for the source that you are summarizing. You don't want to misrepresent your source or mislead your audience. Certainly an important feature of the summary essay, then, is its fidelity to the source; you must represent your source accurately and comprehensively, with as little of your own interpretation as possible. (Anytime you read and repeat a source, of course, you are interpreting it; but the summary essay asks you to minimize your interpretation as much as possible. You should not add your own examples and explanations, for instance.)
An alternative purpose of the summary essay, one that is very commonplace in college, is a demonstration of comprehension: teachers sometimes assign summary essays when they want to make sure that students fully understand an assigned source. In this case, your essay does not substitute for the source, for the teacher has read the source, too. Yet your essay will be written in the same way, with fidelity to the source.
|Writing the Summary Essay|
A summary essay should be organized so that others can understand the source or evaluate
your comprehension of it. The following format works well:
a. The introduction (usually one paragraph)--
1. Contains a one-sentence thesis statement that sums up the main point of the source.
This thesis statement is not your main point; it is the main point of your source.
Usually, though, you have to write this statement rather than quote it from the source
text. It is a one-sentence summary of the entire text that your essay summarizes.
2. Also introduces the text to be summarized:
(i) Gives the title of the source (following the citation guidelines of whatever style
sheet you are using);
(ii) Provides the name of the author of the source;
(ii) Sometimes also provides pertinent background information about the author of
the source or about the text to be summarized.
The introduction should not offer your own opinions or evaluation of the text you are summarizing.
b. The body of a summary essay (one or more paragraphs):
This paraphrases and condenses the original piece. In your summary, be sure that you--
1. Include important data but omit minor points;
2. Include one or more of the author’s examples or illustrations (these will bring your
summary to life);
3. Do not include your own ideas, illustrations, metaphors, or interpretations. Look
upon yourself as a summarizing machine; you are simply repeating what the source
text says, in fewer words and in your own words. But the fact that you are using
your own words does not mean that you are including your own ideas.
c. There is customarily no conclusion to a summary essay.
When you have summarized the source text, your summary essay is finished. Do not add your own concluding paragraph unless your teacher specifically tells you to.
|Checking your own writing or that of your peers|
Read the summary carefully and answer the following questions:
- What do you like best about your peer's summary? (Why? How might he or she do more of it?)
- Is it clear what is being summarized? (i.e.: Did your peer list the source, and cite it correctly?)
- Is the thesis of the original essay clear in the summary? (Write out what you think that thesis is.)
- If you have read the original source, did you identify the same thesis? (If not, how does it differ?)
- Did your peer miss any key points from his or her summary? (If so, what are they?)
- Did your peer include any of his own opinions in his or her summary? (If so, what are they?)
- Did your peer include any unimportant details in his or her summary? (If so, what are they?)
- Where there any points in the summary where you were lost because a transition was missing? (If so, where and how might it be fixed?)
- Where there any points where you were lost because some information seems to have been omitted? (If so, where, and what seems to be missing? Why do you think it might be important?)
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