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The purpose of a summary is to condense an author’s main idea and key points in a way that stays true to his or her original meaning. To do so, a summary should focus on only the author’s thoughts rather than your interpretations of or responses to them; therefore, in order to write a true summary of a text you must be able to distinguish between summary and analysis. While a summary covers what a text says, analysis examines how and why the text presents its points.

Summaries are often used in research papers, literature reviews, and “summary and response” papers.

As summaries should be as concise as possible, one of the challenges writers face is selecting what information should be omitted from the summary. In order to be succinct, a summary should emphasize only the author’s main points, not the examples he or she uses to illustrate those points.

In order to summarize effectively, employ active reading strategies—rereading, underlining key points, making notes in the margins of the text, and discussing the reading with others. Before you begin writing your summary, review the author’s thesis and supporting points to ensure that you understand the argument completely. As you write your summary, remember that it must be comprehensive, concise, and objective:

      To be comprehensive, address the author’s argument in its entirety, identifying the thesis and the main points he or she uses to support this claim.

      To achieve conciseness, you should ensure that your summary is shorter than the original source. Most medium-length articles can be summarized in one paragraph. Do not repeat ideas and economize your use of language.

      To be objective, stick to the author’s ideas, saving your commentary for the analysis portion of your assignment. Use a neutral tone; do not state your opinions about the author’s argument, writing style, examples, etc.

Avoid plagiarism! Put most of the summary in your own words, but if you use the author’s sentences, phrases, or terms, put them in quotation marks and cite the page numbers in parentheses (the format of parenthetical citations vary from MLA to APA). It can be easier to prevent unintentional plagiarism by not looking at the source while you are summarizing; instead, write from memory and use your own words, only checking the source later for accuracy.

Style Matters:

When summarizing, signal phrases are effective tools for clarifying the boundaries between the author’s words and your own.  You can introduce the author and his or her work in a variety of ways:

            In Heart of Darkness, Joseph Conrad describes…

            Joseph Conrad’s novel, Heart of Darkness, addresses…

            According to Joseph Conrad in Heart of Darkness, imperialism is…

            As Joseph Conrad has noted in Heart of Darkness, imperialism is…

            “‘The horror! The horror!,’” exclaims Kurtz in Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness.

            In Heart of Darkness, Joseph Conrad offers an ambivalent depiction of imperialism: “quote…”

It’s important to vary your employment of author quotes and paraphrases.  Just as a music producer mixes beats, sound bites, lyrics, and riffs, you must learn to mix your own words with different author’s words in order to create a summary that is both enjoyable to read and to write.

Copyright (C) 2010. All rights reserved.
This handout is part of a library of instructional materials used in California State University, Long Beach’s writing center, the Writer’s Resource Lab. Educators and students are welcome to distribute copies as long as they do so with attribution to all organizations and authors. Commercial distribution is prohibited.

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