Learning Objectives

  • Describe when and how to summarize

What Does Summary Look Like?

Summarizing involves condensing the main idea of a source into a much shorter overview (anywhere from a single sentence to a page). A summary outlines a source’s most important points and general position. When summarizing a source, it’s important to give credit to the original author. You should reference the author or source in the appropriate citation method at the end of the summary.

A good summary accomplishes the following:

  • It identifies or names the piece and its author(s) and states the main purpose of the text.
    Example: In his essay, “Consider the Lobster,” writer David Foster Wallace asks readers to consider the ethical implications of feasting on lobsters.
  • It captures the text’s main points.
  • It does not include the reader’s opinions, feelings, beliefs, counterarguments, etc.
  • It is short. The idea of a summary is to “boil down” or condense a text to just a few sentences.

How to Construct a Summary

  • Decide what part of the source is most relevant to your argument.
  • Pick out the most important sentences in that part of the source. In most cases, you’ll focus on the main points.
  • Paraphrase those sentences. If they include any important or memorable phrases, quote those in your paraphrases. List the paraphrased sentences in the order they occur in the original.
  • Add any other information that readers might need to understand how your paraphrased sentences connect to one another.
  • Revise the list so that it reads not like a list but like a paragraph.


Don’t cut and paste summaries from other articles and use them as your own. Many of the periodical indexes that are available as part of your library’s computer system include abstracts of articles. Do not cut this abstract material and then paste it into your own annotated bibliography. For one thing, this is plagiarism. Second, cutting and pasting from the abstract defeats one of the purposes of writing summaries and creating an annotated bibliography in the first place, which is to help you understand and explain your research.

When you summarize, you reword and condense another author’s writing. Be aware, though, that summary also requires individual thought: when you reword, it should be a result of you processing the idea yourself, and when you condense, you must think critically about which parts of the text are most important.

A tulip field with red, red and white, and yellow tulips.

Figure 1. Just as a variety of color makes a tulip field more interesting, adding direct quotes within your summary will mix things up and hold the interest and attention of your reader.

How to Mix Quotation with Summary

A long summary can make readers feel that you and they are too distant from an important source. So when you write a long summary, look for memorable phrases that you can quote within your summary. For example:

  • “Colomb and Williams emphasize that drafting is `an act of discovery’ that can fuel a writer’s creative thinking. They acknowledge that some writers have to draft carefully and stick closely to their outlines, but they advise writers to draft as freely and as openly as they can…they show writers how to make the best of a plan while hoping that you will `discover what your storyboard has missed.’”[1]

When you add a few quotations to your summary, you seem a more lively writer. You give readers an idea of your source without quoting so much that your paper reads like a cut-and-paste job. If you have pages that are mostly summary and paraphrase, add a few notable quotations that will liven up your writing.

Summary Examples

Look at some more examples of appropriate summaries in the exercise below.

Quote, Paraphrase, or Summarize?

The best way to start to understand the different rhetorical affordances of paraphrase, summary, and quotation is to see how they work together in actual writing. In this practice activity, you will read a passage from a student research paper and identify where you see paraphrase, summary, and quotation at work.

Try It

Use the following paragraphs to answer the questions that follow.

The history of the Mississippi Delta centers around one thing: farming. During the transition from segregated to integrated schools, small towns in the Delta were home to illustrious plantations and booming manufacturing plants. The economy was not spectacular, but it was habitable. Now, most of the manufacturing plants have closed their doors and farm jobs are becoming more and more sparse (Elliott). NPR’s Debbie Elliott notes that “the decline of manual labor and exodus of manufacturing jobs have made difficult conditions worse in one of the nation’s poorest regions.” Six Deltan counties have seen a population decline greater than 20% since 1970.

The declining economy is another contributing factor to the decline of Deltan schools. In a Washington Post article about schools in the Delta, writer Peter Whoriskey explains how rural schools that are primarily comprised of at-risk youth and offer substantially lower salaries than nearby schools have a difficult time finding and preserving qualified teachers. One section of Whoriskey’s article includes a story of an untrained teacher hired through an “emergency license” who was “found hiding” when his third-grade students tossed papers in his direction.

There are no hard and fast rules for when to use direct quotations, when to paraphrase, and when to summarize. Like so many other parts of the writing process, this rhetorical decision will become easier with practice. Keep in mind that the goal of including sources in your writing is to build your credibility (you’ll learn more about this later) and to make your purpose more clear and concise to your audience. These factors should influence the source integration decisions you make.

As you are writing your own paper, use this checklist to help you decide when to paraphrase, summarize, or directly quote from sources.

using sources checklist

  • Use direct quotations . . .
    • sparingly and when the original language has a strong impact
    • with set-up (signal phase), context, and proper citation
    • followed by commentary, analysis, or explanation
  • Use paraphrase . . .
    • to contextualize the information (who said it, when, and where)
    • to restate all the supporting points to develop the main idea of the original text
    • to share important information from the source while maintaining your own voice
  • Use summary . . .
    • to contextualize the information (who said it, when, and where)
    • by condensing the source to its main ideas and without using quotations or citing specific supporting points of the passage
    • to support your claims

  1. Kate L. Turabian. A Manual for Writers of Research Papers, Theses, and Dissertations, Seventh Edition: Chicago Style for Students and Researchers. Revised by Wayne C. Booth, Gregory G. Colomb, Joseph M. Williams, and University of Chicago Press Editorial Staff. (University of Chicago Press, 2007), 83-7.