Writing summaries from sources: A vital skill for research(ed) papers

Summaries are vital in researched papers. Writing and using them successfully and, at the same time, avoiding inadvertent plagiarism* takes a certain knack. The following process is a nearly fool-proof method for doing so. Depending on its purpose, the length of a summary varies from a few sentences to a fairly well developed paragraph. When writing by hand, I like to use note cards for writing summaries because that format forces very concise writing, and a summary should be concise. The length and complexity of the original text also affects the length of the summary. Most newspaper or magazine-length articles can be fairly easily summarized in a short paragraph, but with a longer journal article or a chapter of a book, you might need to summarize shorter sections of the piece. Read a definition of plagiarism and a couple discussions of how to avoid it from the M.I.T libraries' web site (or this more generic advice about avoiding plagiarism), and see one of the services that educators use to detect plagiarism.

1. The first step in this process is to simply read the entire selection, without taking notes or marking the text. Scan or read quickly to get the dominant impression or main idea.

2. After reading the piece, set down the source or shut off the computer screen, and write out what you take to be the main point.

3. Having written the main idea, reread the text, critically this time, marking important ideas with a highlighter and writing in the margins if it’s printed text, or jotting down the significant points and details if it’s electronic text.

4. This step is very important: Close the source. If it’s a book or journal, leave it in another room or put it in your book bag. If it’s on line, save the bookmark and close the program. You’ve reached the point where you’re ready to write the actual summary. If you are not looking at the source as you write the summary, you won’t plagiarize. Most plagiarism in student papers is unintentional; if you are looking at the source as you are writing the summary, you can’t help but to copy the words or the style so closely that your "summary" will be a quote.

5. Without reading your notes, write the summary. Make its length and depth appropriate to your purpose. If you compose it carefully, you won’t have to rewrite the summary in order to use it in the paper itself; it will be one of the paragraphs of the finished product.

6. At this point, reread the original or check the source to ensure that your summary is accurate. Revise the summary as needed for accuracy and add the statistics or specific details that are necessary. If there is a verbatim quote which you wish to use, now is the time to write it down and put it in quotation marks.

7. Document the source fully. Make a note to yourself that this is a summary rather than a paraphrase or direct quote. Include the page number or numbers and the complete bibliographical information.

You will find that careful note taking from sources when writing summaries, paraphrases and direct quotes makes it much easier to write researched papers because you will have already composed significant portions of the essay or report, and you won’t have to second guess yourself and keep going back to the original text.

Some considerations and guidelines in writing the summary

Purpose: The length and detail of a summary will depend on its purpose. If you are to use the summary in a researched paper, consider what you want the reader to know about the original material. If the purpose is text analysis, there will be significant quotes in the summary. Whatever you wish to emphasize from the source will be emphasized in the summary.

Accuracy: Read the source closely and take your notes carefully. Take great care not to misstate facts or misinterpret opinions from the source.

Summarize, don't respond: Stay true to the original text. Your responses to and analysis of the source are important, but keep these separate from the summary of that other writer's material. This can be accomplished by closely documenting material from the source or by putting your responses or analyses in a separate paragraph. Don't risk confusing your readers or yourself by mingling your ideas with those of the original text.

Organize: If you summarize a whole article, a short chapter, or a subsection, follow the structure of the original; put the ideas in the same order as they appear in the source.

Use as is: If you know that you will use the summary in a researched paper or documented essay, write the paragraph(s) so that it (or they) can be copied directly into the paper without major revision or editing later. Why write these sections again to include them in the paper? Do it right the first time and save yourself some work.


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