Summary Essay

Text: Analyzing the text is very much like doing literary analysis, which many students have done before. Use all of your tools of literary analysis, including looking at the metaphors, rhythm of sentences, construction of arguments, tone, style, and use of language. Example:

The organization of "essay title" is effective/ineffective because ___________ . The essay's opening causes the reader to ___________ . The essay's style is ___________ and the tone is shown by ___________ . The language used is___________ . The essay's argument is constructed logically/illogically by ___________. The essay is organized by ___________ (give a very brief description of the structure of the essay, perhaps telling where the description of the problem is, where claims are made, and where support is located—in which paragraphs—and why this is effective or ineffective in proving the point).

Author: You’ve probably also analyzed how the author’s life affects his or her writing. You can do the same for this sort of analysis. For example, in my sample reading the response about Michael Crichton's "Let's Stop Scaring Ourselves" article, students noted that the fact that Crichton is the author of doomsday thrillers like Andromeda Strain and Jurassic Park makes his argument that we shouldn't pay much attention to current doomsday scenarios like global warming rather ironic. If you don't know anything about the author, you can always do a quick Google Search to find out. Sample format:

The author establishes his/her authority by ___________ . The author's bias is shown in ___________ . The author assumes an audience who ___________ . He/She establishes common ground with the audience by ___________ .

Reader: You can write this section by inferring who the intended reader is, as well as looking at the text from the viewpoint of other sorts of readers. For example,

Readers are interested in this issue because of the exigence of ___________. Constraints on the reader's reaction are ___________. I think the reader would react to this argument by ___________. I think that the author's ___________ is effective. ___________ is less effective because ___________ includes ___________. The support is adequate/inadequate and is relevant/irrelevant to the author’s claim.

The Summary Essay

by Owen Fourie

Expect it! The summary essay will be required not once but many times. There is a way to be prepared for it at all times, and that is to form a good habit: Whenever you read any article or short story or book that is likely to be the subject of a summary, make your own brief and meaningful notes of it. Try to outline it as though you are its author, and you are in the pre-writing phase jotting down the characters and the plot of a novel, or the thesis statement, major points, minor points, and supporting details of a non-fiction work.

There is a two-fold advantage in cultivating this habit: Firstly, you will actually be helping your studies and giving yourself a distinct edge as a student; secondly, a summary assignment will never catch you unawares.

Keep your opinion to yourself!

What the summary assignment requires is that you should give the gist of the argument or the story in your own words. You are bringing out the author’s major points and some supporting detail without any commentary or opinion of your own. It is an entirely objective summary of the author’s work, accurately presented for what it is, not what you imagine it to be, and with no explanation or interpretation. That is possibly the most difficult aspect of summarizing because we naturally interpret whatever we read, see, or hear.

As for the length of the summary, your assignment should state what will be required. By comparing that requirement to the length of the original, you should be able to tell how detailed your summary is expected to be. More detail is required in a summary of 1,000 words of an article of 4,000 words than in a summary of 1,500 words of a novel of 100,000 words. In this instance, the summary of the novel will be a supreme test of your comprehension and your conciseness. You have to stick to the bare bones of the plot, the main characters, and the essence of the story and not be sidetracked into any minor issues or subplot.

Enjoy sharing and don’t plagiarize

While summarizing may be informative for your readers who have not read the original work, it is really for your instructor who needs to see if you have done the required reading to be able to summarize it with understanding and with some competence.

Regardless of this, write as though you are doing it for those who have not read the original work and who will benefit by your summary. In other words, as far as possible, get out of thinking of this as an assignment and take it rather as a joy to share what you have read. If you can do this, it will be reflected in your writing, and it will bring you much satisfaction.

Such satisfaction will not be achieved at all if you look for an easy way out via the Internet. You can readily find summaries there of the works that are assigned to you. Be aware, though, that teachers and lecturers are able to identify this form of cheating. Plagiarism is a serious offense and not worth the loss of your integrity.

What to do in the Intro and in the Body

The introduction of your summary should take only one paragraph. Depending on what you are summarizing, your first paragraph will paraphrase the author’s thesis statement or the main point of the original work in one sentence. This opening paragraph will also identify title, author, publisher, and date of publication. Such details should not be given merely as a list. They should be stated in complete sentences. For example:

Thomas Hardy (1840–1928), a famous English novelist and poet, wrote The Mayor of Casterbridge in 1886. There have been many publications of this work. This summary is of the 1994 Penguin Classics publication.

Mayoral Chain

Your introduction will summarize the story in one sentence before you proceed to elaborate in the body:

This is a story of ‘a man of character,’ as the subtitle informs us, a man who, despite a most shameful act, kept secret, establishes himself as a person of prominence in a Dorsetshire town over a period of twenty years, and then comes face to face with his deplorable past and the consequences of his flawed personality.

In the body of your summary, in several paragraphs, you will give the essence of the article or the novel as you state the author’s main points and some supporting points in your own words. Here, if you are summarizing a novel, you will state the time, the setting, and the major characters. You will then proceed to state the problem, the conflict, the rising action, the climax, the falling action, and the resolution–the major points that make up the plot. Only report the story; do not comment or give an opinion.

This does not stop you from being creative. The fact that you are using your own choice of words and your own style to summarize the author’s work gives you the opportunity to be creative. You can also save your summary from dry-as-dust writing by briefly retelling one or two incidents or describing some character traits mentioned by the author. Of course, these should be entirely relevant to the major points.

No conclusion!

The essay should end with the statement of the resolution of the plot in the body of your summary, so there is no conclusion in a separate paragraph in which you might be tempted to pass comment. Only if your instructor actually tells you to do so would you have a conclusion that permits such personal comment.


What is your experience with writing summary essays? Do you have any useful insights? What are your particular struggles? What do you know about plagiarism and its consequences? Your comments, observations, and questions are welcome.

Here are more articles to help you with English words, grammar, and essay writing.

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