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How to Summarize a Book: Expert Advice and Guided Tips

Updated on March 22, 2024StudentsWriting Tips

Book summaries play a crucial role in guiding our reading choices. The saying goes that one shouldn’t judge a book by its cover, but the reality is that the brief paragraphs found on a book’s back cover often influence our decisions as we browse library shelves. These summaries help us to identify books that capture our interest, understand their content, and facilitate discussions about them. While summarizing a book may not be difficult, the art lies in selecting the most fitting words to convey the essence of the book effectively.

What is a book summary?

A book summary is a concise overview of a book. It covers the book’s themes and details without spoiling the plot.

Book summaries exist for a variety of reasons, often to serve as a “teaser” for readers. They’re also common assignments for students to develop their comprehension and writing skills. You can find book summaries on blogs, in magazines, and in academic and professional settings where individuals need to be able to discuss books knowledgeably without necessarily having read them.

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Understanding book summarization

When it comes to summarizing a book, many of the same principles apply to summarizing other texts. Just like any other summary, a book summary is an objective, concise overview that highlights a book’s key points. A nonfiction book’s summary includes its thesis and the arguments the author uses to support it. A novel’s summary discusses its themes and how they arise from the book’s characters and plot.

A book summary is not the same as a book review. While a book review might include a summary, a review is, by nature, the writer’s personal opinion of a book. In contrast, a summary is an objective piece of writing. When you write a book summary, you aren’t telling your readers what you thought about the book. Instead, you’re telling them what the book is about.

Book summaries serve various purposes. As mentioned, they can be part of a book review. They can also be part of a publisher’s or bookstore’s marketing strategy to entice readers to check out available books. Book summaries can help readers determine whether certain books are what they’re looking for. They can also help parents of young readers to decide which books are appropriate for children of different ages and reading levels.

Preparing to summarize a book

To summarize a book effectively, you need to fully comprehend it. That means that beyond reading the book, you should understand its context and its author’s intent. For example, if you’re summarizing Persepolis by Marjane Satrapi, it’s helpful to know that the book is autobiographical. This knowledge can help you identify the book’s themes and which plot points are most relevant to include in your summary.

Read the book, then read articles, reviews, and other summaries of it. This can include analytical essays about the book. Keep in mind that you’re reading these to deepen your understanding of the book, not to find content for your summary. The book should be the only source you use for the summary.

As you read, take notes. Summarize each chapter and write down any questions you have as you finish each section. If the following text doesn’t answer your questions, go back and reread to find the answers. Critical questions like “Who is the intended audience?” and “Why did the author choose this literary device?” won’t be answered directly in the text—it’s up to you to figure out the answers. Reading with a critical eye and a specific goal is known as active reading. As you read the book, keep notes and a working outline of your summary. These will help you write the summary.

Reading techniques for effective summarization

When you’re reading with the intent of summarizing a book, keep in mind that the summary should only be one or two paragraphs long. Focus on the book’s “big picture” and how you can communicate it in about 500 words or less. This word count isn’t a hard cutoff for book summaries but a general guideline. The summary should communicate the book’s themes and plot and how elements like its setting and character development progress the plot and expose the themes.

Include the following in your reading strategy to create a solid foundation for your summary:

  • Note pivotal plot points in the book. What are the events that progress the story?
  • Note any literary devices used, like metaphor and personification.
  • Identify the details that support your understanding of the theme.
  • Make connections between important points.

Steps to summarize a book effectively

As you read the book, be sure to note its main points, themes, and important quotes in your notes. Once you’ve finished the book and have a body of notes, write an outline. This outline is a “skeleton” for your summary and lists the main theme and supporting points in a logical, linear order.

Follow the outline when you write your first draft. At this stage, don’t worry about getting everything perfect—you’ll edit it later. Focus on writing a summary that includes all the necessary details and accurately describes the book. When you’re summarizing a book, using your own words is best. That said, sometimes you need to include a direct quote from the book. When this is the case, cite the quote in the same format you would use to cite quotes in any other type of academic writing, according to the style guide you’re using. Failing to cite quotes properly is considered plagiarism.

After you write a first draft, read it carefully. As you read, look for spelling and grammatical mistakes as well as points where you could improve the summary’s flow or choose stronger words. Grammarly can help you with this step by finding mistakes and suggesting edits.

Tips for effective book summaries

You can find inspiration for your summary by reading other summaries of the book. However, it’s important to avoid plagiarizing these—don’t read other summaries with the goal of regurgitating them; read them with the goal of understanding how to craft an effective summary. As you read other summaries, note anything they seem to be lacking or areas in which you can write a stronger summary.

Another way to improve your summarization skills is to discuss books with others, such as your family and friends. When you discuss a book with someone, especially one the other person hasn’t read, you need to summarize it in order to reference certain plot points or support opinions you have.

As you read books, ask yourself questions like “What is the author’s goal?” and “Why is this book important?” Analyzing books and answering questions like these are important skills when summarizing.

Common mistakes to avoid

Avoid these common mistakes when you’re summarizing a book:

  • Plagiarizing. With a summary, it’s critical that all the writing is in your own words. Do not include text that came directly from the book or another summary unless it’s a direct quote that you’ve cited properly. Keep direct quotes to a minimum, though—one or two at most.
  • Including too many details. As you read the first draft of your summary, take note of any details you included that aren’t directly related to the book’s main points. For example, you might remove a sentence about a scene in which the protagonist wonders about the antagonist’s motives.
  • Missing main points. Similar to including too many details, it can be easy to gloss over key points in an effort to keep your summary concise. A book summary should include the book’s title, author, genre, plot overview, and themes. While the reader doesn’t need to glean all the characters’ names or the author’s voice from the summary, they should know enough to describe the book in basic terms.

Tools and resources for summarizing books

Grammarly’s AI summarization tool can help you summarize in just a few clicks. You can then use Grammarly to generate citations as needed, acknowledge your use of AI, check for plagiarism, and catch spelling and grammar mistakes.

Example of a book summary

In Atomic Habits, a self-help book by James Clear, the message is clear: The key to breaking bad habits is replacing them with good ones. It sounds simple, and in some ways, it is—until Clear breaks down exactly why humans often have such a hard time breaking bad habits. Everybody operates according to a mental framework, and within this framework, they make countless tiny decisions every day. These tiny decisions are known as “atomic habits,” and in his book, Clear demonstrates that it isn’t a lack of motivation or a personality flaw, but the need to replace this framework with new atomic habits, that keep many from changing their behavior and achieving their goals. He walks the reader through a proven process for rebuilding their mental framework and adopting positive atomic habits that reshape their behaviors, their outlook, and their achievements.

—Atomic Habits by James Clear

Book summarization FAQs

What is book summarization?

Book summarization is the process of creating a concise overview that highlights a book’s main points.

How do I avoid plagiarism when summarizing a book?

To avoid plagiarism when summarizing, do not reuse text from the original book verbatim. Instead, write the summary in your own words. If you absolutely need to use text from the book, include it in a direct quote and cite the source. Grammarly’s plagiarism checker and citations generator make it easy to ensure your work is your own.

How can I make my book summary stand out?

Whether you’re wondering how to summarize a novel or how to summarize a chapter in a book, hooking the reader with an engaging opening line will help your book summary stand out. Additionally, make sure not to spoil the ending! A strong summary makes people want to read the book; it doesn’t replace the experience of reading the book.

How can I use AI to summarize books?

AI tools like Grammarly’s free summarizing tool can help you quickly create accurate, compelling book summaries in just a few clicks.

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