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How to Write a Great Summary

Updated on
July 9, 2021
Writing Tips
How to Write a Great Summary

A summary is a shorter description of a longer work, covering all of the highlights but not many of the details. It’s used for an overview so that people can get an idea of what the longer work entails without reading or watching it first. 

You see summaries everywhere, from book covers to product descriptions to online review sites. However, no matter how many summaries you’ve read, it can still be difficult to write your own when you need to. 

In this quick guide, we explain how to write a summary like an expert. We share some summary examples and list out the steps. But first, let’s look at the big question:

What is a summary?

Really, a summary is a general term used to describe any writing that briefly explains, or “summarizes,” a larger work like a novel, academic paper, movie, or TV show. Summaries are usually short, from one or two sentences to a paragraph, but if you’re summarizing an enormous work, like all seven Harry Potter books, they can stretch out over pages. 

Summary writing is like a highlight reel, showing only the best parts and ignoring what’s not strictly necessary. A summary example of Hamlet would mention the main plot points like the murder of Polonius, but wouldn’t mention details irrelevant to the plot, like Polonius’s “to thine own self be true” monologue. 

The key to summary writing is to stick to the facts; do not include opinions, analysis, or bias. If it’s written for commercial purposes, such as the summaries on Netflix, it might be intentionally alluring and withhold spoilers. However, for academic papers and more formal writing, summary writing leans towards factual and clinical. 

Summaries appear in many different shapes and forms, including book reports and other school papers. Academics use summaries all the time for research papers when they write an abstract, which is essentially a summary of an entire research paper. 

Really, everyone needs to know how to write a summary at one point or another. Even finding a job requires you to summarize your own professional background and work experience. Learning how to write a good LinkedIn summary can help you land your dream job!

Summary examples: What makes a good summary

Let’s look at some summary examples of famous works to see what constitutes a strong summary. 

On IMDb, the summary for the 2008 movie The Dark Knight is just a sentence long: 

When the menace known as the Joker wreaks havoc and chaos on the people of Gotham, Batman must accept one of the greatest psychological and physical tests of his ability to fight injustice.

Right away, you’ll notice that the specific events of the movie are omitted and replaced by a general explanation of what happens. The main characters are mentioned—at least the protagonist and antagonist—and there is some description given about the types of events, such as “psychological and physical tests.” 

However, the details are absent. To summarize a two-hour movie in a single sentence requires broad strokes; there’s only room for the bare essentials. 

Most summaries, though, are longer than a sentence, like this multi-paragraph summary example for the novel To Kill a Mockingbird from SparkNotes

As you can see, this summary is about the length of a page. It’s far more detailed, too, mentioning secondary characters and adding more context to the plot events. Still, to condense 281 pages into one requires a lot of cutting, so each key event is given just a sentence or two, consisting of only the need-to-know information. 

How to write a summary in 4 steps

Summary writing uses the same best tips for all good writing. If you want to know how to write a summary yourself, we break the process down into 4 basic steps. 

1 Read or watch the source material

The first step is fairly obvious: Read or watch whatever it is you’re writing a summary about. 

If you’re doing a book report or similar paper, there’s always a temptation to skip this step and just rely on other people’s summaries. We don’t recommend it, though. For starters, how can you trust the writer of that summary? What if they just wrote their summary based on another person’s summary, too? Moreover, you may miss some key points or events that the other summary overlooked. 

The only risk-free way to write a summary is to read or watch the source material yourself. Otherwise you’re liable to miss something essential. 

2 Make a list of the key points

Next comes the outlining phase, where you list out what points to include in your summary. How many items go on your list depends on the length of both the summary and the source material. If you’re running long, start cutting items that are less of a priority. 

It always helps to use your memory at first. The most significant events will have left an impact on you, so using what you remember is a good filter for what’s vital. However, learn to separate what’s truly necessary and what’s just personal preference. Just because you fell in love with a secondary character doesn’t mean they’re worth mentioning in the summary. 

To fill in the gaps of what you’ve missed, you may need to reread or rewatch your source material. Feel free to skim it to save time; you just need to map out the significant points, not reread every word. 

Here’s a tip:  For longer pieces, break the source into sections and make a separate list for each section. For example, if you’re summarizing a research paper, you might write different lists for the Methods, Results, and Conclusion sections respectively. This is optional but helps you organize everything for larger works. 

3 Write the summary in your own words

Next, write the first draft of your summary following the lists you made in the previous outlining stage. If you’re summarizing a book, film, or other media, it’s best to use chronological order (even if the story is told out of order). 

The key here is using your own words. While you’re free to copy the occasional direct quote in your summary writing, it’s best to use original language to make it your own. Also, keep in mind the perspective of someone who’s never read or seen the source material. Do you have all the relevant points they need to understand what’s going on? 

Here’s a tip: Pay close attention to transitions. Summaries are naturally fast-paced, where sentences often jump from one event or point to another in rapid succession. For a reader, this can be very jarring. 

To make your summary writing easier to comprehend, use plenty of transitional words and phrases, such as however, as a result, and meanwhile. You’ll find a more complete list in our guide to transition words and phrases

4 Edit and cut what’s unnecessary 

Last comes the proofreading phase, where you reread your summary and correct any mistakes or awkward wording. For summary writing, watch out for unnecessary information, too; every word is crucial, so removing unnecessary information gives you more room to elaborate on the main points. 

Grammarly can save you a lot of time in this step. Grammarly marks any grammar and spelling mistakes you make while you write and provides quick recommendations on how to fix them. This frees you up to focus on more important aspects of summary writing, like the points you’re trying to make. 

Grammarly even helps with conciseness, which is integral to summary writing. If you’re using five words to say what can be said in two, Grammarly points it out so you can fix it. That way, your summaries can be as short and compact as possible—the way summary writing is supposed to be!

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