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Essay Writing Tactics: A Summary Method
Essays will frequently refer to things outside themselves to make their points, making use of evidence housed in other pieces of writing (or in other media entirely) to support their central ideas through the testing that essays evidence. It cannot always be assumed, however, that the reader of a given essay is familiar with the material being referenced. Several methods are available to develop that familiarity in the reader--or at least enough familiarity to be able to demonstrate to the reader that the idea of the essay is being sufficiently rigorously tested. One of the more broadly applicable is providing a brief, solid summary of the source being used.
There are many methods for writing summaries. What I offer below is one I have used to great effect in my own studies and with my students at several colleges in the United States.
Summary Writing, In Brief
A key feature of summaries is their brevity; a summary of a piece of writing should never be longer than the summarized writing. Indeed, it ought to be much shorter. For example, if a given piece of writing is six hundred words long, an effective summary of it should be between sixty and one hundred words, or four to five sentences. What those sentences are can easily follow a set pattern that works well for newspaper and magazine articles, journal articles, chapters of books, and even book-length studies.
Summaries usefully open with the identifying information of the piece being summarized. This information consists of the names of the author or authors of the piece, the title of the piece, the source of the piece (if it is contained within a larger work, as articles and chapters are), and the date of the piece's publication. The set of identifying information lets readers know what is being summarized and where to find it, so that 1) they are inclined to believe the writer (offering the source for inspection suggests a lack of anything to hide, thus authority) and 2) can follow up on the idea if they are interested in it. It also serves as a useful introductory sentence to the summary. For instance, a summary of this piece could usefully open with a sentence like "On 6 January 2014, George Demby's "The Ugly, Fascinating History of the Word 'Racism'" appeared on NPR.org." The reader of such a sentence is immediately clued in to the subject of the summary and its location; the sentence offers more than enough information for a targeted online search to find the piece.
From the identifying information, an effective summary can move on to a one-sentence statement of the piece's thesis or central, governing idea. I have addressed the importance of the thesis statement before (here), and it is no less important to report the thesis of a summarized piece than to craft a good one. Accurately identifying the thesis (which may be implicit in the piece being summarized, so that it has to be teased out through careful reading) brings the summarized piece's argument to readers so that they can understand what is going on. Stating it clearly and concisely tells readers that the summary writer has command of the materials being discussed, making the writer more reliable and therefore more likely to be believed. Following the earlier example can yield a sentence to the effect of "In the article, Demby asserts that racism--both the phenomenon and the label--is a more complicated, nuanced thing than is commonly assumed." In it, readers are given the gist of the summarized piece, although the gist is not enough information on its own.
That information is supplied in the next few sentences, the number of which will vary based upon the length and complexity of the piece being summarized. In them, the major points of the piece being summarized are presented. The means through which the piece being summarized tests and supports its central idea should be made clear to the reader, although without the actual supporting detail; writers of effective summaries work in broad brushstrokes. Doing so is what offers readers enough information to work with to be able to understand what the summary writer is putting across; it is what sets up the outline of proof being used. Continuing on in the same example will offer several sentences:
Demby uses Richard Henry Pratt as an example, laying out the complicated interactions of his work to exterminate indigenous culture and his work to extend humanitarian aid--if in narrowly prescribed form--to the same people whose cultures he worked to eliminate. The author also cites the testimonies of later generations of those who were subjected to the kinds of policies Pratt advocated, reporting that they were perceived as 'a net good, even as they were calamitous for Indian cultures.' He continues with the note that social judgments are necessarily relative, being made by people according to the standards of their own times; what works well in one era does not translate well into others. The relativism is not helped by the reduction of racism to a binary issue, as often happens in the United States; working to correct the problem is not helped by oversimplifying it.
Admittedly, the statement of main points is somewhat lengthy, but this is a reflection of the complexity of the article and the issue it addresses. And it is still far shorter than the piece being summarized, so that it conforms to the key principle of concision, offering enough information to understand the argument in as brief a space as possible.
The summary will need to conclude effectively, as well. What form that conclusion takes will depend on the purpose for which the summary is written; some purposes to which I have put summaries (and had my students put them) are noted below.
Summary Writing, Applied
Rarely if ever will summaries stand on their own, unless it is for the kind of classroom exercise I have had students in my basic reading and writing courses carry out or as independent study guides such as I made for myself while studying for my graduate exams. About that: writing summaries of the articles and chapters read for classes offers an excellent study method. Writing summaries effectively requires a solid understanding of the material being summarized, so it fosters the kind of comprehension study is supposed to develop. Too, they make review more efficient; good summaries eliminate the need to re-read everything that has been covered by concisely putting across the major information and giving enough background to identify the pieces that do need to be re-read in detail. And for purposes of study-guides and classroom work, I recommend concluding the summary with a one-sentence assessment of the quality of writing in the piece being summarized; in brief, does the piece effectively test its central idea?
More commonly, a summary will be put to another end; it will not exist for itself. That end is not seldom in an annotated bibliography, in which the summary will undergird the first two parts of each entry. The first sentence will be removed in favor of a formal citation, the style of which will depend on the discipline in which the annotated bibliography is written. The remaining sentences will stand alone as the first paragraph of the annotation. A second paragraph, which evaluates the piece at greater length than the one-sentence assessment of a stand-alone summary, and which will often situate the summarized piece in its larger context, will follow. Annotated bibliographies are also useful study guides, and some are used by disciplines and professional organizations to develop senses of themselves and their histories, as is the case with the Chaucer Bibliography maintained by the New Chaucer Society.
Yet more commonly, summaries will be put to use within the contexts of essays as supporting evidence. They make useful examples for illustrating ideas, opening with sentences such as "George Demby's 6 January 2014 piece on NPR.org, 'The Ugly, Fascinating History of the Word "Racism"' offers one instance." The conclusion of summaries used in such ways is then, necessarily, explanation of how they show what they are claimed to show; as I have noted, it is always necessary to explain how evidence serves the function attributed to it. The same is true when summaries are used as counter-evidence, information that works against a central claim and serves as a sort of pushing-off point for the development of an idea; how it serves as counterpoint needs to be explained.
A similar use, and one I have recommended to my students as they write particular papers for me, is as the opening of an essay that responds to the summarized piece. Response papers--whether formal reviews or letters to the editor published in local newspapers--need to make clear what it is to which they respond, and a summary can do this well. Too, the summary can outline what it is in the summarized piece that prompts the particular response, which a simple reference cannot.
That use speaks to one of the most important things a summary can do: serve as a spark to further writing. Writing is, among other things, the evidence of thought having taken place, and that which promotes thought is good. Summaries offer convenient beginnings to more writing, which means that they offer places for thoughts to begin, and the kinds of thought they can spur are well worth pursuing. They can lead to greater understanding of self and of the surrounding world, and more of both are always needed.
© 2014 Folgha