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The Easy Way to Write a Short Summary

Updated on June 16, 2012

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Young woman reading.
Young woman reading. | Source

The 5 W's

Students of all ages, and even Hubbers, are often asked to write summaries. For some teachers this seems to be the hardest writing task to teach. The text books say about summary writing, "Include what's important." This is a circular answer if ever I saw one. Elementary students, especially, don't know what's important. They often have trouble distinguishing the main ideas from the details and the examples.

So -- this is what's important: who, what, when, where, why (and sometimes how).

Who

The who refers to the people who are involved and is usually the subject of the sentence. For example, if you read an article about Albert Einstein and the theory of relativity. Einstein is the who. If you are summarizing a piece of fiction, you must distinguished between the main characters and the minor characters, the protagonist and the antagonist. Who is most of the story about? Who appears on almost all the pages?

What

The what is normally the direct object in a sentence and is the subject of the article or essay being summarized. In fiction, the what can mean "what happens." When in doubt, look at the title of the selection; it will frequently give you a clue as to the what.

When

When can be as specific as 2:05am on Saturday, the 25th of February, 2012 or as general as "Once upon a time,..." The when is almost always found in the first paragraph of an article or story. Sometimes the author will intentionally keep the when hazy: " On a cold winter's evening..." This is especially true in fiction when the author is encouraging imaginative access to the story.

Where

The where is vitally important in some stories and in newspaper articles, often of little or no consequence in some writing, such as writing up a scientific experiment in a classroom. Like the when, the where can be as specific as "In the living room of a small house at No. 15 St. Charles Street, in New Orleans, Louisiana, in the USA,..." or as vague as "A place where dreams come true..."

(A note: For some reason I have never discovered, many elementary children confuse when and where. Or, at least, the words don't trigger the appropriate information in their heads. This exercise will be very helpful to them.)

Why

The hardest of the W's for most children to answer. This is often equated in discussing fiction with the theme or the underlying meaning. I had a high school student once who thought I must have the answer to the why in the teacher's edition of the literature book, because he could never quite figure it out. So, one day before I had a chance to ask him "why?", he asked me, "What is the deep, dark, underlying meaning of this work?" As there can be many why's to a complex piece of writing. this makes discussing literature not only interesting, but also important in building a child's imagination and critical thinking skills.

The Super Sentence

One of the exercises I use to help students look for and use these 5 w's in their writing I call the Super Sentence. I will give them a topic, such as Christmas holidays and ask them to write a Super Sentence about it: they must include who, what, when, where and why in one sentence. Most of them will look dazed at first, and then you will see a few heads go down and pencils start moving across the page. The results will be something like this: "We are going to my grandmother's house and eat turkey and we are going on December 25 and that's Christmas day."

With some modeling and very little practice almost all of them can produce sentences like the following in one or two practice sessions: On December 25th, my family and I are going to my grandmother's house for a turkey dinner because it is Christmas Day.

The when is best placed at the beginning in a prepositional phrase; the who should be a noun, not a pronoun at the first mention; the where comes after the verb also in a prepositional phrase, the what can be either prepositional or it can be the direct object; and the why is easiest put in a subordinate clause starting with "because."

Try It

The next time you are in need of writing a quick summary or your child has homework to do that requires summarizing, try the 5 w's and the super sentence and see how it works for you.



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    • joanwz profile image

      Joan Whetzel 5 years ago from Katy, Texas

      This is wonderful. Haven't thought about 5 w's in quite awhile.

    • sandrabusby profile image
      Author

      Sandra Busby 5 years ago from Tuscaloosa, Alabama, USA

      Thanks, joanwz, it is a technique too often overlooked by teachers who are so busy. Sandra Busby

    • biancaalice profile image

      biancaalice 5 years ago from Southern California

      Great tips! Thanks so much for the help!

      Voted up & useful!

    • sandrabusby profile image
      Author

      Sandra Busby 5 years ago from Tuscaloosa, Alabama, USA

      Went straight to your blog on the levels of consciousness. We have many interests in common. I'll be following your hubs. Thanks. Sandra Busby

    • Vinaya Ghimire profile image

      Vinaya Ghimire 5 years ago from Nepal

      I write stories and have published few on hubpages. Writing summary can be difficult because it looks harder to summarize a long story in few sentences. These tips on 5 W are really useful and informative.

    • sandrabusby profile image
      Author

      Sandra Busby 5 years ago from Tuscaloosa, Alabama, USA

      Thanks. I'm an exposition writer myself, and this works well; but I think based on my work as a consultant in the schools, that it also works with fiction. I'm very interested in your hubs, especially about women and India. Keep up the good work. Sandra Busby

    • eolikes profile image

      eolikes 5 years ago from Bangladesh

      useful hub.. Thanks for ur help.. Voted up. Have a good day

    • sandrabusby profile image
      Author

      Sandra Busby 5 years ago from Tuscaloosa, Alabama, USA

      eolikes, I see you are new to hubpages. Thanks for stopping by my hub on summary writing. I'll check out your first hub later today. It's a great community; hope you enjoy it. Sandra Busby

    • alocsin profile image

      alocsin 5 years ago from Orange County, CA

      What excellent suggestions, not just for students, but for hubbers who have to put their own summaries into their hubs. Voting this Up and Useful.

    • sandrabusby profile image
      Author

      Sandra Busby 5 years ago from Tuscaloosa, Alabama, USA

      Thanks for stopping by and for the kind words. Sandra Busby

    • Thelma Alberts profile image

      Thelma Alberts 5 years ago from Germany

      Great tips not only for the students but for me as a hubber. Thanks for SHARING.

    • BlissfulWriter profile image

      BlissfulWriter 5 years ago

      That's a great tip for writing summaries for my Hubs that I will need to try out. I still have quite a few hubs without summaries.

    • sandrabusby profile image
      Author

      Sandra Busby 5 years ago from Tuscaloosa, Alabama, USA

      Great idea, I hadn't thought of that. Thanks.

    • Lydia Jones profile image

      Lydia Jones 5 years ago from U.K.

      Useful hub, thanks!

    • sandrabusby profile image
      Author

      Sandra Busby 5 years ago from Tuscaloosa, Alabama, USA

      Thanks, Lydia. Hope you'll vote in the HubNuggest awards this week.

    • Jlbowden profile image

      James Bowden 5 years ago from Long Island, New York

      Very useful tips on using the five W's in summaries and in other types of writing. What comes to mind for me, when I review when and where to place information in an article, is the words then and than. For me I always get a bit confused of when and where to use then and than. However even the best of writers make mistakes, that is why there are articles like yours to keep us all on our toes! Very useful article which I voted up as well.

      Jl

    • sandrabusby profile image
      Author

      Sandra Busby 5 years ago from Tuscaloosa, Alabama, USA

      Well, thanks, Jl. If that's the only thing that confuses you about writing, I'd say you were in better shape than most. Thanks for stopping by.

    • Pamela99 profile image

      Pamela Oglesby 5 years ago from United States

      I remember learning the 5 W's in school and using them in a short summary is good advice. Thanks.

    • sandrabusby profile image
      Author

      Sandra Busby 5 years ago from Tuscaloosa, Alabama, USA

      Thanks, Pamela. Yes, it's always nice to discover that some of the things we learned in school are useful in the real world. I appreciate you.

    • ripplemaker profile image

      Michelle Simtoco 5 years ago from Cebu, Philippines

      Very practical and helpful tip sandrabusby. Thank you for this. :)

      Congratulations on your Hubnuggets nomination! No summaries needed to read and vote (grins) this way https://hubpages.com/community/An-Invitation-To-A-...

    • sandrabusby profile image
      Author

      Sandra Busby 5 years ago from Tuscaloosa, Alabama, USA

      Thanks, ripplemaker, I appreciate you and all that you add to hubpages.

    • Anju Arya profile image

      Anju Arya 4 years ago from India

      I always feel uncomfortable myself to make summary of any article. You have made it easy by this article with your 5 w's magic. Thanks so much.

    • Au fait profile image

      C E Clark 4 years ago from North Texas

      This is a great hub that should be helpful to lots of people. I have always written summaries for my hubs, and it's never been a problem, but I have noted that some people don't seem comfortable writing summaries. Here on hubpages, summaries can be helpful with Google so that they know where to rank you. Your summary will assure as much as anything can, that your hub comes up when certain keywords and questions are put in the Google search box. Voting you useful!

    • sandrabusby profile image
      Author

      Sandra Busby 4 years ago from Tuscaloosa, Alabama, USA

      Thanks so much for your visit and kind comments.

    • editorsupremo profile image

      editorsupremo 4 years ago from London, England

      Excellent hub. I wish I had this advice when I was at school. I hated it when a teacher told the class to summarize a 2000 word essay into 200 words. I always found myself going over the word count because I would think 'that's important' 'oh but that's a good point to put in too'. But after years of errors and re-writing I'm quite a dab hand at summarizing,even if I say so myself. Oh I do go on; I'll stop now! I think that's less than 200 words!

      Voted up and shared.

      Thanks

    • anusujith profile image

      Anoop Aravind A 4 years ago from Nilambur, Kerala, India

      Pretty informative... I was not a good summary writer... Now onward I can ensure to write it...

    • sandrabusby profile image
      Author

      Sandra Busby 4 years ago from Tuscaloosa, Alabama, USA

      Thanks, anusujlth, I used this with kids and I hope it works well for you.

    • Olde Cashmere profile image

      Olde Cashmere 4 years ago from Michigan, United States

      This can help every writer who wishes to improve their sentence structures. Thank you sandrabusby for an informative and helpful hub. Voted up, useful, interesting, and awesome.

    • rajan jolly profile image

      Rajan Singh Jolly 4 years ago from From Mumbai, presently in Jalandhar,INDIA.

      Sandra, thanks for this reminder. These 5 w's were taught to us in school long long back and not having used it I almost forgot about it. Nice to be reminded as writing a summary is one of the jobs for all hubbers.

      Voted up, useful, interesting and shared.

    • DDE profile image

      Devika Primić 4 years ago from Dubrovnik, Croatia

      Brilliantly explained thanks for sharing your great ideas

    • sandrabusby profile image
      Author

      Sandra Busby 4 years ago from Tuscaloosa, Alabama, USA

      Thanks, rajan and DDE, glad this is useful. Enjoy.

    • sweetie1 profile image

      sweetie1 4 years ago from India

      Sandra, i would always just copy first few sentences and put them in summary. Now I understand how to do it. Thanks for sharing your knowledge and voted it up.

    • sandrabusby profile image
      Author

      Sandra Busby 4 years ago from Tuscaloosa, Alabama, USA

      Thanks, sweetie1, glad this helped.

    • profile image

      Esha 17 months ago

      Heyyy.. Thank u so much for sharing... well I have a exam tomorrow to write a summary.. truly I never understood it but thanks☺☺☺ hope it will help and yup pray for me new friend.

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