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How to Expertly Summarize a Document

Updated on March 12, 2015
The ability to summarize a document is an extremely useful skill to have
The ability to summarize a document is an extremely useful skill to have | Source

Introduction

Learning how to summarize a document or book can be a great skill to have. Whether you're a writer, in business, studying or just want to be able to present written concepts quickly, summarizing can help you analyze, understand and share a document's key points.

Summarizing a document is a great way enhance your reader's understanding and save them time. This article explains exactly how to summarize a document, exploring the main steps and providing hints and tips on how to write a good summary. These skills can be used to summarize business documents, books, academic work and other manuscripts.

Steps for summarizing a document

The steps to summarizing a document are as follows:

  1. Read through the whole document once to get an overview.
  2. Read through the document again and highlight the most important points.
  3. Note down any other thoughts and questions that you have.
  4. Prioritize the areas that you want to include in your summary from steps 2 and 3.
  5. Create your summary, including the key points from step 4.
  6. Read through the summary, making sure that it flows from point to point and double-checking facts.
  7. Compare the summary to the original document, ensuring that it reflects the document as a whole.


We'll cover each of these areas in more detail below.

1. Read through the whole document once to get an overview

The first time you read through the document, don't worry about making any notes or highlights - You just want a good overview.

Get into the writing style, understand the pacing and approach of the work and start thinking about what your summary is going to include.

2. Read through the document again and highlight the most important points

Use a highlighter pen or a marker to highlight or underline important facts, thoughts, opinions and passages within the document.

Go through it line by line, thinking about what a person reading a summary would need to know about the original document and marking any information that contributes to a reader's high-level understanding.

Highlighting the key points in a document is a necessary part of creating  a useful summary
Highlighting the key points in a document is a necessary part of creating a useful summary | Source

3. Note down any other thoughts and questions that you have

Make more notes about the document, including any further key points, questions or conclusions that a summary could help to answer.

Prioritizing the key areas of the document means that you'll cover the most important points with the fewest words
Prioritizing the key areas of the document means that you'll cover the most important points with the fewest words | Source

4. Prioritize the areas that you want to include in your summary from steps 2 and 3.

Go through your highlighting, underlines, questions and comments and decide what you want to include in your summary.

Generally speaking, a summary probably shouldn't have more than about eight or nine key points with a brief explanation of each. This means that you should edit and refine your notes until you have the most important areas that you want to share.

5. Create your summary, including the key points from step 4.

When you create your summary, keep the following areas in mind:

  • A summary is a high-level view of the document as a whole, designed to be read and understood in a few minutes.
  • Your summary should have a brief introduction, explaining to the reader the document that it is summarizing.
  • You should separate out the key points and include a short explanation with each one.
  • A summary should not be longer than around 500 words.
  • Summaries tend to focus on facts, figures, ideas, questions and high-level thoughts, rather than narrative, detail and opinion.

6. Read through the summary, making sure that it flows from point to point and double-checking facts

Once you have written the summary, go through it as follows:

  • Proofread the English in the document to make sure that the spelling, punctuation and grammar are correct.
  • Edit the document so that it flows logically from point to point and includes suitable explanations.
  • Check any facts and figures in the summary to ensure that they are correct.

A final check of your summary against the original document will help you find any gaps
A final check of your summary against the original document will help you find any gaps | Source

7. Compare the summary to the original document, ensuring that it reflects the document as a whole

Finally, re-read the original document to make sure that the summary accurately reflects the original content.

A good summary will help the reader quickly understand what they will get from the full document, encouraging them to read it if they need more detail and depth.

What is an executive summary?

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In closing

An accurate, well-written summary can really make a difference to a reader that doesn't have time to review the full document.

Even if a reader does want to read the original work, reading a summary as an introduction will help prepare them for the key points, enhancing their understanding and saving them time.

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