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Summarizing: How to effectively summarize the work of others

Academic writing requires you to research the work of other scholars, develop your own ideas on the topic of your research, and then to think about how your ideas relate to the scholarship that you have researched. Three main ways of responding are to generally agree, generally disagree, or both agree and disagree with another author’s perspective on a subject. You can think of agreeing and disagreeing as being like saying, “Okay, but….” Being able to effectively summarize the work of other researchers will help you both to determine your own position and also clearly communicate the connections between your ideas and the ideas of others. In other words, knowing how to effectively summarize the ideas of others helps you to bring those ideas into dialogue with your own.

Strategies for summarizing

When you summarize, you explain the main idea(s) from someone else’s work. Note that you must include citation information for summaries – think of your citation as showing your reader where they can find the original or “full” version of the work that you have summarized.

In They Say/I Say, Gerald Graff and Cathy Birkenstein describe summarizing as “putting yourself in the shoes of someone else” (2014, p. 31). They use this description because effective summarizing requires that you engage with and aim to understand someone else’s ideas or perspective, even if you disagree. It can be helpful to think of a summary as a brief description of someone else’s work that they, themselves, would recognize and consider to be a fair representation.

Try these steps for writing summaries:

  1. Select a short passage (about one to four sentences) that supports an idea in your paper.
  2. Read the passage carefully to fully understand it.
  3. Take notes about the main idea and supporting points you think you should include in your summary. Include keywords and terms used by the author and think, too, about how the source ideas are relevant to the argument(s) that you are presenting in your paper.
  4. Using only your notes, explain the original author’s main ideas to someone else. Then explain how those ideas support or conflict with your own argument.
  5. Reread the original source. Is there important information that you have forgotten or misremembered? Is your summary very similar to the original source?
  6. Add in-text citation and check the required formatting style.

A summary case study

An effective summary is a way of communicating to your reader what the source text is “about.” However, even while it is important to “put yourself in the shoes” of the original author, you also need to know what it is that you are arguing in your paper that has led you to include this other perspective. Because a scholarly article is rarely about one simple thing, knowing what you are arguing will help you to determine the most important ideas of the original source for your paper.

Below is an example of an ineffective, list-like summary, followed by an effective summary. 

Original source to be summarized

“Before 1994, diabetes in children was generally caused by a genetic disorder – only about 5 percent of childhood diabetes cases were obesity-related, or Type 2, diabetes. Today, according to the National Institutes of Health, Type 2 diabetes accounts for at least 30 percent of all new childhood cases of diabetes in this country. Not surprisingly, money spent to treat diabetes has skyrocketed, too. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention estimate that diabetes accounted for $2.6 billion in health care costs in 1969. Today’s number is an unbelievable $100 billion a year.”

“Don’t Blame the Eater,” David Zinczenko[1]

Ineffective list-like summary 

The author says that only 5 percent of children had Type 2 diabetes before 1994. In addition, they mention that today at least 30 percent of new childhood diabetes cases in the USA are Type 2. They also say that more money is being spent to treat diabetes now - $100 billion a year.

Effective summary

In author's article “Don’t Blame the Eater,” David Zinczenko supports their position on the fast food industry by comparing today’s rates of Type 2 diabetes to those prior to 1994. David makes it clear that instances of Type 2 diabetes have increased dramatically, as has the cost of preventing the spread of this disease.

Conclusion

An effective summary doesn’t just report source information but also indicates concisely how the ideas connect and why they matter. You will also notice that the second example mentions the name of the author and the article, which is an important way of signalling to your reader that you are referring to someone else’s work, rather than presenting your own original ideas.

[1] Example taken from Graff, G. & Birkenstein, C. (2014). They say/I say: The moves that matter in academic writing. New York and London: W.W. Norton & Company.