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Presenting Your Research: Summarizing an Article

The following steps can help you systematically sum up the contents of a reading assignment. The document you will produce if you use the following steps is called an abstract—a brief version or synopsis of an article that summarizes its main points.

Being able to write an abstract is a valuable research skill. You certainly can use it in your classes when you are required to inform yourself about a topic by reading books and articles. This skill will also be essential when you write a research paper, if your instructor asks you to prepare an "annotated bibliography"—a list of your research sources that includes a summary of each source. Sometime in the future, an employer may ask you to "abstract" the key points from a reading if he or she does not have time to read it thoroughly. You may also be part of a problem-solving team that will require you to research the literature in a particular field. Abstracts or careful summaries will help you to keep track of what information you found and where you found it.

Here is a simple strategy for writing an abstract or summary:

    1. Make sure you have your own photostated copy or printout of the article so that you can read and mark up this material.
    2. Read the entire article carefully, but do not take notes. Just read it.
    3. Now reread the article and, with the use of marking, underlining, circling, and labeling, divide the article into major sections or stages of thought. Clearly mark and label what you understand to be its different major parts. It may have three major points or divisions; it may have nine. How many stages of thought the reading has depends upon its purpose and complexity.

Note: Don't be afraid to mark up your copy of the article heavily! How fully and effectively you divide, label, and circle key points on the actual article determines how well you can prepare your summary:

  1. On a separate sheet of paper, in one complete sentence, sum up the main point of each major division of thought. What did this particular section say? What was its "big idea"? Write out one sentence per division or stage of thought. (If, in the case of a particularly difficult section, you need two or three sentences, that is acceptable; just be sure that you capture the essence, the heart of what is said, not all the details.)
  2. Develop and write a thesis statement for the whole article. In one sentence, express the article's main idea or focus. But remember: There are one or more writers behind this article. Always acknowledge the presence of these writers by mentioning them in the thesis statement, beginning with something like "Williams explains," or "According to Smith and Jones," or, in the case of an uncredited group or staff of writers, "The writers argue… [or suggest, or say]."
  3. Combine the thesis statement with all of the one-sentence summaries. You now have a rough draft of your abstract.
  4. Revise the rough draft to make sure that your paragraph is coherent—that each sentence follows logically from the previous one. Making the paragraph coherent will be especially important, since you are combining and condensing a group of different ideas. Also be sure that your wording is precise and clear. If you use a direct quotation from the original article, put it in quotation marks. When your revision is complete, ask yourself this question: Does this abstract, this summary, adequately represent the whole article? Your answer to this question will determine just how much reworking needs to be done.

Being able to abstract well takes time and practice, but this strategy will at least give you a plan—a place to begin and a direction in which to move. Give it a try!


Judith Halden-Sullivan is an associate professor of English at Millersville University in Millersville, Pa.


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