1. Summary defined
  2. Writing effective summaries
  3. Citing summaries

Summary defined

When writing, it is often necessary to include borrowings from sources. One of the three ways to do this is by summarizing. A summary briefly presents only the main ideas from a source. It should be considerably shorter than the original. This method can be contrasted with paraphrasing and direct quotations which are typically nearly the same or the same length as the original.

Scenario: Casey has been assigned to write a summary and response essay for her ENG 0123 course. She has been assigned a chapter from William Zinsser’s On Writing Well to read and summarize.

The Original: “Clutter” by William Zinsser

Fighting clutter is like fighting weeds—the writer is always slightly behind. New varieties sprout overnight, and by noon they are part of American speech. Consider what President Nixon’s aide John Dean accomplished in just one day of testimony on television during the Watergate hearings. The next day everyone in America was saying “at this point in time” instead of “now.”

Consider all the prepositions that are draped onto verbs that don’t need any help. We no longer head committees. We head them up. We don’t face problems anymore. We face up to them when we can free up a few minutes. A small detail, you may say—not worth bothering about. It is worth bothering about. Writing improves in direct ratio to the number of things we can keep out of it that shouldn’t be there. “Up” in “free up” shouldn’t be there. Examine every word you put on paper. You’ll find a surprising number that don’t serve any purpose…

“Experiencing” is one of the ultimate clutterers. Even your dentist will ask if you are experiencing any pain. If he had his own kid in the chair he would say, “Does it hurt?” He would, in short, be himself. By using a more pompous phrase in his professional role he not only sounds more important; he blunts the painful edge of truth. It’s the language of the flight attendant demonstrating the oxygen mask that will drop down if the plane should run out of air. “In the unlikely possibility that the aircraft should experience such an eventuality,” she begins—a phrase so oxygen-depriving in itself that we are prepared for any disaster. (13-14)

Casey’s Summary of “Clutter”

William Zinsser’s chapter on clutter outlines Zinsser’s concerns about inefficiencies in writing. Particularly, he notes that cluttered language is propagated by the media and that it is often meaningless, as is the case with idiomatic prepositions attached to verbs (using phrases like “write down” instead of “write”). Zinsser also argues that complex, formal language is used without consideration for audience, which further clutters writing (13-14).

Notice that Casey’s summary reproduces none of Zinsser’s original content. She presents only the main idea of each passage and uses rhetorically appropriate verbs to identify what Zinsser does in each section.

Writing effective summaries

Chunking. One method that can help writers to effectively summarizing is chunking. When reading, a writer will stop at intervals and write down in their own words what the author’s main point(s) have been. The writer may stop at the end of a paragraph or, in the case of very long paragraphs, after a number of sentences that make sense in context of the reading.

Outlining. After reading a source, a writer may write a word outline of its main points. The writer would avoid using sentences (though phrases may be acceptable); this will help the writer to both condense the reading and avoid unintentional plagiarism.

Be careful of plagiarism. Remember: if three words or more are identical to the original text, then they must be quoted. If material taken directly from a source is not correctly cited, then you may have plagiarized, and there can be steep consequences.

Citing summaries

When writing a summary, use the citation style appropriate to the course or field. If summarizing using the Modern Languages Association (MLA) style, it is appropriate to cite a summary at the end of the paragraph in which you summarize by including the author’s name and the page number(s). If the author’s name is mentioned in the text, then only the page number(s) need to be included. Note how Casey in the example above include the page numbers at the end of her summary.

Work Cited

Zinsser, William. (2001). “Clutter.” On writing well: The classic guide to writing nonfiction (pp. 12-14). New York, NY: HarperResource Quill.


Northwest Mississippi Community College
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