How to Write an Effective Summary

Everyone has had to write a summary paper at some point.  And, if you haven’t yet, you should know that you will need to… probably sooner rather than later.  Sometimes, you need to write a summary of an entire novel, and sometimes all you need to summarize is a few pages.  Although, you cannot expect the latter to be any easier; your task could be quite technical.  Fortunately, as long as you’re prepared to read whichever text you need to summarize, then writing an A+ summary is not all that difficult.

Preparing for Your Summary

If you’re lucky, your teacher will let you know that you need to write a summary in advance.  That is especially helpful if you need to summarize a full novel.  This will enable you to take notes and jot down key ideas as you go through the book in class.  If you weren’t given any forewarning, then you should start by noting everything you can remember from the book.

However, if you’re working with a single chapter or a shorter text, then your first step is to skim through the entire piece.  At this stage, you’re simply looking for key points, themes or actions.  Make quick notes as you fly through these pages.  Once you have this together, then you’ll need through for complete comprehension.

Getting to an Outline

As you already know, every paper has the following elements:

Outline 1

You should already have the key ideas written down, and these would fall under the Main Body Paragraphs, like this:

Outline 2

When you are writing a summary rather than a review or research paper, you don’t need to develop an argument or find supporting evidence.  You will, however, need to contextualize the piece.  In other words, you’re not simply putting together a blow-by-blow of events.  You need to explain why this piece is important – either as a standalone work or within a larger body of work.  But, you will need to include the action in the piece or the thoughts included.  And, at this point in your outline, you are ready to add in those events, like this:

Outline 3


By including the actions underneath the key points, you are already keeping your work very organized and making it easy for you to relate to the introduction – and to make the conclusion a breeze to write.  Of course, you will need to consider the piece just a little more than this, so you need to add a few points in your outline to ensure that you cover them in your writing.  So, think about anything that was particularly striking in the text.  Was there a moment when you were surprised by the action or perhaps the dialogue?  Was there anything that was particularly difficult for you to understand?  Was there any point when you laughed out loud?  If so, you should note these in your outline.  It might look a little like this:

Outline 4These special notes will help to you write a better summary – and one that is likely to earn you a much better grade.  This is what will set you apart from your classmates.  Before you move on to writing though, there are just a few things that you need to consider.  For a start, why was this piece important?  And, what is the most important part of the text?  Add these points into your outline like this:

Outline 5


And, finally, before you begin to write, try to sum up the entire piece in one sentence.  This will become the focus of your work.  You may find it difficult to sum up an entire novel or play into one sentence, but it is possible.  For example, you could sum up Romeo and Juliet with: This play by Shakespeare, named for the two lead characters, demonstrates the consequences of misinformation when Romeo and Juliet commit suicide as a result of rumor, half-truths and uniformed prejudices.  Sure, it is a long sentence – and you can always break it apart as you write, but forcing yourself to be concise now will make it easier the entire summary.


While you write, don’t forget that your summary does not need to be perfect from the outset.  You should always read and edit your paper once you have completed the first draft.  And, if you do have a tutor or an involved parent, that second set of eyes is always valuable.