The Summary Essay
by Owen Fourie
Expect it! The summary essay will be required not once but many times. There is a way to be prepared for it at all times, and that is to form a good habit: Whenever you read any article or short story or book that is likely to be the subject of a summary, make your own brief and meaningful notes of it. Try to outline it as though you are its author, and you are in the pre-writing phase jotting down the characters and the plot of a novel, or the thesis statement, major points, minor points, and supporting details of a non-fiction work.
There is a two-fold advantage in cultivating this habit: Firstly, you will actually be helping your studies and giving yourself a distinct edge as a student; secondly, a summary assignment will never catch you unawares.
Keep your opinion to yourself!
What the summary assignment requires is that you should give the gist of the argument or the story in your own words. You are bringing out the author’s major points and some supporting detail without any commentary or opinion of your own. It is an entirely objective summary of the author’s work, accurately presented for what it is, not what you imagine it to be, and with no explanation or interpretation. That is possibly the most difficult aspect of summarizing because we naturally interpret whatever we read, see, or hear.
As for the length of the summary, your assignment should state what will be required. By comparing that requirement to the length of the original, you should be able to tell how detailed your summary is expected to be. More detail is required in a summary of 1,000 words of an article of 4,000 words than in a summary of 1,500 words of a novel of 100,000 words. In this instance, the summary of the novel will be a supreme test of your comprehension and your conciseness. You have to stick to the bare bones of the plot, the main characters, and the essence of the story and not be sidetracked into any minor issues or subplot.
Enjoy sharing and don’t plagiarize
While summarizing may be informative for your readers who have not read the original work, it is really for your instructor who needs to see if you have done the required reading to be able to summarize it with understanding and with some competence.
Regardless of this, write as though you are doing it for those who have not read the original work and who will benefit by your summary. In other words, as far as possible, get out of thinking of this as an assignment and take it rather as a joy to share what you have read. If you can do this, it will be reflected in your writing, and it will bring you much satisfaction.
Such satisfaction will not be achieved at all if you look for an easy way out via the Internet. You can readily find summaries there of the works that are assigned to you. Be aware, though, that teachers and lecturers are able to identify this form of cheating. Plagiarism is a serious offense and not worth the loss of your integrity.
What to do in the Intro and in the Body
The introduction of your summary should take only one paragraph. Depending on what you are summarizing, your first paragraph will paraphrase the author’s thesis statement or the main point of the original work in one sentence. This opening paragraph will also identify title, author, publisher, and date of publication. Such details should not be given merely as a list. They should be stated in complete sentences. For example:
Thomas Hardy (1840–1928), a famous English novelist and poet, wrote The Mayor of Casterbridge in 1886. There have been many publications of this work. This summary is of the 1994 Penguin Classics publication.
Your introduction will summarize the story in one sentence before you proceed to elaborate in the body:
This is a story of ‘a man of character,’ as the subtitle informs us, a man who, despite a most shameful act, kept secret, establishes himself as a person of prominence in a Dorsetshire town over a period of twenty years, and then comes face to face with his deplorable past and the consequences of his flawed personality.
In the body of your summary, in several paragraphs, you will give the essence of the article or the novel as you state the author’s main points and some supporting points in your own words. Here, if you are summarizing a novel, you will state the time, the setting, and the major characters. You will then proceed to state the problem, the conflict, the rising action, the climax, the falling action, and the resolution–the major points that make up the plot. Only report the story; do not comment or give an opinion.
This does not stop you from being creative. The fact that you are using your own choice of words and your own style to summarize the author’s work gives you the opportunity to be creative. You can also save your summary from dry-as-dust writing by briefly retelling one or two incidents or describing some character traits mentioned by the author. Of course, these should be entirely relevant to the major points.
The essay should end with the statement of the resolution of the plot in the body of your summary, so there is no conclusion in a separate paragraph in which you might be tempted to pass comment. Only if your instructor actually tells you to do so would you have a conclusion that permits such personal comment.
What is your experience with writing summary essays? Do you have any useful insights? What are your particular struggles? What do you know about plagiarism and its consequences? Your comments, observations, and questions are welcome.
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Sample Essay for Summarizing, Paraphrasing, and Quoting
This handout is intended to help you become more comfortable with the uses of and distinctions among quotations, paraphrases, and summaries. This handout compares and contrasts the three terms, gives some pointers, and includes a short excerpt that you can use to practice these skills.
Contributors:Dana Lynn Driscoll, Allen Brizee
Last Edited: 2016-08-10 02:07:20
The following is a sample essay you can practice quoting, paraphrasing, and summarizing. Examples of each task are provided at the end of the essay for further reference.
Here is the citation for Sipher's essay:
Sipher, Roger. “So That Nobody Has to Go to School If They Don't Want To.” The New York Times, 19 Dec. 1977, p. 31.
So That Nobody Has To Go To School If They Don't Want To
by Roger Sipher
A decline in standardized test scores is but the most recent indicator that American education is in trouble.
One reason for the crisis is that present mandatory-attendance laws force many to attend school who have no wish to be there. Such children have little desire to learn and are so antagonistic to school that neither they nor more highly motivated students receive the quality education that is the birthright of every American.
The solution to this problem is simple: Abolish compulsory-attendance laws and allow only those who are committed to getting an education to attend.
This will not end public education. Contrary to conventional belief, legislators enacted compulsory-attendance laws to legalize what already existed. William Landes and Lewis Solomon, economists, found little evidence that mandatory-attendance laws increased the number of children in school. They found, too, that school systems have never effectively enforced such laws, usually because of the expense involved.
There is no contradiction between the assertion that compulsory attendance has had little effect on the number of children attending school and the argument that repeal would be a positive step toward improving education. Most parents want a high school education for their children. Unfortunately, compulsory attendance hampers the ability of public school officials to enforce legitimate educational and disciplinary policies and thereby make the education a good one.
Private schools have no such problem. They can fail or dismiss students, knowing such students can attend public school. Without compulsory attendance, public schools would be freer to oust students whose academic or personal behavior undermines the educational mission of the institution.
Has not the noble experiment of a formal education for everyone failed? While we pay homage to the homily, "You can lead a horse to water but you can't make him drink," we have pretended it is not true in education.
Ask high school teachers if recalcitrant students learn anything of value. Ask teachers if these students do any homework. Quite the contrary, these students know they will be passed from grade to grade until they are old enough to quit or until, as is more likely, they receive a high school diploma. At the point when students could legally quit, most choose to remain since they know they are likely to be allowed to graduate whether they do acceptable work or not.
Abolition of archaic attendance laws would produce enormous dividends.
First, it would alert everyone that school is a serious place where one goes to learn. Schools are neither day-care centers nor indoor street corners. Young people who resist learning should stay away; indeed, an end to compulsory schooling would require them to stay away.
Second, students opposed to learning would not be able to pollute the educational atmosphere for those who want to learn. Teachers could stop policing recalcitrant students and start educating.
Third, grades would show what they are supposed to: how well a student is learning. Parents could again read report cards and know if their children were making progress.
Fourth, public esteem for schools would increase. People would stop regarding them as way stations for adolescents and start thinking of them as institutions for educating America's youth.
Fifth, elementary schools would change because students would find out early they had better learn something or risk flunking out later. Elementary teachers would no longer have to pass their failures on to junior high and high school.
Sixth, the cost of enforcing compulsory education would be eliminated. Despite enforcement efforts, nearly 15 percent of the school-age children in our largest cities are almost permanently absent from school.
Communities could use these savings to support institutions to deal with young people not in school. If, in the long run, these institutions prove more costly, at least we would not confuse their mission with that of schools.
Schools should be for education. At present, they are only tangentially so. They have attempted to serve an all-encompassing social function, trying to be all things to all people. In the process they have failed miserably at what they were originally formed to accomplish.
Example Summary, Paraphrase, and Quotation from the Essay:
Example summary: Roger Sipher makes his case for getting rid of compulsory-attendance laws in primary and secondary schools with six arguments. These fall into three groups—first that education is for those who want to learn and by including those that don't want to learn, everyone suffers. Second, that grades would be reflective of effort and elementary school teachers wouldn't feel compelled to pass failing students. Third, that schools would both save money and save face with the elimination of compulsory-attendance laws.
Example paraphrase of the essay's conclusion: Roger Sipher concludes his essay by insisting that schools have failed to fulfill their primary duty of education because they try to fill multiple social functions (par. 17).
Example quotation: According to Roger Sipher, a solution to the perceived crisis of American education is to "Abolish compulsory-attendance laws and allow only those who are committed to getting an education to attend" (par. 3).