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Summary Essay Writing Guide for Dummies

A summary essay is a text, often short, that provides an introduction to something bigger – examples include novels, plays, blog posts, journal articles or even feature-length films. Your job isn’t to make an argument or say what you think about the subject; your main task is just to bring the main details to the surface in such a way that your readers can grasp the plot or argument without having to read the whole text it’s describing.

What a summary essay isn’t

There’s a reason why it’s called a ‘summary’ and not an ‘analytical’ essay – your main job is to give the reader a basic sense of the text, not to provide personal opinions or historical analysis. If you’re looking for a way to make your piece stand out, make your sentences richer by finding ways to work extra details or context into your descriptions. You can even make a few comments about the history of your subject and how it’s been treated through time.

How to write your summary essay:

  1. Planning Ahead
  2. You might have expected this section to start with an ‘Introduction’, but a good plan is just as important as writing the content. Start by doing a thorough read-through of your text – you’d be surprised to learn how many people try to skim through course material and end up missing important details. Making notes as you read helps keep track of how the text develops and saves you from a lengthy reread.

  3. Introduction
  4. While an analytical essay would use the introductory paragraph to make a provable point about the text, the summary introduction just needs to keep to the details. Who is the author? When was the text written? What is the main plot about? Try to keep yourself just to one or two sentences; you’re going to be able to describe details in your body, so keep the introduction lean.

    When in doubt, remember KISS: Keep It Simple, Stupid.

  5. Body
  6. Here’s where you can get into the main description of your text; try to give a sense of the plot or argument, as well as the spirit it was written in. If your text is going to be longer than a few hundred words, divide the main points into paragraphs and fill them out from there.

    Think about how much detail you need your write-up to get into. if you’re writing a one-thousand-word piece about a five-hundred-page novel, be sure just to include the main plot points and ignore the details that, though interesting, aren’t necessary for generating a broad picture in your reader’s mind. On the other hand, writing five hundred words about a ten-page essay is bound to require a lot more detail.

  7. Conclusion
  8. There isn’t one! While an analytical essay usually concludes by restating the argument and trying to make a connection to broader issues, a summary essay reaches its end once you’ve finished describing the plot (if summarizing a novel) or argument (if summarizing an essay). Nothing to it!

    Three ‘P’s to live by

    Paragraphing: This might seem obvious, but it’s not. Dividing your text into manageable paragraphs doesn’t just keep your plot points straight, it makes your piece much easier to read. No one wants to wrestle with a giant wall of text.

    Paraphrasing: A simple skill that goes a long way, paraphrasing is the ability to succinctly describe someone else’s work in your own words. Copy-pasting can get you in trouble for plagiarism, when a simple sentence restating the point saves you that pain and generally improves your thinking and writing skills.

    Practicality: Don’t launch into an exhaustive description of British politics in the Middle Ages for a summary of Macbeth – a line or two giving the necessary details is often more than enough.