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Writing summaries takes experience. In other words, to know what is important and what is not is not easy. Here are three steps that will help. 

First, follow the headings of your text books. This might sound like a simple point, but text books are divided in hierarchies. In other...

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Writing summaries takes experience. In other words, to know what is important and what is not is not easy. Here are three steps that will help. 

First, follow the headings of your text books. This might sound like a simple point, but text books are divided in hierarchies. In other words, there is order. Therefore, following the author's headings will help tremendously in taking summaries. A good first step is to write down every major section on a sheet of paper. Immediately you have a structure. 

Second, jot down a few quotes from each section that are particularly well written. These quotes will help you recall the context. In fact, one of the strategies of writing summaries is jotting down a few quotes from each section. 

Third, look for your author's conclusion. Apart from dispensing information, the author will have a larger point he or she is trying to make. As you read, try to discern this point and put it in your summary. 

Finally, I should add, rereading is often also required. 

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The main challenge in writing “the perfect summary” lies in the natural inclination to explain and expand on the important points in an author’s text that by themselves constitute a summary.  By definition, a summary is a brief description of the contents of an article, book, monograph, etc.  That is it.  Who is the author, what is the title of the work being summarized, what was the date of publication (if relevant), what was the period during which the work was written (if known and relevant), what are the main points the author is making, and what is his or her conclusion.  If the subject material is a novel, a brief description of the content of each chapter may be warranted.  A student assigned to summarize a nonfiction, academic study will generally not need to summarize each chapter, but rather would focus on the overall theme of the study, its main points, and its conclusion(s).

The natural inclination to explain and expand upon main points raised by the author whose work is being summarized is, as noted, the pitfall to be avoided.  It is more difficult than it may seem to resist the temptation to weigh down a summary with extraneous details, but “the perfect summary” demands that such details be excluded.   This is equally true of summaries a student prepares for his or her own research papers or creative writing projects.  In research papers, a summary usually precedes all other text, including the table of contents and introductory chapter or section.  Government papers or those produced for corporate use usually label that opening description of the report’s contents the “Executive Summary,” denoting its purpose of providing a brief synopsis of the much heftier paper that follows.  The higher one ascends on the corporate ladder or in most other organizational structures, the less time one usually has to read lengthy reports.  The Executive Summary, then, has to be perfect; it has to include the thesis or theme, the main points discussed in the following text, and the conclusions and, when relevant, recommendations for future action. 

The links below provide further information on how to write a summary, including the eNotes study guide “How to Write a Summary.”  Also provided is a link to a randomly-selected report prepared by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency that is included for the purpose of displaying an example of how a paper is structured, including the placement and style used in the Executive Summary.

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