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How can I summarize a textbook chapter?

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One of the most important skills in summarizing any piece of text is to read actively. This means taking notes as you read. You should not attempt to write your summary after reading the text only once, but you should finish your first reading with a page of notes containing key words and points from the text. When you have read it through once, look at your notes and see whether, considering the text as a whole, these are an accurate reflection of the major themes and ideas. When you reread the text, refer to your notes as well. They will provide the structure for your summary.

If you are producing a summary for your teacher to read rather than for your own revision notes, you will probably be given guidance on how long it should be. This is obviously very important. It is possible to summarize a chapter of, say, 6,000 words in a paragraph of 200 words or a couple of pages containing 1,000 words or more. In the first case, you can really only hope to include the gist of the chapter—the main ideas, supported, perhaps, by major details and references to the most important examples. When preparing a detailed summary, however, you are really looking for what to leave out rather than what to include. Perhaps there are multiple examples that make the same point, or a paragraph of exposition which can be reduced to a single well-crafted sentence without losing the point.

Summarizing someone else's arguments is not the most exciting type of writing, but it is a vital skill to learn. Although you will not include any of your own opinions in the summary, the next time you do come to write a personal or analytical essay, you will find that the practice of producing a cogent summary will help to make your own writing more pointed and succinct, improving your focus on what really matters.

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The purpose of summary is to take many words and condense them down to a few (rather than, say, paraphrase, where your paraphrase probably has about the same number of words as the original—perhaps even more!). In addition, you want to try to use your own words rather than just quote lines from the text verbatim.

First, as other educators have noted, you should read the entire chapter so as to get a sense of everything it tries to convey or accomplish. As you read, it's a good idea to pay close attention to any banners or subheadings, as well as anything in bold print or italics, because these are good indicators that the textbook writers are trying to draw your attention to those terms, topics, and quotations. You may want to highlight or take brief notes on anything you think seems especially important.

Then, read back through this same chapter and look for the topic sentence of each paragraph. It will be the one that seems to provide the main claim or the broadest idea (like an umbrella, where all the other sentences seem to support it). Often, it's the first or the last sentence of the paragraph, but not always. Once you have located most of the topic sentences, you can begin to group them together into even bigger-picture ideas. For example, if there are five paragraphs addressing the five most important elements of Enlightenment thought, each paragraph will likely have a topic sentence that focuses on one element. You can probably combine these five elements into one of your own sentences. Try to combine as many of these topic sentence ideas as you can to keep your summary brief. Once you are finished with this process, go back and check those visual cues (bold type, italics, colors, and so on), as well as any notes you took about what seemed really important earlier. See if you think you've hit everything, or if references to any of these are missing and need to be added.

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For nonfiction: First, actually read the chapter in question, looking for key concepts, and either take notes, or, if the book is yours, highlight as you go along. After you've completed the chapter, go back, start reading through again, and decide which of the ideas you've captured forms a complete, logical progression. If the chapter has subheads, you have a head start on this, as the author has signposted moving from one key thought to another.

If you are being asked to summarize the chapter as a written assignment, you can then use your notes and/or highlighting to show a beginning, middle, and end of the chapter, illustrating that you have grasped how the information builds to a conclusion.

For fiction: If the book in question is following a narrative through-line, you will be able to use the suggestions above. However, a great deal of fiction deliberately deviates from logical progression. In that case, look for character changes, changes in setting, changes in tone, introductions of new characters or settings, and give some thought to why these changes were introduced, and how they affect the chapter from start to finish. Articulate your evaluation in your summary.

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This is a very good question, as it is a skill you will undoubtedly use many times over the course of your career as a student. I assume you are writing the summary as part of an assignment rather than just for your personal study use. If it is for your own use, the simplest and most useful format is an outline, with each of the sections as a main body point.

For a written summary, I have attached a link to an excellent eNotes site below, but here are the highlights:

  1. Skim for highlighted, bolded headlines and section titles
  2. Read the material once, just to get a feel for the style, tone, and content
  3. Reread the material and capture the main idea of each section in a concise sentence
  4. Write an effective thesis (purpose) statement
  5. Write, keeping in mind the following guidelines:
  • "Write in the present tense.
  • Make sure to include the author and title of the work.
  • Be concise: a summary should not be equal in length to the original text.
  • If you must use the words of the author, cite them.
  • Don't put your own opinions, ideas, or interpretations into the summary. The purpose of writing a summary is to accurately represent what the author wanted to say, not to provide a critique."

The last step in any writing process is to check for accuracy and make revisions as needed. 

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